A young man stands in the middle of a nearly abandoned alleyway. His pale skin is contrasted by his wiry black hair. In his hands he holds large cue cards framing words handwritten in black block letters. He stands still during the guitar interlude; awaiting the lyrical prompt. The cue cards quickly fall to the ground while other sporadic lyrics appear for a brief second. Your mind races as you attempt to digest the fast paced lyrical content in conjunction with the rapid visual stimuli. One word after the other falls to the ground. The harmonica blares in between the verses as a five second salvation from the constant movement. Approximately three hundred and twenty seven words are sung within an elapsed time of two minutes and seventeen seconds, roughly equivalent to two words per second. That is a mind-numbing amount of information. When listening to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the first time, it is difficult to absorb the lyrical content without a formal dissection. The last cue card in the video encapsulates your first experience with the song: “What??”
During a video interview conducted by Time Magazine, Dylan was asked about the impact of his lyrics. The quite visibly uncomfortable interviewer awkwardly sat waiting for Dylan’s response. Dylan replied, “There is no great message.” Perhaps this statement was a philosophical reflection upon the idea of interpretation, but nonetheless, his lyrics are exceedingly deep and three dimensional due to the amount of honest social and political commentary poetically implanted into his music. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” successfully combines various socially centered themes including the bombardment of values within a commercialized society, tension regarding the government and authority, as well as a fear induced anxiety created by a paranoid psyche provoked by the feeling of constant surveillance.
“Ring bell, hard to tell if anything is goin’ to sell”
An overarching theme within this song is the bombardment of commercialism within a modern society. This notion is introduced at the end of the first stanza with the lines: “Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten” (17-18). Clearly the mention of money reflects the concept of commercialism and consumerism, but due to the use of ambiguous language, there is a deeper meaning that is two fold. The ambiguity is as follows: is there an implication that what is needed are eleven one dollar bills or actual bills in the denomination of eleven dollars? Looking at the first interpretation, the statement portrays the disadvantages that the under-privileged face in a capitalist market: insufficient funds; however, the second interpretation implicates the power that the government has over society. This allusion to the strangle hold of the government sets the overall tone of the piece regarding the set backs created by a society that is consumed by capitalism which is encouraged and supported by the government, creating a vicious cycle. This cycle is expanded upon with the mention of recreational drug use versus pharmaceuticals.
Throughout the song, there is a struggle with the concept of drug use. The assertion within the first two lines sets up the obscurity between recreational drugs and pharmaceuticals: “Johnny’s in the basement/ Mixing up the medicine” (1-2). In this context, recreational drug use becomes a form of easily accessible “medicine” for those who have bare bone health care coverage. The inexpensiveness and accessibility of these drugs to the marginalized parts of society creates an alternative to costly health care and pharmaceuticals. However, the members of society that self-medicate with these drugs, once ignored by the government, become the focus of government’s rage. A capitalist economy does not benefit from back alley drug deals and the poor man is once again punished for seeking a medicinal substitute. Those who face the disparity of poverty become invisible and voiceless beings. This image is artfully depicted in the song “The Less I Know”; a Dylan inspired spoken word song written by Raine Maida. It conjures the image of these marginalized people: “I’m climbing up just to get back down/ My lips are moving but make no sound/ Don’t leave me here this way” (2-3). These people attempt to reach out for assistance from the government, and regardless of their attempts, they are ignored and punished with harsh forms of deterrence. The depiction of the deterrence with regards to illegal drug use is employed in the second stanza with a threat that the government will prosecute offenders with any means necessary including an invasion of privacy. Explicit messages are displayed in order to promote the use of pharmaceuticals and devalue the need for using illegal substances with the line “Keep a clean nose” (33). Dylan however draws a similarity between pharmaceuticals by suggesting that the health care system is shameless when it comes to peddling drugs. The line: “Get sick, get well” (37) reflects a dependency upon drugs to survive the mundane ills of everyday life. The assumption that a capitalist society can offer people a remedy for anything that ales them, creates a twisted reliance on these drugs due to a fear tactic. Dylan counters this reliance with the gentle advice of: “Don’t try ‘No Doz’ ” (30), an over the counter sleep aid. This illuminates pharmaceutical drugs as a tool used to create a docile and obedient society, hence this subtle warning rears the listener to take action and become more critical of their surroundings.
The concept of overt commercialized rearing is seen within the third stanza: “Ring bell, hard to tell/ If anything is goin’ sell” (39-40). This image invokes the experiment of “Pavlov’s Dog.” In this circumstance, society at large is the subject of the experiment. The corporate world projects images of idealization of the American Dream, and mindlessly, consumers buy into this constructed image. In this sense, the average person’s mind becomes bent to the agenda of capitalist America. People begin to crave material objects in order to fulfill and achieve an unattainable pipe dream. This concept is expanded upon in the fourth stanza: “Please her, please him, buy gifts/ Don’t steal, don’t lift” (58-59). This assertion enlightens the basic motto of the corporate world: buy things to maintain admiration and acceptance whereas if you cannot afford to buy happiness, do not attempt to rip us off. The idea that the poor and underprivileged cannot attain contentment in an economically driven society is satirically explored with this juxtaposition. This juxtaposition is used in order to illustrate the deficiency within accepted societal reasoning. In regards to Dylan’s work, Jordy Rocheleau illuminates this point in his essay, “Enlightenment and Postmodernism.” He explains:
Dylan’s work as a whole might be presented as an example of social criticism that combines cautious skepticism about modern ideals and institutions with protest that attempts to realize those ideals more fully and perfectly (77).
In this context, it is clear that although Dylan disagrees with modern trends, he cannot completely reject them because these trends make the world go around. Hence Dylan’s criticisms act as an attempt to illustrate the importance of interpretation and active criticism. Dylan’s biggest concern is to deter civilians from being mindless and passive puppets who live life without questioning their environment.
“Look Out Kid”
Within the first stanza, there is a clear distrust of authority which resonates as a theme throughout the song. From the get go, the audience is introduced to a shady character:
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off (5-8).
There is an implication that this character is a jobless police officer, recently laid off. Dylan suggests that even people of authority are willing to shamelessly compromise their principles in order to survive. This illusion to hypocrisy leads to a cynical perspective about powerful authority figures. The claim that it is easy to pay off a supposed man of integrity, questions the corrupt system that governs civilians. Although these lyrics encourage civilians to question the authority figures that control their lives, there is a reinforcement that certain paranoia comes with this act.
The concept of the “Panopticon” is employed to reinforce the danger associated with civil rebellion. Michel Foucault’s critical essay “Discipline & Punish” outlines the concept of an omnipotent supervision:
…the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action… (10 par.)
There is an inner anxiety associated with being watched by an authority figure regardless of the actual presence of that figure. The government becomes a stand in for a god-like entity; being everywhere and yet nowhere. Within the song there are references that the government sees and hears all evil. “You better duck down the alley way” (13) portrays a constant feeling of being watched, “Walk on your tip toes” (29) portrays a sense of audible surveillance, and “You’re gonna get hit” (46) illustrates punishment associated with disagreeable actions. In an essay entitled, “To Live Outside the Law You Must Be Honest,” written by Elizabeth Brake, she emphasizes the following, “Government and greedy capitalists exploit and oppress, but they are enabled to do so by illusions which sustain obedience,” (87). In this context, rebellion against the government is supposed to be carried out in a quite and unnoticed manner. In order to “stick it to the man” one must be astute and stealthy. In other words, rebel in a subdued-rebellious way. This concept is embodied in the lines: “Don’t follow leaders/ Watch the parkin’ meters” (52-53). This declaration illustrates that mentally one can disagree with leaders because thoughts cannot be persecuted, but on the other hand one must loosely obey the rules in place to a certain extent in order to stay out of prosecutable trouble. In other words, rebellion in this context maintains a certain amount of calculated risk instead of the image of haphazardly pissing into the wind.
“Don’t follow leaders”
On various levels, this song attempts to alienate itself from mainstream ideals and conventions. The song title alone enforces the concept of estrangement. On an explicit level Subterranean means to be underground reinforcing a feeling of marginality, Homesick reflects a feeling of being out of place, and Blues reveals severe sadness. Implicitly the implications associated with the title also further illuminate the theme of alienation. The Blues are usually defined as a genre that consists of slow, sad songs; however “Subterranean Homesick Blues” employs a fast-paced upbeat melody. The departure from the traditional or mainstream conception of what The Blues are, or what they should be, furthers a sense of alienation coupled with rebellion against the mainstream. This notion attempts to set forth an idea that society should redefine the defined.
On another contextual note, there are musical elements that illustrate the clash between conformist convention and individualism. The song is framed with raspy solos at both the beginning and end, comprising of raw guitar and harmonica tirades. The interlude at the beginning employs the electric guitar and the harmonica. The electric guitar itself breaks away from the traditional acoustic sound. The electric guitar sprinkles in static twangs throughout the song while the acoustic guitar methodically mimics a monotonous and steady strumming. In between each stanza, the harmonica blares proudly and triumphantly above the monotony of the mindless acoustic vibrations. The incessant strumming of the acoustic guitar mimics the notion of brainwashing which replicates the role of commercialism. Alternatively, the distinctive harmonica and electric guitar solos that bellow over the regular metronomic beat represent a revolt against mainstream principles. From a lyrical perspective, Dylan’s rapid delivery also contrasts the constant acoustic beat. The power of these musical elements also marginalizes the need for a strong percussion component. The sound of the opaque rattles of a cymbal or tambourine and the underrated snare can be vaguely heard under Dylan’s verbal rhythm and the outcries of the harmonica. As clichéd as it may sound, the lack of a drum beat would implicitly suggest the need to march to a different beat or perhaps to forget the beat altogether and to focus on the contextual aspects of life rather than structural aspects. Combined, these musical elements overpower the feeling of the traditional mechanics of a song.
Strictly, on a structural level, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” does not contort to the traditional construction of a song. The lyrics are broken into four individual stanzas that consist of completely original and independent concepts that are a part of the whole. The only commonalities between them are the repetition of the phrase, “Look out kid,” which serves as an internal chorus. A conventional song construction consists of a format that interchanges between a verse, a chorus, and a bridge; this song does not have a chorus or a bridge. Two thirds of the song’s structural integrity is missing and yet the composition as a whole works effectively to portray a story of societal conflict. The idea that the message is not solely hammered into the listener through the use of the chorus proves that the deconstruction of the structural foundation still efficiently and less redundantly illustrates the subject matter at hand.