Bringing It All Back Home, the album that begins with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” marked a major sea change in Bob Dylan’s career, for two main reasons. The first reason is well-known and much-discussed: Dylan went electric. The first side of the album, including “Subterranean,” was all electric, alienating many of his loyal folk fans.
Along with that change, though, came a more subtle change in the kind of lyrics Dylan was writing. As a folk singer, his songs had been of a more traditional folk variety: Most of the songs on Dylan’s first four albums could be classified either as love songs or protest songs.
Of course, Dylan stretched the definitions of both of these classifications, coming at them from new perspectives and angles (“Blowing in the Wind,” generally considered a prototypical “protest” song, for example, doesn’t actually “protest” anything in particular), but he was generally working within an established genre or framework; the lyrics to his early songs are straightforward and at times even literal.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” changed all that.
On first listen, the song seems to be merely an onslaught of disconnected imagery set to a fast beat. What exactly does Maggie’s “face full of black soot” have to do with some kind of “short pants romance”? Dylan himself pokes fun at the apparent nonsense of the lyrics in the promotional video he made for the song (above): After holding up title cards with the lyrics, the final one simply reads, “What?”
The rapid-fire imagery, however, belies the cleverness and coherence of the song. The lyrics of this song form a torrent of wordplay and allusions. The opening lines—“Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government”—set up the clash between the “underground” or “beat” movement that clashes with the establishment, represented by “the man in the trench coat.” The successive images and jokes all relate back to this central conflict.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” isn’t just a quick joke (although it is a pretty funny song); it represents a deep cynicism and disillusionment with the established order—it’s no accident that this song has the only pop lyrics ever to inspire the name of a domestic terrorist organization.* Lines like “Don’t matter what you did/Walk on your tip toes” are both mellifluous over the beat, and also a simple and concise expression of disgust with authority. Lines like “badge out, laid off/Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get paid off” are both funny and an illustration of how obviously corrupt institutions were perceived to be.
*To the best of my knowledge.
What sounds like cookie-cutter advice delivered with a tongue in cheek attitude—“get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success”—actually has protean meaning when you realize that it is never entirely clear where one line ends and the next begins, or which of the song’s figures is speaking. Each of the subtle changes in the way the lyrics are heard can conceivably turn the song’s meaning on its head.
This would be the template for Dylan’s songwriting (for the most part) from here on. His lyrics would be much less literal and much harder to pin down. More and more would hinge on the specific words and Dylan’s playful and provocative use of language. Dylan himself would be less interested in representing or explaining specific causes, and more interested in presenting images.
When folk audiences heard this in 1965, it sounded like Dylan had turned from an idealist to an opportunist, replacing meaningful lyrics with nonsense that sounded hip. What it really did, though, was open the door to a new and totally vibrant sound.