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Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' Lyrics And Meaning Of The 1965 Rap

Music | March 8, 2021

Source: centerforpoetry.wordpress.com

"Johnny's in the basement / Mixin' up the medicine" -- so begins Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a single from his album Bringing It All Back Home that sounded unlike anything else in pop music. Even today, this hipster patter, with deceptively simple lyrics whose meanings are more complex, is startling. What is it? It's been called proto-rap, the kind of street-corner sermon that meant something to the kids in the know but sounded like gibberish to their parents. 

Released in March 1965, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was a counterculture anthem when the counterculture was still percolating. The Summer of Love was still two years off, and Woodstock another two years after that. It was Dylan's first single to crack the top 40 -- "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" are also anthems, but they weren't hits. A few months later, Dylan would release "Like A Rolling Stone," his all-time biggest hit.

Bob Dylan Had Been Folk Music's Bad Boy, But Was Ready For A Change

Source: Artcurial

For the first half of the '60s, Bob Dylan lurked behind the happy facade of the folk-music scene, writing brutally honest or confrontational songs that many "regular" (or older) Americans couldn't handle. Dylan was finding success in a scene that was thriving on anodyne material, from the clean-cut folk of the late-'50s Kingston Trio to the hipper (yet still mostly inoffensive) folk of Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan was harsh; his lyrics weren't all sunshine and rainbows and his voice struck many listeners as downright unpleasant.

If the pop charts weren't quite ready for Dylan, his manager Albert Grossman had a solution. Grossman had Peter, Paul and Mary (whom he also managed) record "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and both singles were top-10 hits for the vocal trio. With Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio, and other folk artists including Joan Baez, recording Dylan's songs, perhaps America would be ready to hear these instant folk classics sung by the man who'd written them.

It didn't exactly happen that way, as Bob Dylan was done with the folk scene by 1965. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is not a folk song at all.

Bob Dylan Electrified Beat Poetry

Source: Pinterest

It was January 14th, 1965 when Bob Dylan went electric. Atypical for the songwriter, a full band was brought in for the recording session that consisted of John Hammond Jr. and Bruce Langhorne on electric guitar, jazz musician Bill Lee on bass, and Bobby Gregg on drums. Together they created a noisy and gritty song with raw energy and raucous ranting that could have been recorded straight out of a high school kid’s basement. The song was "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the sound perfectly matched its turbulent lyrics. Inspired by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s "Take It Easy" along with Chuck Berry’s "Too Much Monkey Business," Dylan uses imagery to tell a story that might not make sense the first time you hear it. Dylan was heavily influenced by the Beat generation and had just finished reading Beat author Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans, which gave him the idea of the song’s title. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is simply Beat poetry, but electrified. 

'Subterranean Homesick Blues' Stood Up For The Kids

Source: Pinterest

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" is essentially a song that embraced the progressive youth generation. As standard for Dylan, he used the tune to prove that young citizens’ opinions mattered and that politics affected them as much as the older generations so they deserve a say as well. The opening line “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine” is discussing the excessive codeine (the medicine) distillation that was occurring throughout the ‘60s. While Dylan was “on the pavement worrying about the government,” he was worried about the state and power of the government, and concerned about the growing conflict in Vietnam. Dylan points out the bleak health care system in caring for the poor when he sings, “The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off / Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get paid off.” The song is energetic, but its lyrics are also world-weary: This is how it is. This is how the system works. The deck is stacked against you, and it sucks.

Don’t Get Caught With Drugs!

Source: Esquire Magazine

Dylan felt the repercussions for being caught with drugs were unnecessary so he warns “kids” to watch out for these harsh consequences when he repeats throughout the song, “look out kid.” He points out drug culture again when referring to the drug trade in the line, “The phone’s tapped anyway / And she says that many say / They must bust in early May / Orders from the DA.” In another warning about law enforcement, Dylan advises to "watch the plain clothes," referring to plainclothes police officers. The phrase, “Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” even inspired the name for the radical anti-government group The Weathermen

A few lines later, Dylan delivers the couplet "Better stay away from those / Who carry 'round the fire hose," a reference to authorities who'd used a fire hose to disperse Civil Rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Dylan was known for making darker jokes in his music, but because he presented them so seriously most people didn’t catch on to his humor. His sarcastic nature comes out at various points in "Subterranean Homesick Blues" including when he suggests the kid “join the army if you fail.” Military service had often been a career choice for those who didn't do well in school, but with the conflict in Vietnam escalating, it was hardly an ideal option.

The line “Don't follow leaders," is simple enough -- analagous to the bumper-sticker sentiment "question authority." But "watch the parking meters” is a bit obscure. In Dylan's hipster jive, it may be simply a warning to remain mindful of the details. Everyone's out to get you -- and the meter maids are no exception -- so mind your Ps and Qs.

'Subterranean Homesick Blues' Is Still A Tough One To Figure Out

Source: Pinterest

Toward the conclusion of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan steps away from discussing the “hip” kids and sparks a twist ending when he turns his attention to life among the “squares.” In their world, there are instructions for how to live by society's rules. Parents, teachers and other authority figures want you to "Learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed / Try to be a success / Please her, please him, buy gifts / Don't steal, don't lift..."

All these orders aren't even guaranteed to pay off; you can do everything you're told and still get hosed. That's the sentiment of the great sarcastic line “twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift.” The final warning to the “kid” is, “look out kid, they keep it all hid,” as to watch out for the secrets of the government. 

The final line, “the pumps don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles” is the most abstract of the entire song and even after intense research, music historians haven’t been able to figure out exactly what this one means. The finale perfectly coincides with the already interpretive nature of the entire song.

Before MTV, There Was Bob Dylan

Source: Tech Digest

Not only did Dylan push his boundaries by going electric, but he also thought outside the box when he released a promotional film clip for "Subterranean Homesick Blues."  This would be one of the first music videos ever. The clip was filmed in an alley behind the Savoy Hotel in London by documentarist DA Pennebaker. It features Dylan holding up cue cards with parts of each line of the lyrics displayed on the card, which were written by Dylan, Donovan, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Neuwirth. Some of the words are purposely misspelled or inaccurate such as when Dylan sings “eleven dollar bills'' the card reads “twenty dollar bills.” 

These posters enhanced the most important element of the song: the lyrics. The video, just like the song, is very fast-paced and was used as a trailer to promote the new tune. Remarkably, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is considered the forefather song of hip hop because of its quick rhymes and lack of a distinct melody and chorus. Although today it is seen as a groundbreaking tune, during its time many were upset that Dylan was progressing and had turned his back on acoustic music. Bringing It All Back Home was half acoustic and half electric; the album that followed, Highway 61 Revisited, was fully electric. 

The Lyrics To 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

Source: Bobdylan.com

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 doing it again

You better duck down the alley way
Lookin' for a new friend
A man in the coonskin cap, in the pig 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 tie no bows
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

Oh, get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Hang bail, 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 losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hang around the theaters

Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters

Oh, 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 want to be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles

Tags: Bob Dylan | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | Subterranean Homesick Blues

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.