Song of the Day #587: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ – Bob Dylan

Volumes have been written about the shock waves created when Bob Dylan “went electric.” My favorite depiction of the occasion comes in Todd Hayne’s extraordinary Dylan biopic I’m Not There, in which Dylan and his band take the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, open their guitar cases, pull out machine guns and begin firing on the crowd. Then a quick cut to them tearing into ‘Maggie’s Farm,’ with about the same effect on the audience.

As an aside, if you’re any sort of Dylan fan (or movie fan) you should make a point to watch I’m Not There. It’s an “art film,” no doubt — it does, after all, include portrayals of Dylan by both a young black boy and Cate Blanchett, among others — but it comes closer to capturing the spirit and wonder of Bob Dylan than anything else I’ve ever seen.

These days it would be impossible for an artist to sneak up on his fans the way Dylan did in the mid-60s. You’d hear about such a radical musical departure on Facebook and Twitter and through a leaked track on YouTube months before the album hit the stands. But back then it’s likely that many Dylan fans, who’d memorized every line of his first three albums, picked up Bringing It All Back Home expecting more acoustic guitar and harmonica.

What they got, once the needle fell into the groove, was ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ How cool must that have been? I’m sure there was plenty of outrage over the general volume and the unexpected collision of instruments, and I’m sure in that moment Dylan lost a significant portion of his fan base forever, but the rest of them would have just sat there, eyes widening, increasingly aware that they were hearing not just one of the coolest songs ever written but a genuine moment in history.

I wish I could have been there. I suspect our culture has moved past the capacity for moments like that. I’ve been surprised, delighted and shocked by new music in my lifetime, but I’ve experienced nothing like the wake-up calls delivered by The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

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

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10 thoughts on “Song of the Day #587: ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana says:

    No other musical wake up calls? Really? What about when heavy metal band KISS released “I Was Made for Loving You” in the disco era, and then sucker punched their fans with the ballad “Beth?” Do you have any idea what that did to my young impressionable mind? The outrage it caused fans? :)

    And how about when Michael Jackson released “Beat It,” joining with Eddie Van Halen to bring a heavy guitar sound to the King of Pop? Was that not significant enough for ya?

    Okay, fine, maybe these weren’t as big and dramatic as Dylan going electric:) The funny thing is, though, as radical and heretical as it must have been at the time, it now seems like such a natural and not-shocking progression in Dylan’s career.

    I suppose in a world where we have now not only accepted punk, grunge and other formerly out there musical styles, but major corporations embrace these songs in their commercials and the artists creating this music are honored in the rock and roll hall of fame, it’s hard to really appreciate or understand the outrage of fans when Dylan went electric.

  2. Amy says:

    I don’t see where this is such a departure from what he had been doing – in terms of the storytelling and spirit, at least. I imagine there may have been some raised eyebrows and bemused smiles as fans heard it for the first time, but I find it difficult to imagine that any true Dyan fan would have dropped him based on this song.

    When trying to think of an example of some “shocking” musical departure that made an impression on me, the first that came to mind was REM’s “Crush with Eyeliner.” I know it’s not exactly the same thing, as REM had songs that hinted they had this type of song in them. Still, I remember hearing it – and thinking “WHOA!!” and smiling broadly :) I’m hoping that’s the reaction Dylan’s fans had when first hearing today’s SOTD.

  3. Amy says:

    sorry for the abrupt ending :( couldn’t find a studio version that could be embedded.

  4. Dana says:

    No, the reaction to Dylan going electric was strongly negative amongst his folk fan base. It has been very well publicized and the disdain was really well shown in the documentary “No Direction Home.”

  5. Clay says:

    I think it was mostly due to how pure the folkies viewed their genre… playing an electric instrument was akin to wearing red to a funeral. And they had placed Dylan on a throne. He was not just the world’s most famous folk singer but a savior of sorts.

  6. Amy says:

    No comment on my “Crush with Eyeliner” shocker? :)

  7. daniel says:

    i thought the guy switching words was a litttle off time and i thought it was like the song “Catch All the Fish Drink All the Beer” By : Brad Paisley so it didn’t have a point and is kinda useless.

  8. Clay says:

    The youth of America has spoken. :-)

  9. Clay says:

    As for ‘Crush With Eyeliner,’ Monster was definitely a stylistic detour for R.E.M., but they had rocked pretty hard before that. And I remember reading about that album for awhile before it came out, and hearing the first single on the radio and MTV. So it didn’t have the “sneak up on you” factor, at least for me.

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