The secret of staying relevant is perhaps to not stick to the formula. It’s all well and good to be clutching to the comforts of success but to push oneself outside the known boundaries, challenging oneself to conquer the unknown territory with equal proficiency and confidence—this is how one not only stays relevant but becomes revolutionary. The legacy of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre tells us that he mastered this tact quite well.
Emerging in the early years of the 1960s, Dylan had carved an image of a folk artist who churned out politically charged, blockbuster ballads one after the another. His raw, unadorned vocal delivery coupled with the rhythmic strum of acoustic guitar and shrill yet melodious harmonica garnished this identity furthermore. His songs about social and political injustice highlighted his radicalism and helped to rally public consciousness. But Dylan soon understood that it was time to venture outside the niche that he created with his first three albums. With ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, he committed his first major detour that went on to become a turning point in his career, plugging in his guitar: “Nobody told me to go electric…No, I didn’t ask anybody. Nobody at all.” Although disapproving of this deflection, his folk fanbase raised an eyebrow; it actually made Dylan more versatile as an artist.
Previously Dylan had dipped his toe into the ever-gushing stream of rock ‘n’ roll with his 1962 single ‘Mixed-up Confusion’. However, with his pinky toe dipped, he recoiled after experiencing a numbness resulting from the song’s cold response. Dylan quickly withdrew his foot into the warmth of his comfort zone. But he didn’t give up experimentation altogether; rather, he took baby steps to ensure he could burst through the cocoon one day. For example, he incorporated blues in his second album Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which came out just after the commercially flop single. One song would change it all, however. The ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ allowed him to return to the world of rock ‘n’ roll with a bang.
The poets of the Beat Generation always had a stronghold over Dylan’s imagination. Dylan fell under the spell of the Beat scene during his 1959 University days: “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti” explained Dylan once. Dylan tried to emulate the style of these poets in his 1965 single.
Written in the stream of consciousness pattern, Dylan tried to combine all his thoughts with everything that was happening in the mid-1960s world within the three-minute song. By that time, Dylan had completely moved away from topical lyrics in general, engaging himself in more personal angles. However, this song witnesses an amalgamation of both.
The song’s title was borrowed from Kerouac’s semi-fictional 1958 novel The Subterraneans. While content reflected the influence of Kerouac as well as the Woodie Guthrie-Pete Seeger song ‘Taking It Easy’, which contained the line “Mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat / Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast.” Dylan told the LA Times that the song was musically inspired by Chuck Berry: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the forties.”
In an NME interview published just before the release of Dylan’s song, Chas Chander of The Animals detailed the song’s inception. Apparently, when the band went to New York, Dylan took them back to his place and played ‘Those Old Subterranean Blues’, as they “got smashed on some huge casks of wine he had.” Dylan also told them that the song was about “people living after the Bomb was exploded.”
The track skips from one allusion to the other, faster than the mind can register. The song talks about drug busts, social discontent, the police’s violent stance against the civil rights protestors, and so on, capturing the trials and tribulations of the new decade to a tee. There has been debate about Dylan’s intention behind the line, “Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose.” While some see it as a word of caution against the cruel authority, some have interpreted it negatively. Some suggestions are that it’s a song that asks one not to engage in the protest movement, prioritising personal safety over basic rights claims.
The blues section of the track is as unique as its lyrics. Instead of using standard eight or twelve bars, Dylan worked with eighteen blues bars to accommodate all the words his verse. He even starts the last verse early to add an extra nineteenth bar. The complicated structure confused bassist Bill Lee who slipped several times during the recording. However, his lack of precision and rawness adds to the song’s charm and highlights Dylan’s determined stand against tradition.
Tom Wilson, Dylan’s music producer, was the one who pushed him towards the new direction. Gathering a handful of session musicians in Columbia’s Studio A, he recorded Dylan’s next album, Bringing It All Back Home, in motion. Originally, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was conceptualised as a continuation of Dylan’s talking-blues numbers, a type that had provided comic relief in his earlier works. With John Hammond Jr. and Bruce Langhorne on electric guitars, Bobby Gregg on drums, Bill Lee on the bass guitar and anonymous pianist Dylan recorded the song in a single take.
The addition of a promotional clip, which was the forerunner of the music videos, made the song even more awe-inspiring. The original clip featured in D.A Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, a documentary on Dylan’s 1965 England tour. In the clip, Dylan stands in London’s Savoy Hotel’s back alley and flips through cards as the song progresses. Resembling cue cards, they contain selected phrases from the song’s lines with intentional puns and misspellings. The cards were written by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the musician Bob Neuwirthand and folk musician Donovan, the former two of which can be spotted in the video talking to each other in a corner behind Dylan.
The effort has gone on to become an anthem of the decade. Thanks to its huge popularity, musicians have covered and alluded to this song in their original work innumerable times. John Lennon admired the song to the point of being jealous of it, thinking that he could never compete with such powerful stuff. Lennon even quoted the song in his 1980 Playboy interview, which was one of his lasts: “Listen, there’s nothing wrong with following examples. We can have figureheads and people we admire, but we don’t need leaders. ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.'”
Like most Dylan songs, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is cherished even after 56 years of its composition. We can only be glad about the fact that Dylan took the risk of wandering into rock ‘n’ roll even after getting an unfavourable reaction from a section of his audience.