It’s been 50 years since Bob Dylan stunned the world with the release of his seminal album Highway 61 Revisited. But for all the discussion about its impact as a watershed moment in pop music, and the decades-long parsing of every word in every second of the record’s nine tracks, one mystery has hung in the air more than the rest. Who the hell is the Mr. Jones character on the acerbic side-one closer, “Ballad Of A Thin Man”?
For those unfamiliar with the song, it’s a piano-based, almost jaunty, pretty fierce track. It’s narrated from a second-person viewpoint that follows around an unknowing figure named Mr. Jones as he encounters a varying degree of odd characters and strange situations such as a sword swallower, a “one-eyed midget,” and some weird fellow that Dylan calls “the geek.” Ostensibly, it’s a commentary on the older generation of scene followers who neither understand nor appreciate the culture of the mid-1960s. It’s the musical version of Dylan dressing down the reporter from Time from the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back.
There have been a number of different theories posited online about the identity of Mr. Jones. This long post on a U.K. Dylan fan site argues that he’s actually an interpretation of the writing of sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick. This piece in the folk music section of About takes the name a little bit more literally, and argues that the figure Dylan describes is either Time music writer Jeffrey Jones or his counterpart at Melody Maker, Max Jones.
And then there’s Dylan’s own assertion back at a concert in Japan in 1986 that Mr. Jones is really an amalgamation of people who asked him innumerable questions that he didn’t want to answer. Dylan’s a living contradiction, however, so it’s hard to know whether this is actually true. Five decades later and the mystery still abounds.