Motopsycho nightmare: the meaning of the song and the lyrics

By Tony Attwood

Here’s a coincidence.  I’ve been focussing on Dylan’s writings in 1964, trying to fill up some of the gaps in the reviews on this site, and so came to Motorpsycho Nightmare (also written sometimes as Motorpsycho Nitemare) – a song which I still know by heart because of my early days of playing the guitar.  I had made a few notes as starters, when I went into my regular pub in Islington, north London, and found as I walked in they were playing this very song on the audio system.

Strange, as I’ve never known them play any Dylan song before. And here they were playing the very song I was contemplating – a song which I believe Dylan has never been performed in public.

Onto the review, and I think the key thing here to mention at the start is the same one that I have mentioned in the review of I shall be free number 10, what we have here with Another Side is an album made up of the songs Dylan wrote during his travels, and recorded on one night.  There was a limited range of material available, so this one got included.

The song, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is part of the sequence that leads from I shall be free number 10 on to Motorpsycho Nightmare and then on to 115th Dream which although electric has the same feel about it throughout, before finally bursting into its fullest exposition as Subterranean Homesick Blues

Motorpsycho, as the name suggests, takes as its starting point the Hitchcock movie, Psycho, along with a quick reference to La Dolce Vita by Fellini en route.  I am not at all sure about how popular or powerful an influence Fellini was in the USA, but in the cinema art-world of England this was a name to be taken with great esteem and La Dolce Vita released in 1961 was seen as a major work of modern cinema.  And Dylan certainly seems to have had a love of Italy, and the themes of the reporter drifting around Rome while his girlfriend takes an overdose and her pursues a rich heiress and a film star.

Dylan would leave his venture in the complexities of such worlds for a little while longer, venturing into them with Rolling Stone, Visions, and so on.  For the moment he looks back to the mix of the lighthearted jokes from the 1920s on to the 1960s about travelling salesmen, and what they find when they knock on the door, along to the horror story of Psycho.

There are little jokes throughout – like the fact that the daughter looks like the actor who played the killer in Hitchcok’s pyscho, and there is a mention of a shower as per the famous shower scene – the one that had the original audiences screaming of the movie screaming.

The cow motif is also here – in 115th dream Dylan walks by one, here he is ordered to milk one in return for a bed for the night.   There are references to Cuba again, (I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba) as in I shall be free

By the end of the mayhem there’s the line “without freedom of speech, I might be in the swamp,”  another reference to Psycho in which the now dead victim is towed in her car into the swampland.

I think it is helpful to recall just how important Psycho was and remains in movie history.  Certainly in England it transformed the way people watched movies – until then the audience would come in at any time, watch the film from there on, and then watch beginning, and piece bits together as they could.  It sounds insane, but this is how cinemas worked.

But Hitchcock refused to licence the film to any cinema chain that did not sell tickets just for one showing, with the audience unable to sit through into the new run of the movie.  It caused quite a bit of discussion at the time, but the film was so enormous in its impact, that gradually all cinemas moved over to this.

Because of the publicity, the quality of the film, the fact that the female lead actor is killed off about a quarter of the way through the film, and Hitchcock’s determination only to have people watch the whole movie, the film became the most profitable black and white movie of all time, and the most famous of all Hitchcock’s movies.

In considering the way Dylan’s music progressed towards “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” I have written before that I think for some time Dylan was trying to find the musical direction equivalent to the road the beat poets had taken and he finally got it with Subterranean.  What I Shall Be Free No 10 and Motorpsycho Nightmare offer is a build up to that song – a build up without which Subterranean could not have happened.


I pounded on a farmhouse
Lookin’ for a place to stay
I was mighty, mighty tired
I had come a long, long way
I said, “Hey, hey, in there
Is there anybody home?”
I was standin’ on the steps
Feelin’ most alone
Well, out comes a farmer
He must have thought that I was nuts
He immediately looked at me
And stuck a gun into my guts

It is an immediate joke about rural conservatism, made all the more interesting by the empathy Dylan has previous shown with the plight of the farmer – Hollis Brown is just one example of just how serious Dylan can be in this context.

I fell down
To my bended knees
Saying, “I dig farmers
Don’t shoot me, please!”
He cocked his rifle
And began to shout
“You’re that travelin’ salesman
That I have heard about”
I said, “No! No! No!
I’m a doctor and it’s true
I’m a clean-cut kid
And I been to college, too”

But just like Subterranean the characters are parodies, nothing is meant to be real – they are cardboard cutout characters as are some of the lines, each worth only a line a two, and they are often there for no purpose other than to make the rhyme, as at the end of this verse…

Then in comes his daughter
Whose name was Rita
She looked like she stepped out of
La Dolce Vita
I immediately tried to cool it
With her dad
And told him what a
Nice, pretty farm he had
He said, “What do doctors
Know about farms, pray tell?”
I said, “I was born
At the bottom of a wishing well”

Who had written surreal pop before, I wonder.  Dylan’s attempt to merge music with the art forms he was witnessing across Europe and undoubtedly in the US is not that successful, but the introduction once again of the cow adds a certain surrealism to the affair.

Well, by the dirt ’neath my nails
I guess he knew I wouldn’t lie
“I guess you’re tired”
He said, kinda sly
I said, “Yes, ten thousand miles
Today I drove”
He said, “I got a bed for you
Underneath the stove
Just one condition
And you go to sleep right now
That you don’t touch my daughter
And in the morning, milk the cow”

So the story goes on, Dylan is sleeping in the kitchen, and we are into a new version of Psycho

I was sleepin’ like a rat
When I heard something jerkin’
There stood Rita
Lookin’ just like Tony Perkins
She said, “Would you like to take a shower?
I’ll show you up to the door”
I said, “Oh, no! no!
I’ve been through this movie before”
I knew I had to split
But I didn’t know how
When she said
“Would you like to take that shower, now?”

And it gets all mixed up with Dylan’s notion of moral duty – he has to milk the cow because he has said he would so he can’t run away.  It is surreal because the Hitchcock movie gets mixed up with this story, and then the only way out is for the character to reveal himself not to be a fanatical right winger, so he speaks in favour of Cuba.

Well, I couldn’t leave
Unless the old man chased me out
’Cause I’d already promised
That I’d milk his cows
I had to say something
To strike him very weird
So I yelled out
“I like Fidel Castro and his beard”
Rita looked offended
But she got out of the way
As he came charging down the stairs
Sayin’, “What’s that I heard you say?”

Rita still has connections with Psycho, but the fight is now one about politics

I said, “I like Fidel Castro
I think you heard me right”
And ducked as he swung
At me with all his might
Rita mumbled something
’Bout her mother on the hill
As his fist hit the icebox
He said he’s going to kill me
If I don’t get out the door
In two seconds flat
“You unpatriotic
Rotten doctor Commie rat”

The man’s reading material – the less than intellectual Readers’ Digest which did abbreviations of stories for people who couldn’t take the whole thing in one go – gives a passing insight into his way of life, Rita sees the man she wants to kill or seduce or both, running away.

Well, he threw a Reader’s Digest
At my head and I did run
I did a somersault
As I seen him get his gun
And crashed through the window
At a hundred miles an hour
And landed fully blast
In his garden flowers
Rita said, “Come back!”
As he started to load
The sun was comin’ up
And I was runnin’ down the road

And so Rita gets the job she needed to continue her escapades – in a motel, and we end the song with the final reference to the end of the movie

Well, I don’t figure I’ll be back
There for a spell
Even though Rita moved away
And got a job in a motel
He still waits for me
Constant, on the sly
He wants to turn me in
To the F.B.I.
Me, I romp and stomp
Thankful as I romp
Without freedom of speech
I might be in the swamp

Not great songwriting, not great poetry, not great music, but I am not sure who had tried this before, and what the song led to most certainly was worth waiting for.

Hello Subterranean Homesick Blues.

All Dylan’s songs reviewed on this site

Dylan’s songs in chronological order


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1 Response to Motopsycho nightmare: the meaning of the song and the lyrics

  1. Pete Shanks says:

    Lord Buckley might have been an inspiration, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” a later tale in the same vein. Deep social commentary in this one. It’s a great something … shaggy dog story?

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