Subterranean Homesick Blues
This was Dylan’s first successful attempt to integrate the emotions of the Beat Generation which he had understood from Alan Ginsberg and others combining the thoughts of the moment with three minutes of everything that was happening in the world of the mid 1960s.
It’s sources in Dylan’s own writing go back to Gypsy Lou – the song about the Beat Generation and his frustration with it (or with himself for not being able to write Beat Generation music), and its sources in lyrical terms come from Jack Kerouac who wrote a novel called The Subterraneans.
The fire hoses were used to break up demonstrations then, as much later – although if you get too close to the lyrics the fire hose bit could be taken to suggest that one should NOT get involved in civil rights protests – which given the context of so much of Dylan’s early writing, would seem odd. Or maybe he was just being post-modernistically ironic.
Some “insights” that commentators have found in the song are barely that – “I’m on the pavement thinking about the government” could be an allusion to anti-government protests in the streets, but if so is hardly mind shattering.
Then there’s the Weathermen bit – “Don’t need the Weathermen to know which way the wind blows.” Some sources cite this as the origin of the name of the Weathermen, the radical and violent anti-governmental group. Others say that Dylan was citing an already existent organisation. Either way, given the simplicity of the “I’m on the pavement” bit, he could just be talking about the weather.
But in many ways this is what the Beat Generation poetry was all about – it was taking a scatological approach to lyrics and rhyme, rejecting all that had gone before, linking the future to the past and back again, finding new models, new expressions, new ideas, even if no one knew what they meant.
Maggie turns up as well, and “Maggie’s Farm” puts in its first appearance as track 3 on side one of the album. There’s more interaction with the law (“must bust in early May, orders from the DA”) and so it goes on. If anything it is perhaps a reflection of the turmoil of life (“twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”).
Quite why it has been so popular and so highly revered is hard to say in any way other than the fact that it so dramatically broke so much ground. It is hard to remember this far on but we really had never heard anything remotely like this before.
Rolling Stone has it in the top 500 greatest songs of all time, everyone seems to have quoted it somehow, and yet it is just a boppy little rock song with no melody and three chords. In the end its meaning, its important and its sheer memorableness can only be ascribed to the fact that almost every line is quotable somehow, somewhere, it does symbolically catch the moment, and it is the opening to a truly great album. Dylan called it a subconscious poem, and it is certainly that. It’s brilliance is that it taps into a whole community’s subconscious.
It has been widely commented upon that there are links to Chuck Berry lines in the song – and that’s quite right of course. I am not sure that is particularly significant. Chuck Berry borrowed, and Dylan was already borrowing from everywhere he could find, in the earlier albums. The borrowing doesn’t really matter. It is the transformation that counts.