January 21, 2017

Boomer Anthems: Subterranean Homesick Blues

With John Hammond Jr and Bruce Langhorne on electric guitars, jazz musician Bill Lee (father of film-maker Spike) on bass, session man Bobby Gregg on drums, an unidentified pianist and Dylan himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, the song was cut in a single take. In two minutes and 22 seconds of jangling, rickety-rackety, homemade folk-blues-rock, something new was born – although, like all Dylan’s music, it sprang from firm roots. --The Guardian

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" is an amalgam of Jack Kerouac, the Woody Guthrie–Pete Seeger song "Taking It Easy" ("Mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat / Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast") and the rock'n'roll poetry of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business".

In 2004, Dylan said, "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the '40s."

Dylan has also stated that when he attended the University of Minnesota in 1959, he fell under the influence of the Beat scene: "It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti." Kerouac's The Subterraneans, a novel published in 1958 about the Beats, has been suggested as a possible inspiration for the song's title.

The song's first line is a reference to codeine distillation and the politics of the time: "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine / I'm on the pavement thinkin' about the government". The song also depicts some of the growing conflicts between "straights" or "squares" and the emerging counterculture of the 1960s. The widespread use of recreational drugs and turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War were both starting to take hold of the nation, and Dylan's hyperkinetic lyrics were dense with up-to-the-minute allusions to important emerging elements in the 1960s youth culture. According to rock journalist Andy Gill, "an entire generation recognized the zeitgeist in the verbal whirlwind of 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'."[8]

The song also references the struggles surrounding the American civil rights movement ("Better stay away from those / That carry 'round a fire hose"). (During the civil rights movement, peaceful protestors were beaten and sprayed with high-pressure fire hoses.) Despite the political nature of the lyrics, the song was the first Top 40 hit for Dylan in the United States.[9] -- La Wik

The original clip was the opening segment of D. A. Pennebaker's film Dont Look Back, a documentary on Dylan's 1965 tour of England. In the film, Dylan, who came up with the idea, holds up cue cards with selected words and phrases from the lyrics. The cue cards were written by Donovan, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth and Dylan himself. While staring at the camera, he flips the cards as the song plays. There are intentional misspellings and puns throughout the clip: for instance, when the song's lyrics say "eleven dollar bills", the poster says "20 dollar bills". The clip was shot in an alley close to the Savoy Hotel in London. Ginsberg and Neuwirth are briefly visible in the background.

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
By 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 tiptoes
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 weatherman
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

Posted by gerardvanderleun at January 21, 2017 9:32 AM
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I'd forgotten how homemade that all sounds - no sustain on the electric guitars at all. At that point they were mostly strumming them like acoustic guitars anyways. I like it though.

Posted by: hiawatha biscayne at January 21, 2017 11:22 AM

It's not a boomer song. Dylan was a war baby, born 1941. Boomers came after 1945/46.

Posted by: doolan at January 23, 2017 2:29 AM

Well, the boomers would have been those listening and buy the record, right?

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