You walk into the room
With a pencil in your hand.
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so very hard
But you don't understand
What you'll say
When you get home
And you know something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and they say
And you say, "What's mine?"
And then somebody else says, "Well, what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"
You pay for your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And he asks you how it feels
To be such a freak
And you say, "Impossible"
As he hands you a bone.
You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
Who keep you supplied with facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check to
Tax-deductible charity organizations.
You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks.
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks.
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books.
You're very well read
It's well known.
The sword swallower comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels.
Without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, "Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan."
You see this one-eyed midget
And he's shouting the word "Now"
You say, "What's the matter?"
And he says, "How?"
And you say, "What does this mean?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow!
Give me some milk
Or else go home."
Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
Your eyes in your pocket
And your head on the ground.
There ought to be a law
Against you comin' around.
You should be made
To wear earphones.
Highway 61 Revisited was named after a federal highway that runs along the entire Mississippi River valley, a region noted as the source of the blues. It was Bob Dylan's first album to be recorded almost entirely with a full rock band, after he had experimented with the approach on half of Bringing It All Back Home. It is commonly tagged as documenting the "angry young man" period in Dylan's career. Many of the songs on Highway 61 Revisited are of an accusatory nature and feature rough, loud performances. Greil Marcus’ book, Like a Rolling Stone: At the Crossroads, reports Michael Bloomfield, who served as lead guitarist on the album, as saying, “Bob picked me up at the bus station and took me to this house where he lived ... he taught me these songs, Like A Rolling Stone, and all those songs from Highway 61 Revisited, and he said, 'I don't want you to play any B. B. King-type leads, none of that standard blues, I want you to play something else.' So we fooled around and [I] finally played something he liked ... he was playing in weird keys (more suited to keyboard play) which he always does, all on the black keys of the piano." Driven by Dylan's somber piano chords, which contrast with a horror movie organ part played by Al Kooper, this track was described by Kooper as "musically more sophisticated than anything else on the Highway 61 Revisited album.” [Sean Egan, The Making of Highway 61 Revisited, pp. 64-66]
“The Thin Man” in the song title, perhaps refers to a happy-go-lucky wealthy criminal investigator, taken from Dashiell Hammett books that were made into a series of 1930s films starring William Powell. Roger Ebert said of Powell’s performance in the Thin Man movies that he "is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he's saying." Bob Dylan’s song is full of dialogue, and perhaps this is what suggested the title, or it could have been merely the physique of a reporter taking notes on the hip scene.
The term "Mr. Jones" is in general broadly understood as an allusion to the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" — a reference to the prototypical materialistic American family, so at odds with the outlook on life espoused by Dylan and the counterculture of the 1960s. In Dylan’s lyric “Mr. Jones”, the reporter, can’t seem to comprehend what is happening to the youth today.
The first thing the reporter questions is that somebody is naked. In the age of the “Naked Poetry” aesthetic, this was a positive thing among hipsters, similar to being truthful and unpretentious. At least the nakedness (without any other signifier) seems to allow sexual identification as a “man”. But in this realm of “freaks”, even this will be contested. There’s a good deal of homosexual behavior alluded to in the lyrics, from the “bone” handed the reporter at the end of verse 3, to the “sword swallower”, “high heels” and the loan of Jones' “throat” in verse 6. A “one eyed midget” demands that the reporter “give [him] some milk” in verse 7. This is one of the earliest lyrics in pop music that alludes to homosexuality, and it seems to identify Gay behavior as “freaky”, though the lyric doesn’t emphasize anything other than its outrageous humor.
The fourth verse takes a bit different form than the others, and turns attention from the freaks to the reporter, who is wealthy enough to participate in charities for social misfits, and also has contacts among the working class (“lumberjacks”) to assure him of the real world when things get out of hand. Further the reporter is well educated, but even the best education is outmoded; F. Scott Fitzgerald, for all his hipness to a previous generation, does not pertain to the present freakdom. The reporter does not have the means to assess if what he sees before him are social outcasts (“lepers”) in need of help from charitable organizations, or criminals (“crooks”) to be dealt with through the legal system.
In the final verse, the reporter, perhaps because he’s offended by the sight of freaks, does not see what‘s happening (“put your eyes in your pocket”) and is relying on his sense of smell like a sleuth trying to pick up a trail of reason. The singer suggests that he would be better to listen to the music of the younger generation, that the meaning and the message of the new freak nation is there. (“You should be made to wear earphones!”) It’s an odd statement to be made for rock music which had rarely been noted for its message—meaningful lyrics had been the providence of folk music previously. Soon rock music (not just psychedelic pop) would be taking Dylan up on his idea that the real hip scene was in the poetry of the music. And that hip scene (more among psychedelic artists than otherwise) was for the first time designated and claimed to be “freaky”. “Life is a Carnival”, The Band would later claim (in 1971), and this is much the mood depicted here as well as in several other songs of this era. “Freak” was a much more common self-designation for the audience of what would become psychedelic music than the newspaper word “hippie”.