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Decoding the lyrics of Bob Dylan song 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'

‘Subterranean Homesick Blue’ by Bob Dylan is one of the most significant songs the Minnesota troubadour ever released. The lead single from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, the polarising album that saw Dylan make the transition to electric, it marked the dawn of a new era for the freewheeling troubadour and a period of artistic enlightenment in which he built on his early work, and took his artistry, both lyrical and musical, to the next level. 

Dylan’s decision to pick up the electric guitar was divisive, to say the least, with many diehard folk fans believing that he had turned his back on the scene, and at the very worst, sold out. However, Bringing It All Back Home was always a classic. It just took time for its detractors to realise this. It subsequently became one of the most crucial turning points in Dylan’s long career, setting him on his long path of experimentation that culminated with the genius ‘Murder Most Foul’ in 2020. Of his choice to pick up the electric guitar, Dylan once said: “Nobody told me to go electric… No, I didn’t ask anybody. Nobody at all.” 

I don’t know why anyone was surprised that Dylan went electric. His 1962 single ‘Mixed-up Confusion’ was his first foray into the flourishing rock ‘n’ roll scene. However, the world wasn’t ready, and the single was met with a cold response, to say the least. His time would come though, and with the release of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, he returned to the world of electrifying rock ‘n’ roll with a bang. 

Notably, the song and album abandoned the explicit protest music of Dylan’s previous work and adopted a more surreal and complex lyrical style. Unsurprisingly, the influence of the Beat Generation, who had long been a critical influence on Dylan, was stronger than ever on ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. The heady prose of the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti helped bring his words to life. After all, the song’s title was taken from Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Subterraneans

Duly, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was written in the form of the stream of consciousness, combining Dylan’s thoughts with all the most pertinent socio-political topics of the time, into under three minutes. A surreal fusion of the personal and the topical, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to attempt to decode some of the most confounding lyrics of the song. 

Interestingly, during an NME interview published just before the release of the song, Chas Chandler of The Animals and future manager of Jimi Hendrix, shed light on the song’s inception. He alleged that when the band were in New York, Dylan took them to his place and played a track called ‘Those Old Subterranean Blues’ as they “got smashed on some huge casks of wine he had.” Dylan told them that the song was specifically about “people living after the Bomb was exploded.”

We’re not sure what Bomb Dylan was referring to, but we’d wager that it was the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the song seems to be a surreal depiction of the quirks and faults of the post-war world. 

The song’s first line is a reference to codeine distillation and the fraught socio-political situation at the time. In 1965, the civil rights movement was in full swing, the US was locked in the tense Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War raged, and the younger generation were rebelling against the establishment in a myriad of ways, including via taking drugs and the medium of song. The famous opening line reads: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ about the government”.

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The song also seems to hail the dawn of the counterculture, with the ‘Summer of Love’ only two years away. Dylan pits the capitalist sentiment of the ‘squares’ against the rebellion of the burgeoning counterculture, the spiritual successor of the influential Beat Generation. The following line indicates this: “Don’t wear sandals / Try to avoid the scandals / Don’t wanna be a bum / You better chew gum”.

Apart from the opening reference to codeine, there are numerous allusions to drugs that are scattered through the track. There’s a very clear mention of a drug bust in the second verse, representing the clash between the younger and older generations, alluding to the governmental oppression that Dylan had spoken about in his early works: “The phone’s tapped anyway / Maggie says that many say / They must bust in early May / Orders from the D.A”. 

Towards the end of the verse, there’s another reference to drug-taking, and the conservative nature of the US government: “Keep a clean nose / Watch the plain clothes,” Dylan sings.

It’s strange that ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and Bringing It All Back Home were derided by some, as when you look closely at the lyrics, you realise that the protest-song that Dylan had made his own during his early days, had never really gone away, it was just adapted for his changing stylistic needs, and the rapidly changing world. 

Dylan’s support for the American civil rights movement is also made clear in the song. The line, “Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose”, reflects the daily struggle of civil rights protestors against the heavy-handed and often racist agents of the state. Painting a stark image, Dylan evokes the countless occasions where peaceful protestors were violently attacked and sprayed with fire hoses. 

This line has long been a point of contention amongst Dylan fans and commentators. Although it is clearly a word of warning against the oppressive inclinations of authority, some have taken it to mean the opposite. These argue that the line is Dylan’s way of telling people not to protest, as personal safety means more than fundamental human rights. Given that Dylan was a countercultural legend, I think this suggestion fizzles out rather quickly. 

Regardless, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is one of the essential anthems of the decade. One of the densest pieces Dylan released during that momentous time, this was him reaching another level lyrically and musically, and it’s a testament to him that it remains so influential nearly 60 years later. 

Showing just how important ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is, we’ll leave you with a quote from the former Beatles frontman, John Lennon, that he delivered in a 1980 Playboy interview. He said: “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'”.

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