Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bob Dylan Song #48: Subterranean Homesick Blues

I believe talent is like electricity. We don't understand electricity. We use it.

-Maya Angelou

Electricity is really just organized lightning.
-George Carlin

(1)

I love Bringing It All Back Home. There's no other way I can think of to start this blog post, than by that simple declaration of fact. I absolutely adore this album. It's one of the very first Dylan albums I ever owned, and it's still one of my very favorites. Even today, when my Dylan ardor has cooled from its college-years peak, I'll still pop on "She Belongs To Me" or "It's Alright, Ma" or this song and just marvel at how incredible the songs on this album were. Even the lesser songs are fun to listen to, if nothing else; you can tell how fun they were for Dylan to record as well. And I'll return to it every now and then and discover something new or something I'd forgotten, and my love is rekindled all over again. It's a gift that keeps on giving.

I'm telling you this because, like most people, I agree that this is the lesser of the famous Electric Trilogy that reinvented Bob's career and are, even to this day, probably Dylan's most famous and beloved albums. The funny thing is that I couldn't even give you a concrete reason why that would make sense; I mean, let's face it, this is an incredible album. Most bands would kill to record just one of the best songs on here, let alone an album of such quality. And yet there's just this feeling that something's missing on the album, that the ineffable it that Highway 61 Revisited has and Blonde on Blonde most definitely has isn't quite there. Maybe it was the decision to record the album half acoustically, as though Dylan was somehow karmically hedging his bets (it's not as though "Mr. Tambourine Man" would've been worse if there had been a band behind it, or at least the gentle accompaniment afforded "Love Minus Zero/No Limit"). I don't know. At certain points in music reviewing or discussion, you simply reach an area that can only be defined by the feeling in your gut and the emotions in your mind, and this is one of them. Then again, when the worst you can say about an album is "it's not as good as some of the greatest albums ever recorded", that's a pretty damn good album, right?

What really interests me, having read about the album in Heylin's book and other places, is that Dylan's first recording session for the album did not feature a band on any of the tracks. This is the session where "Farewell Angelina", one of Dylan's finest non-album tracks, was recorded; nothing from this session ended up making the album proper. And that, to me, is significant. After all, it seems entirely clear that Dylan had planned to record with an electric band almost from the moment that Another Side was finished, and that he felt that recording in a strictly acoustic metier was cramping his style, so to speak. In fact, you can even hear that on the demos that Dylan had recorded for "Like A Rolling Stone" - the songs could very well have worked in an acoustic setting, but there's something a little off, as though it's not as complete as "Blowin' In The Wind" or "All I Really Want To Do" is. And Dylan, who had an incredibly sharp ear for his compositions at that time, felt it too, and he knew that a full band would flesh out the melodies that seemed only half-complete in acoustic form. And yet that very first session for Bringing It All Back Home was all acoustic guitar and piano.

I've written about this both in the past and on this blog, and it seems pertinent to bring up now: fear is a very driving factor in our lives. Not just fear itself, but fear of change, of having to experience something new. When confronted with upheaval in our lives, the basic instinct is to run away, to retreat into the old and familiar, rather than confront something we have no knowledge about. And Dylan had no knowledge that he would become more successful as a popular recording artist than he could ever have as a folk singer, or that he would soon become a mainstay on the Billboard charts and have his singles blared through transistor radios, or that his concerts would become battlegrounds for musical movements, and in some ways for entire ways of life. All he knew was that he'd never recorded electric music before, and that he would be alienating an entire movement that he'd helped build up by becoming that which they hated as much as anything. Let's not forget that it wasn't just the music, too; the lyrics, wilder and only abstractly about anything, would've pissed off a lot of people. And he went right ahead and recorded Bringing It All Back Home anyway. Can you imagine how hard it must've been for him to take that step, to bring in those musicians, cut those songs, and have them pressed to wax? It takes a special musician to swap the familiar for the unfamiliar, and Dylan is a special musician indeed.

So what that first session means to me is the comfort in knowing that Dylan did, indeed, struggle with that decision, and that it was as hard for him as it would have been for anybody else. After all, he could very well have turned tail and stayed in his comfort zone, recording songs as personal and heart-wrenching as "I'll Keep It With Mine", staying in an acoustic or solo environment. Sure, the folk critics would've continued their wailing and gnashing of teeth at what they perceived to be Dylan's continued gazing into his own navel. But he still would've been one of their own, and not the property of the heathens who played music you had to plug into speakers to hear and sang about holding hands and both satisfaction and the lack thereof. And we might still be listening to those albums today, marveling at how great "Queen Jane Approximately" sounds even just with him on piano, nodding along to Dylan on his acoustic pounding out "Absolutely Sweet Marie"...and wondering what things would've been like if Dylan had done things differently. I, myself, am glad we don't have to wonder that.

(2)

Social polemic, explosive blast of rock goodness, blatant Chuck Berry ripoff - "Subterranean Homesick Blues" wears a lot of hats, and still remains an absolute cornerstone in Dylan's canon. Even today, removed from the original release, from the howls of protest from the folk crowd and the hundreds of rock DJs spinning Dylan's first real "platter that matters" and all the college kids smoking dope and figuring out what the lyrics meeeeeeeeeean, maaaaaaaaan, and the stunning fact that a folk musician, the folk musician, had recorded this, there is a very palpable excitement that surrounds this song, from the opening acoustic strum immediately drowned out by a stinging electric note, to the fadeout after that sneered final line about pumps and vandals or whatever the hell he's getting at. In many ways, it's as good as a popular rock song will ever get - lyrics to make you think, music to swing your hips to (assuming, I suppose, that people still dance to this song today; I'd wager they did in 1965). As far as first impressions go, this is a pretty hard song to beat. Dylan was effectively a new artist entering the rock arena, and he had himself one hell of a debut.

Listening to the lyrics today, it's something of a blessing that specific meanings no longer have to be affixed to this song, and that you can take his words for what you feel they mean, instead of somebody saying "hey, Weathermen, get it? Hey, fire hoses - civil rights, get it?" The Weathermen took their name from the song instead of Dylan appropriating their name as a joke anyway (a common misunderstanding), but never mind. To me, it's cool to catch the little things that Dylan sprinkled in there, like the fact that he's saying "look out, KID", as though specifically to every youth everywhere, or the uncomfortably dead-on "join the army if you fail" (a time-honored American tradition for those who have no other place to go), or the genius of "twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift" that manages to sum up so many lives in twelve brutal words. There may have been some sort of zeitgeist to be heard in Dylan's words back then, but now all I hear is Dylan, mind racing a million miles an hour, identifying how the world works and spitting the meaning of life back to us, and if we give the song just one more listen, we might catch on to what the hell he's talking about.

I think that not enough credit has been given to Dylan's makeshift band, a collection of talented studio musicians that gave life to Dylan's songs and made the music walk and talk. I spoke earlier about how the solo demos of Dylan's electric work sounded like something was missing, and "Subterranean Homesick Blues"' acoustic demo is a benchmark example of that. It isn't so much that the song sounds wrong in an acoustic setting - after all, the chords are the same and Dylan sings the song more or less the same way - so much as, in drastic contrast to one of his older songs, this particular version never sounds like it's definitive, the way "Don't Think Twice" always sounded like it was definitive. Just listen to the breaks in between the verses, where Dylan has nothing else to do but strum along; even with the prior knowledge that those breaks would be filled with tasty soloing goodness, it's clear that something ought to be there, and that simply playing the A chord with the occasional funky added note or whatever simply isn't cutting the mustard. You could release the acoustic version, sure, but I don't think it would've been accepted the same way, not by the popular music-buying crowd, and never by the folk music crowd. It would've been an orphaned song, beloved by only the real hipsters, but consigned to a curio more than anything else.

It's the band, then, that really steps up and places the song in the outright classic category that it deserves to be in. What is very cool that on an album where the electric songs have a tendency to run together just a little bit (Dylan hadn't quite worked out the subtleties of full band arrangements, settling for garage rock bashing most of the time; by Highway 61, those subtleties would be worked into Dylan's MO), "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has its own character and rises above the rest into its own special category. There's that fantastic riff that plays throughout the song (yes, it's a stolen riff, but Dylan picked a good one to steal) and serves as a musical underline for Dylan's crazy verbage. There's that simple thudding baseline, the most basic of notes playing over and over and holding everything together. And, yes, there's the churning electric guitar attack, making a very simple song musically sound way cooler than it ought to, lending the words an urgency the more laid-back acoustic demo just doesn't have. Dylan wasn't the only guy that made this a masterpiece, and the band deserves their share of credit.

The famous line about the Velvet Underground is that while few people bought their first album, almost everyone that did was inspired to start a band. In a literal sense, that's entirely impossible; in the metaphorical sense that the Velvets' music, especially that first album, spoke so powerfully to those that heard it that they felt like anything could be possible (at least, in theory - the only thing the first album's ever spoken to me is "why, yes, we WILL stay on this chord for 3 minutes, thanks for asking"), that seems entirely likely. Music, after all, can affect the mind in the most powerful of ways; that's why the art form has lasted so long and become so tremendously complex and thought provoking (well, okay, outside of "My Humps"). And I would venture to say that everybody that heard "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a song that still doesn't sound like most other popular music, with lyrics that forced you to reach a deeper level of comprehension if only to try and grasp what he could possibly mean, was inspired to think deeper about music in general, to try to see things beyond their surface, and to aspire to be enriched by what they listened to, instead of merely entertained. At the very least, I'd hope it kept a few college kids out of the army.

(3)

I suppose this entry wouldn't be complete without mentioning the clip that opens Don't Look Back, a clip every Dylan fan is familiar with. Go take a look at Wikipedia's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" page some time, and scroll down to the section about the music video. Just take a look at all the homages and parodies listed there. Imitation is called the sincerest form of flattery, and to have that many people imitate something you did 40 years ago, even as a joke, ought to tell you something. That list (which I'd guess still isn't complete) says everything you need to know about how brilliant, how trailblazing, and how just plain super-sweet that video clip is, and what a landmark moment it is in the history of music as a medium.
The coolest thing to me about the video, having seen it God knows how many times, is just how casual Bob is about the whole thing. His expression never changes throughout - maybe he's just in deep concentration trying to figure out when to drop the cards, who knows - and he lets those cards go at his own leisurely pace, not smiling at the in-jokes or goofy lettering, a Buddha with crazy hair and sharp clothing. There's a weird sort of Zen calm throughout the video, like this is something people do all the time, holding up placards with song lyrics in some alleyway and letting them go while two goofballs have a powwow behind them. And that coolness, I think, is why the concept stuck with so many people and why the video clip and subsequent music video took form - you didn't just have to mime to the camera or pretend like you gave a crap about selling something to a mass audience. You could use that comparatively new medium of film to do something off base, something strange and original, and make something that stimulated you just beyond "look at those guys pretend to play the song they recorded in a studio on a soundstage somewhere!" Once you've opened up that medium to a whole new world, there's no turning back. (Or looking back, har har.)

I see no sense in linking to the video here - you've all seen it a million times, and YouTube has at least 4 different versions you can watch whenever you want. The best thing I can say about the video is that it's impossible to hear the song now without thinking of Bob in that alleyway, holding up the cards a little awkwardly, and that final "What???" at the end being casually tossed away as Dylan strolls off camera to go have another joint with Bobby Neuwirth or something. They will forever be linked in the public mind, a fantastic song and a fantastic filmed concept, working together to make something even more incredible. Now that's a good music video.

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7 comments:

Cody said...

Excellent post. Bringing It All Back Home will be really fun to dig into, I'm sure. There are so many deep songs that can be interpreted a thousand different ways.

Nykaolawsc said...

Once again, great post. A few very interesting points. Especially concerning what we're capable of conceiving in our lifetimes. That's a little something I've been pondering about since I first went to college (at an early[ish?] age and was struck with how big everything truly was.

Dylan, for me, is a reflection of that. And how appropriate to also mention the card alley sequence. I think that that bit embodies how all of us must feel in our lives. Voiceless, we hold out fragmented expressions/questions that reflect the probability that what we have to say may or may not have been put forth by our own minds. It could all be an excerpt of some greater consciousness. We're all standing in that alley, never totally on cue, doing our best with what we got, when really we'd rather be better off going about it some other way.

Maybe. I'm tired.

My blog has begun, btw!

rob! said...

the song simply doesn't age. maybe because it gets outta town before it wears out its welcome (unlike, say, Ballad of a Thin Man, a song that to me seems to go on for approximately three and a half days).

every time i hear SHB, i can't help but sing along. i can't imagine what it must have sounded like coming out of car radios into 1965-era ears.

Rich said...

Hi,
I was doing a Google search for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" the other day and found your blog, which is very cool. I was writing something about this song for my own blog, hence the search. As I mention in my entry, my first memory of hearing an electric guitar seems to be hearing this song on my Dad's copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. The effect that had on me has been enormous.

Rich

x0x said...

I'm glad I found this blog. I'll enjoy reading through your ideas about these songs. This album (BIABH) in particular fascinates me.

x0x said...

I meant to add - are you going to cover Tarantula?

David George Freeman said...

Hello There, thanks for posting this interesting essay. When you want to listen to every version of every song come inside Bob Dylan's Music Box http://everybobdylansong.blogspot.com.au/2008/10/bob-dylan-song-48-subterranean-homesick.html