Posts Tagged ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Arts: Dylan classic deconstructed

10/07/2011, 10:00:25 AM

What it means: Subterranean Homesick Blues

by Dan McCurry

“Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine. I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government“.

On the question of darkness and light, Dylan gives us darkness masquerading as light. This is a depiction of people in misery. His friend is mixing up the medicine, or heroine, while he thinks about the government. With those first two lines, almost in the same sentence, I see the writer using heroin to escape his problems, but blaming his addiction on society, on the government. He’s looking outside himself to find blame for his misery. He is saying, “it’s society that’s dysfunctional not me”.

The lyrics give us a vivid description of a complex condition, the disaffected: Those who feel that they do not fit in with our society and therefore engage in criminal behaviour, or escape into drug and alcohol addiction.

“Look out kid, it’s something you did. God knows when but you’re doing it again”.

This is a much more touching and sympathetic description of a young person who can’t seem to get it right. He can’t seem to get a grasp of the basic rules. And society just keeps hitting him with punishments without helping him to understand where he’s going wrong. Society is all powerful, but not a friend, not a guiding hand, just a purveyor of punishment.

“A man in a coon-skin cap, in a big pen, wants 11 dollar bills, you only got 10.”

Davy Crockett immediately springs to mind as a man in a coon-skin cap. The word “pen” is American slang for a jail. This imagery accuses America of fundamental injustice, with a picture of Davy Crocket as a prison governor demanding a get-out-of-jail fine, which is always just beyond our means.

The frontiersmen, such as Davy Crocket, are epic folk heroes in the minds of Americans. They are the ones who discovered the Appalachian passage which enabled America to expand from a 13 state colony of Great Britain into the 50 state superpower of the modern day. To describe the pioneers as creators of an unjust prison is an attack on the identity of America.

Dylan then describes his friend Maggie as having a face full of black soot.

“Maggie comes a fleet foot, face full of black soot”.

Heroin is consumed by chasing the dragon. By using a cigarette lighter to heat the heroine on a spoon, until a plume of black smoke emerges, and this is inhaled. The image of Maggie is the equivalent of an alcoholic who has spilt whisky down his shirt.

Many critics of this piece believe that LSD is being manufactured in the basement, but LSD was only made illegal in 1965, a year after this film was made.

Maggie is paranoid about a police raid, “They must bust in early may, orders of the DA”.

She also speaks about bugs planted in the basement and Dylan retorts, “The phone’s tapped anyway.”

“Keep away from those men around the fire-hose”, is a reference to the racist police who used fire hoses against civil rights demonstrators around this time. Again Dylan seeks negative depictions of representatives of the state.

Earlier he made reference to street life with the lines, “duck down the alleyway, looking for a new friend”. Now he describes the colourful characters of street life. “Look out kid, you’re gonna get hit, by users, cheaters, six times users, hanging by the theatres. The girl by the whirlpool is looking for a new fool”.

This is insightful, because the disaffected community, who make up street life, hang out together because they’ve got nowhere else to go. These are the ones who don’t fit in with normal society and have normal jobs. But nor are they very nice to each other. It is a world of mutual abuse. It demonstrates that he speaks from personal experience about this world, but the uplifting mood of the song demonstrates that he likes and fits in with this world.

“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”, is again cynical. Education is one of the foundation-stones of our society, but he dismisses it by describing the whole system as a cheat, that the inevitable outcome is manual labour. Everything is someone else’s fault, and nothing is his own.

The picture that Bob Dylan paints for us is one of addiction and the addict is blaming everyone else, rather than looking within for a solution to his problems.

It is therefore little wonder that Bob Dylan was frustrated when people regarded him as a leader. The video above is from the 1964-shot documentary, Don’t Look Back. In this clip, the Time correspondent Horace Freeland Judson was offended by what he considered to be a contrived tirade of abuse from Dylan.

However, Dylan was responding to the description of himself as a leader of his generation. He was perfectly reasonable in his frustration of this analysis. He wasn’t putting himself forward as a leader and didn’t want to be on pedestal. His was a voice of disaffection, after a childhood as a serial runaway in Minnesota, who didn’t claim to have answers.

The recent disclosure of Bob Dylan’s heroin use coincides with his seventieth birthday. He attributes his addiction to the pressure he was under at the height of his fame. This suggests that he subsequently overcame drugs by looking within himself, rather than looking for someone else to blame. To me, this is a stark contrast to the lyrics of Subterranean Homesick Blues, a song of darkness masquerading as light, but brilliant none the less.

Dan McCurry is a Labour activist whose photographic and film blog is here.

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon