D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary Don’t Look Back, which chronicled Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of the United Kingdom, has long been hailed as one of the greatest rock n' roll films ever made.
Interestingly, the film starts with what now looks a heck of a lot like the world's first music video (even though Pennebaker and Dylan probably wouldn't have thought of it that way at the time). The song is "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
Shot in an anonymous alleyway, the "music video" consists of one simple long shot of a messy-haired Bob Dylan flipping through cue cards that correspond to the song's lyrics. At times, Dylan seems to have trouble keeping up with the pace of the song, as the lyrics whiz by at the point of incomprehensibility. Other times, Dylan uses the cards for comic purposes, with intentional mistakes and misspellings. "Look out kid," for example, is accompanied by "Watch it!" in the third stanza, while spelling "Success" as "Suckcess" drops a bit of social criticism into the mix. The music video is evocative, yet perplexing. What meaning is hiding behind Dylan's placid expression? Why do some of the cue cards deviate from the lyrics? And is that Allen Ginsberg, the legendary Beat poet, standing over there in the background? By the time you get to the end of Dylan's rapid-fire lyrical delivery, your reaction may well be exactly what Dylan holds up on his last cue card: "What ? ?"
The entire "What ? ?" attitude of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might best sum up Dylan's reaction to his emerging stardom. Called the "voice of our generation" by fellow folk persona (and onetime lover) Joan Baez, Dylan found himself annointed a reluctant leader of the counterculture, at times even called a "prophet" or put up on a pedestal with poetic geniuses like T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman. But how is anyone supposed to be the voice of his entire generation? At the time, Bob Dylan was just a kid, a serial run-away who had changed his name (originally Robert Allen Zimmermann), moved from Minnesota to New York, and tried to turn himself into a disciple of folk elders Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Bob Dylan meant for his music to be an expression of himself, not some kind of musical manifesto that could speak for millions of other young people. But that's what people heard in songs like "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and soon Dylan did find himself sitting up there on that pedestal, whether he wanted to be there or not.
In that context, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might be heard as Dylan's reaction against the idea of his own leadership. The lyrics leave us with no clear mission, no proclamations from on high. The song is crammed full of zen phrases, hipsterisms, and koans to a chaotic degree. Chaos... maybe there lies a lead. Around the time that Dylan recorded the song, he had this to say about chaos: "Chaos is a close friend of mine ... Truth is chaos. Maybe beauty is chaos." For those who want concrete answers, the problem with chaos is that it evokes more than it reveals. In that vein, while "Subterranean Homesick Blues" seems intentionally confusing (maybe bringing to mind Shakespeare's timeless quote, "A tale ... full of sound and fury; signifying nothing") it certainly evokes several ideas.
The fractured narrative of the song evokes many possible things, from Dylan's own commentary on his fame to more abstract concepts such as metaphorical birth. The narrative of the song might be thought of in context of the title, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," especially because the idea of the "subterranean" bookends the piece. It begins "in the basement," and then we find our hero emerged "on the pavement," and ends with the Dylan suggesting we jump back into the "subterranean" through a manhole. In between a kind of madhouse of characters—the "man in the trench coat," "the man in the coonskin cap," "Maggie," "those who carry around a fire hose," "users, cheaters," "six-time losers"—meet the "kid" that Dylan consistently warns to "look out." This cast of characters take the kid through a fast-forwarded life, characterized only by the consistency of demands and the chaotic turn of events, from drug busts to wiretapping to the Civil Rights Movement to the day shift. With all this unfolding in less than two and a half minutes, Dylan has plenty of reason to suggest a homesick return down the manhole.
That return, and what exactly the underground is, is open to interpretation. Dylan may be being somewhat autobiographical, metaphorically describing his dizzying ascent to the pinnacle of American pop culture. Or maybe he's describing a more prosaic journey, from sleepy Minnesota to the big city, New York. Without thinking of Dylan's personal life, the lyrics seem to evoke a life journey, with an awakening at the beginning, all the elements of "square" life filling up the middle of the song, and a longing for a return to this "sub-" state at the end.
Whatever they mean to you, the lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues" rely partially on their cultural/societal context for meaning. While part of the charm of the song lies in the fact that the lines don't have to have concrete meaning, some of the lines can be explained through historical contextualization. Lines like, "Johnny's in the basement / Mixing up the medicine" obviously reference the LSD culture of the '60s, in which millions of tablets of "acid" were home-brewed in basements and laboratories, which resulted in fear and paranoia of government spying and crackdowns (which Dylan cleverly suggests entirely through metaphor—"heat" for the police, "plants" for microphones, "bed" for locations). The Civil Rights Movement gets a nod in the song, too, with a reference to the horrific incidents in Birmingham, Alabama in which fire hoses and attack dogs were used to clear crowds of peaceful protesters: "Stay away from those / Who carry around a fire hose." Other movements, like the general rift between "square" culture and "hip" counterculture, find their way into the song, when Dylan sings "Twenty years of schoolin' / And they put you on the day shift." The song is, in the end, a hodgepodge of cultural context, but none of it really coheres into a solid narrative.
But that might be exactly the point. Bob Dylan was heavily inspired by the Beat Generation (the title of the song is an allusion to Jack Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans), and Dylan became close friends with the poet Allen Ginsberg. The Beat connection might be important. Beats like Allen Ginsberg wrote spontaneous, emotional poems that, like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," are read as really really, really long sentences. Here's the famous intro to the greatest Beat poem, Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the n**** streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
Dylan's own lines, though broken up and rhymed, are what Ginsberg called "long lines" in the Beat tradition. Dylan can really truly be connected with the Beats if you think about the way that his lyrics are hyperkinetic, bouncing from one idea to the next through spontaneous emotional combustion. Dylan isn't interested in the narrative here, so much as the feeling—again, what the song evokes. And that evocation is chaos.
But, is chaos a good thing? Chaos may or may not be truth and beauty, as Dylan said, but even if it is, is it a good thing? Dylan tells the kid, whoever he may be, to "get hid," to "jump down a manhole." The chaos of the shapeless age that Dylan found himself in wasn't exactly easy to use, however easy it was to acknowledge. That might be why the lyric ends up in an allusion to Robert Browning's poem "Up at a Villa—Down in the City." The final stanza of Browning's poem contains 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 Browning's poem, a dramatic monologue just like "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the marvel that is the city (to the "Italian Person of Quality" speaking) is entirely inaccessible because "They have clapped a new tax upon salt, and what oil pays passing the gate / It's a horror to think of." The poem expresses a distinct Victorian feeling that Dylan shares. That feeling might best be understood in Victorian author George Eliot's words, "aspiration without an object." The Italian man in the poem has aspiration, but the object—the activity and vivacity of the city—is something he cannot have (due to his inability/refusal to pay higher taxes). Dylan might be seen in the same light. On the narrative level, there's a clear aspiration in the sense of the kid emerging from the underground and attempting to make a life. But where is the object? If chaos is truth, and chaos is an indistinct, shapeless whirlpool, what is there to accomplish aside from becoming (to borrow another famous classic rock metaphor) another brick in the wall?
If Bob Dylan is the voice of his generation, or is even (however reluctantly) "aspiring" to that level, he must comment on his age. If "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is his answer to that calling, it is, intentionally or unintentionally, a statement about the sheer illogicality of the "object" of "the voice of a generation." "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has no answers. It instructs us simply to "Look out!" This ironic gesture by Dylan reveals the incompatibility between Dylan's belief in the chaos of the age and expectations of him to act as a kind of leader.
Or, as Dylan himself wrote on that famous cue card… "What ? ?"