Subterranean Homesick Blues

Commentary

John Lennon once said Subterranean Homesick Blues was so good that it made him wonder if he could still compete in the field of pop music.

I can’t imagine the shock the average circa 1965 Dylan fan must have felt when he put the needle on Bringing and out came this cacophony of sound. It must have been damn confusing. Imagine, the poet laureate of folk music, the author of Blowing in the Wind and The Times They Are A’Changin’, suddenly leading a raucous, hell-raising electric band, spitting out harsh lines of gritty street poetry that foreshadows Public Enemy by thirty years. Dylan didn’t just “go electric” with this album. He did more than move in a “new direction”. It was more like Dylan launched himself into another stratosphere.

Subterranean
is one of Dylan’s most Beat-influenced lyrics. It is likely that the title was influenced by Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans. The very word subterranean – meaning underground, hidden, secret – refers to the outsider world of the Beats that Dylan clearly felt a strong connection with. The lyrics are full of outsider, anti-establishment themes. It is also full of drug references, one of the Beats favorite obsessions.

Like most Dylan songs, it has its roots in the past, in this case, the recent past of early rock ‘n’ roll: namely Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.

Dylan cops Berry’s rapid-fire approach to the language:

Workin’ in the fillin’ station
Too many tasks
Wipe the windows
Check the tires
Check the oil
Dollar gas!

Compare this with Dylan’s lyrics below. Dylan takes Berry’s phrasing and even his attitude but sharpens it and give  it a  Beat-inspired “outsider” perspective.

Ah get born, keep warm,
Short pants, romance,
Learn to dance,
get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success

Dylan incorporates some of the same themes Barry touches on. For example, Barry takes umbrage at going to school and ending up, after all that effort, in the work-a-day world.

Same thing every day – gettin’ up, goin’ to school
No need for me to complain – my objection’s overruled, ahh!
Too much monkey business, too much monkey business

Dylan’s echoes the same theme, but with additional sophistication:

Please her, please him
buy her gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift

Dylan also echos Berry’s protests against the military life, the fall back career of many poor whites and blacks:

Army bunk – army chow – army clothes – army car, aah!
Too much monkey business. too much monkey business.
Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

Dylan chimes in on the same subject:

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail

Dylan told a journalist in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:

It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of “Too Much Monkey Business” and some of the scat songs of the ’40s.”…. “Chuck Berry wrote amazing songs that spun words together in a remarkably complex way,” he says. “Buddy Holly’s songs were much more simplified, but what I got out of Buddy was that you can take influences from anywhere. Like his ‘That’ll Be the Day.’ I read somewhere that it was a line he heard in a movie, and I started realizing you can take things from everyday life that you hear people say.

Another possible, although much less likely, source for the song is Lewis Carroll’s poem Rules and Regulations. There are certainly some similarly in the cadence and themes.

RULES AND REGULATIONS
A short direction
To avoid dejection,
By variations
In occupations,
And prolongation
Of relaxation,
And combinations
Of recreations,
And disputation
On the state of the nation
In adaptation
To your station,
By invitations
To friends and relatons,
By evitation
Of amputation,
By permutation
In conversation,
And deep reflection
You’ll avoid dejection.

Learn well your grammar,
And never stammer,
Write well and neatly,
And sing most sweetly,
Be enterprising,
Love early rising,
Go walk of six miles,
Have ready quick smiles,
With lightsome laughter,
Soft flowing after.
Drink tea, not coffee;
Never eat toffy.
Eat bread with butter.
Once more, don’t stutter.
Don’t waste your money,
Abstain from honey.
Shut doors behind you,
(Don’t slam them, mind you.)
Drink beer, not porter.
Don’t enter the water
Till to swim you are able.
Sit close to the table.
Take care of a candle.
Shut a door by the handle,
Don’t push with your shoulder
Until you are older.
Lose not a button.
Refuse cold mutton.
Starve your canaries.
Believe in fairies.
If you are able,
Don’t have a stable
With any mangers
Be rude to strangers.

Moral: Behave.

Subterranean is an “outlaw song”, what Woody Guthrie called songs that sided with society’s outsiders. During the sixties, Dylan clearly identified with the outsider culture. Dylan wrote many similarly themed songs during that time period, such as Absolutely Sweet Marie, Like a Rolling Stone, and Maggie’s Farm.

The Weathermen, a radical political organization in the sixties, took its name from Subterranean (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”). The Weathermen were a splinter group of the more mainstream Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). They advocated the overthrow of the government. Towards that end, they carried out a campaign of bombings, jailbreaks, and riots. An even more radical splinter group of the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. She eventually voluntarily joined the group and assisted in their actions. Hearst sent a letter to her parents that read “Mom, Dad, I’m with a combat unit that’s armed with automatic weapons…Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people”. Later she participated in a bank robbery with other members of the SLA.

Many have wondered if rap’s early architects used Dylan vocal performance of this song as a model. Not likely, Dylan has never ever been very popular in black culture. But the resemblance is there.

The The Red Hot Chili Peppers did an interesting rap versionof the song.

An interesting video of this song is played at the beginning of the brilliant D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s 1965 European tour, Don’t Look Back. In the film, Dylan holds up cue cards with phrases from the song on them. He stares at the camera, flipping the cards as the song goes along. The segment takes place in an alley behind a London hotel. Poet Allen Ginsberg makes a cameo, speaking with Dylan’s friend and musician, Bob Neuwirth.

An acoustic version of the song is available on the Bootleg Series Vol 1 – 3. It’s interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the album version.

The song apparently has never been a favorite of Dylan’s. He rarely plays it.

Radiohead included a song called Subterranean Homesick Alien on their OK Computer recording.


Lyrics

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
In the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D. A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
Don’t try “No Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters

Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
‘Cause the vandals took the handles

3 thoughts on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

  1. Avatar

    It was Dylan’s idea. In a bar, he asked me, and I said I thought it was terrific. We took a long hundreds of shirt cardboards on the trip, and we sat down with Donovan and Joan (Baez), and just did different signs. I did some too, but I can’t remember which ones I did.” — D. A. Pennebaker

  2. admin

    From a post in EDLIS Cafe….

    Dylan potentially got the inspiration for his  line “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” from an old movie, Blonde Ice (1948).   Around the 23:15  mark of the movie



    a character says “You don’t need a weather vane to see which way this wind is blowing.”

    interesting.

     

     

     

     

     

     

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