Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
According to Dylan writer Andy Gill, these first lines refer to LSD.
LSD culture was huge in the 1960s. Before it was criminalized in 1966, LSD was legally available as a psychiatric treatment, though it had been (and would continue to be) more readily available for recreational purposes through the efforts of home-brewers.
One of the most famous is Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who dropped out of UC Berkeley after one semester in school in 1964 and spent the next several years churning out as many as five million "hits" of the drug from a series of bathroom and basement-based labs.
Stanley, like the few other chemists making LSD illegally, did so not to make profit, but because, as the lyric "medicine" suggests, they believed LSD would do the world good.
Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin' that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone's tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Another drug reference, though Dylan's heavy use of metaphor makes it hard to understand what the heck he's talking about.
Thinking about Johnny in the basement, Maggie, "face full of black soot" might be coming up from the basement lab filthy from the homemade drug-cooking process.
The next line comes off as an extended metaphor: "Talkin' that the heat put / Plants in the bed but / The phone's tapped anyway." Dylan uses the metaphorical term "flower bed" to disguise the meaning of "plants" as planted microphones put there by the cops ("the heat").
Don't try No Doz
No-Doz are caffeine pills.
These little non-prescription caffeinated pills can pack a punch. The amount of caffeine in each pill ranges from the smaller doses of 25mg to extra-strength 200mg tablets. For some perspective, a cup of coffee has 100mg of caffeine.
The pills, legal for over-the-counter sales, have remained popular for decades. Dylan wrote about them in 1965, but they're still going strong today.
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Here Dylan alludes to the Civil Rights Movement and the use of high-pressure fire hoses by the police to break up peaceful demonstrations.
The specific fire hose incident that Dylan sings of took place in Birmingham, Alabama. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands others joined a protest march there, the notorious segregationist Sheriff Bull Connor ordered his cops to use attack dogs and fire hoses to clear crowds.
The horrific images of excessive violence were broadcast across the nation, unmasking the brutality that lay at the heart of the South's Jim Crow regime. Following the violence in Birmingham, the Kennedy Administration finally committed itself more fully to passing civil rights legislation.
You don't need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows
This line is clever, right? Too bad it was forever tainted by its adoption at the end of the 1960s by the radical left-wing terrorist group, the Weather Underground.
The Weathermen were a breakaway faction of the '60s-era youth activist organization Students for a Democratic Society. In 1969, a particularly radical group of SDS leaders lost an election to continue controlling the organization. So, they split from SDS, issuing a manifesto called (wait for it), "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
According to the Weathermen's analysis, "the main struggle going on in the world today is between U.S. imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it." Calling themselves Weather Underground Organization, they believed that they could somehow bring about Marxist-Leninist revolution within America itself by occasionally setting off bombs in banks and government office buildings.
Needless to say, that plan didn't work. The Weathermen were never more than tiny fringe of the '60s-era protest movement, but their over-the-top rhetoric and violent acts of terrorism—which killed several innocent people—did get them a great deal of public attention. The Weather Underground more or less disintegrated by the late 1970s; the last violent incident involving Weathermen was a New York City bank robbery in 1981.
The Weathermen seemed to have been relegated to the ash heap of history until 2008, when the defunct radical group suddenly started dominating American news coverage again as a result of Republican attempts to label Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as a closet radical because he had served on a Chicago nonprofit board with Bill Ayers, who had been a Weatherman leader more than 20 years earlier.
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parking meters
John Lennon was often heard quoting these lines in interviews. To Lennon, the witty maxim "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters" embodied a personal philosophy and demonstrated Dylan's lyrical skill.
John Lennon had great respect for Bob Dylan. Even in 1980, shortly before his death, Lennon could be heard quoting this line to reporters and interviewers.
Lennon once said that the song was so captivating, he wasn't sure how his own music could ever compete. Millions of diehard Beatles fans around the world might disagree, but that's high praise nonetheless.
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don't wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don't work
'Cause the vandals took the handles
The last half of the final verse contains an intriguing shout-out to one of Bob Dylan's artistic influences—the poet Robert Browning.
The final lines echo Browning's "Up at a Villa—Down in the City," a poem that contemplates the virtues and vices of both country and city life.
The poem's final stanza includes the lines:
Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and sandals,
And the penitents dressed in white shirts a-holding the yellow candles,
One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles,
And the Duke's guard brings up the rear for the better prevention of scandals.
In "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Dylan rhymes the exact same sequence of words ("Light yourself a candle," "sandals," "scandals," handles"). What is the significance of that, exactly? You'd have to ask Bob Dylan.