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Bob Dylan's Ballad of Mister Jones . . . by Mister Jones

A humiliated college student's war crime confession

Bob Dylan performs at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.
Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
December 8, 1975

It happened in the summer of 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan's version of the encounter goes like this:

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand,
You see somebody naked and you
Say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home,
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?

And so forth.

Mr. Jones – the rational fool, the geek gawker, the college-educated babe-in-the-woods, the quintessential square, the anti-hero of the Sixties. Even now it is like owning up to a war crime to suggest that . . . I am Mr. Jones.

I can't prove it, but I am convinced that Dylan used me as the unwitting model for his Mr. Jones.

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As a college student with a summer job in the New York bureau of Time magazine, I concocted a story idea on the rebirth of harmonica in popular music. The article was to be built around a then obscure harp player from Chicago named Paul Butterfield who, I had heard, was going to make a big splash at the upcoming folk festival in Newport.

I sent the suggestion to Time's music editor, and to my surprise, back came a memo advising me to go ahead. Attached to the memo was a yellow sheet of paper called a "query," listing the questions that my reporting should answer and directing me to "get quotes" from celebrities to support the story.

A week later I pirouetted slowly in the dust of a Newport, Rhode Island, field, dazzled by the high sun of a July morning. In my pocket was the yellow query sheet. I'd interviewed Butterfield and things were going fine.

Suddenly I saw Joan Baez. She was radiant, more beautiful than any picture of her I had ever studied. Bearing a saintly smile, she glided like a prophet, with a clutch of young girls as her train. They reached out but did not quite touch her, and cried ecstatically, "Oh, Joan!" I saw then that my job was impossible. How was I, an awed college kid, to write anything authoritative?

Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle-jangle morning I'll come following you . . .

Bob Dylan's flat tenor rose above a throng seated at the perimeter of the storm-fenced festival arena. I walked toward the crowd, noting on my program that he was part of an informal "workshop" session.

Near the workshop stage, next to a van filled with sound equipment, I met a high-cheeked woman with silver-blonde hair. It was Mary Travers, then of Peter, Paul and Mary. I asked her questions prepared by Time. She asked if I would like to talk with Dylan. I nodded stiffly.

"Wait here," she said.

Dylan had finished his set and was surrounded by chattering fans. Mary Travers grabbed his hand and led him to me.

We were engulfed by a swelling group of mostly teenage girls. Dylan pointed to the open side of the van. We climbed in and took seats amid hot amplifiers. Dylan's fans surrounded the vehicle, squealing his name, pounding the sides of the truck. The van began to rock.

"Yeah?" said Dylan.

As I opened my mouth to speak he waved out a window, then blocked the glass with a curtain and assumed a bored slouch.

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"I'm doing this story for Time on the harmonica," I said, "and it seems to be, like, very important in folk music. I mean, after the guitar, probably the second-most-played instrument. They wanted me to find out what you think."

"Yeah, man," he said, half laughing, "the harmonica is really big."

The van rocked again.

"Well," I asked, nearly choking on the crashing banality of every word, "is it because of your influence?"

"No, man, the harmonica is just a good instrument, and it's been around a long while, you know what I mean?"

Dylan was polite, but impatient. I plunged on:

"Time has this way of doing stories where they use what they call a 'peg,' which is some person they build a story around. Paul Butterfield is the peg in this story, because they say he's going to be big. What do you think?"

Pause.

"Butterfield is great, man, great." There was exasperation in his voice. "Look," he said, "for me right now there are three groups: Butterfield, the Byrds and the Sir Douglas Quintet." I couldn't tell if he was putting me on.

Dylan shot me a glance and I was rocked by a strange beauty in his ferret face, and by his eyes, which were alive and as maddeningly impenetrable as a cat's.

Dylan seized the silence.

"Is that all, man?" he said.

"Yeah, thanks a lot for your time." I smiled wanly and extended a shaking hand. He took it limply. Then he climbed out the van door amid the fans, who swallowed him as he walked to a waiting car.

That evening, in the hotel dining room, I pleaded with Butterfield to give me some time alone.

Then I heard laughing and a raucous shuffling of chairs behind me. Dylan – with an entourage that included Donovan, Bob Neuwirth (identified to me later as Dylan's road manager) and several slinky women – was being seated at the next table. I raised my hand in a tentative salute. Dylan hailed me with hollow delight.

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"Mr. Jones," Dylan shouted from the chair he'd taken. "Gettin' it all down, Mr. Jones?"

There was laughter at his table.

"Time magazine," he called with mock enthusiasm. "You going to write a story for Time magazine, Mr. Jones?"

More laughter and jibes. I smiled and nodded, feeling like the village idiot, flattered by attention and defensively dumbstruck.

Later, in the lobby, I spied the elfin figure of Donovan. My multipurpose query had instructed me also to keep an eye on Donovan; I approached him without hesitation. Already humiliated, I now felt recklessly brash.

I followed at Donovan's side as he moved out the front door of the hotel and across an asphalt parking lot toward a motel-like annex.

"Okay if I walk with you?" I asked cheerily.

"Well, there's this party, you see . . . "

I stuck by him anyway, until we arrived at a room on the second floor of the annex. Music and loud voices came through the door.

"Well, see ya now," Donovan said as he knocked. The door opened and, as Donovan slipped in, I saw Dylan sitting on the edge of a couch, a girl by his side. The door closed quickly.

I waited five seconds, then knocked.

Five more seconds passed.

The door flew open. Bob Neuwirth came crashing out and fell flat on his back at my feet, staring at the ceiling. Dylan bounced up and down on the edge of the couch, laughing. Neuwirth suddenly scrambled to his feet, gave me a frantic look, then sprang back through the open door and slammed it, as though he were locking out a demon. I walked away.

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The next day Butterfield's scheduled big splash was postponed by rain. Later, part of the Butterfield band backed Dylan during his famous electric-axe inaugural. The audience wanted to hear "Baby Blue" and booed when it got "Subterranean Homesick Blues" instead. It was a stormy coming-out party for what Time later called "folk rock," and I had missed the point totally.

Highway 61 Revisited appeared the following autumn. When I heard "Ballad of a Thin Man," I knew right then who Mr. Jones was. I was thrilled – in the tainted way I suppose a felon is thrilled to see his name in the newspaper. I was awed too that Dylan had so accurately read my mind. I resented the caricature but had to admit that there was something happening there at Newport in the summer of 1965, and I didn't know what it was.

This story is from the December 18th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.


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