Untold Dylan

Subterranean Homesick Blues? Too much monkey business!

by Jochen Markhorst

In the September 2019 Aquarium Drunkard interview, Rob Stoner does have a few things to say about Martin Scorsese’s The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which is released on Netflix shortly before. With all the artistic freedom he grants Scorcese and Dylan, and with all the appreciation he has for the fiction content of the “documentary” (“the fantasy scenario is more fun than the actual deal’), it still bothers him that an important engine like Jacques Levy is being ignored. Levy, Stoner explains, was responsible for the success of the tour, “more than any other individual.” And he modestly doesn’t say it, but Rob is most likely a bit disappointed as well about the very meager spotlight on himself – although he is, according to log writer Sam Shepard, indeed “the brains behind the operation in Dylan’s band”.

Rob Stoner has a right to speak, and not just because he is the brains, a musical leader during the Rolling Thunder Revue. He performs for years with Dylan, plays bass on Desire, is the unofficial band leader of the world tour of ’78, and is one of the few who may overthrow a Dylan song (the rock approach of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on Hard Rain is his, in all likelihood).

The time spent with Dylan is just one of the many highlights of his rich career. Stoner sings and plays guitar, bass or piano with Link Wray, Bruce Springsteen, Don McLean (he plays the bass on “American Pie” – the credits use his real name, Bob Rothstein), Carl Perkins, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, with all former Band members, and who not.

And with Chuck Berry.

The phenomenon Chuck Berry, the grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll and rap, the “Shakespeare of rock and roll” (Dylan) and the architect of every lick Keith Richards has ever played, is a constant throughout Dylan’s career. From his first school band, via his first electric single “Mixed-Up Confusion” (1962) to songs such as “Thunder On The Mountain” (Modern Times, 2006), “Shake Shake Mama” and “Forgetful Heart” (Together Through Life, 2009): Chuck Berry has been resonating through Dylan’s repertoire for some sixty years.

The only human who has played in the band with both Berry and Dylan is Rob Stoner, so he cannot be denied any authority. Yet he seems to be completely wrong in the same Aquarium interview as he states:

“Chuck Berry’s lyrics were super hip. In fact, Subterranean Homesick Blues is just basically a rewrite of Maybelline  [sic]. The same beats, the same idea, the same nonstop verbiage. I mean, people did get a little wordier as the form evolved, but I think basically the same principles that worked at the beginning were the ones that people still stick to today.”

“Maybellene”? Sure, the importance of “Maybellene” cannot be overestimated. It is Berry’s first single and first hit, according to Rolling Stone the starting point of rock ‘n’ roll at all, and it is perhaps also the first single with the complete package: a sharp, mean guitar at the wheel, small band, exciting sound and a text about cars, girls and infidelity. Incidentally basically a rewrite of the Western swing hit of one of Dylan’s other great idols, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, of his “Ida Red”.

But linking “Maybelle” to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” becomes difficult. A better candidate would be “Nadine (Is It You?)”, although according to the man himself that song is actually a kind of continuation of “Maybellene”.

Chuck Berry writes “Nadine” in prison, and it is the first song he records when he is a free man again, in November ’63 (the same session that also produces “You Never Can Tell”, by the way). In the British Melody Maker of November 14, 1964, in response to his recent songs, he is a bit disparaging about his own song writing talents:

“I took the top hits of my past and re-shaped them. I took Maybellene and from it got Nadine. From Schooldays I wrote No Particular Place To Go. I did this rather than repeat the same numbers with a more modern beat.”

Today it is hard to imagine, but as early as 1964 Chuck Berry thinks that his timeless classics “Maybellene” and “Schooldays” are dated and actually need a more modern look. Well, time is a jet plane, as we know.

Berry sells himself short, though. “Nadine” has at most a same theme (boy chases hopelessly after a beautiful girl), but otherwise it is certainly not a “rewritten Maybellene”. Literary it is even stronger, with that Shakespearean quality of brilliant metaphors (“I was campaign shouting like a Southern diplomat”) and the Dylanesque, language loving, visual power (“I saw her from the corner when she turned and doubled back / And started walkin’ toward a coffee colored Cadillac”).

Anyway – neither “Maybellene” nor “Nadine” provide the blueprint for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; apart from a few sprinkles “You Can’t Catch Me” (from which Lennon will later distil “Come Together”), it is of course mainly “Too Much Monkey Business” from 1956, Berry’s fifth single. Friend and foe do agree on this, and the Bard himself also acknowledges the indebtedness. In the booklet with Biograph (1985) Cameron Crowe notes Dylan’s fleeting analysis probably “Too Much Monkey Business” is in there somewhere and in 2003, in the interview with Robert Hilburn in Amsterdam, the poet adds another detail:

“It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of Too Much Monkey Business and some of the scat songs of the 40s.”

The beat, the licks and the rapping (avant la lettre) all seem to have come from Berry, but music historian Dylan rightly distinguishes that the rap component is a bit older; both Chuck Berry and Dylan borrow that distinctive approach from the “scat songs of the 40s”.

Academically, the poet does not express it entirely correctly. At least, it is unlikely that Dylan really means the scats of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway or Ella Fitzgerald – after all, those are meaningless, sung imitations of solo instruments, loops and coloratures. “Be-bop-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo” and “shoo-be-doo-be-woo” … let’s be glad Dylan does not go there.

The bard is probably referring to the overdrive to which, in the 40s and 50s in particular, some jump blues novelty songs switch, the barrage of words that are used to cast couplets over the heads of the listeners. In terms of rhythm, for example, Cab Calloway’s “Jumpin ‘Jive”, but especially Louis Jordan’s “I Want You To Be My Baby” in the version of Louis Prima and Gia Maione come pretty close (although the Georgia Gibbs’ hit version and / or the one by Lillian Briggs from 1955 is perhaps deeper under Dylan’s skin).

From David Hajdu, the writer of the slightly melodramatic Positively 4th Street – The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña (2001), is the find that Dylan has drawn content from a song by The Weavers, from “Taking It Easy”, written by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and especially the third verse:

Mom is in the kitchen, preparing to eat
Sis is in the pantry looking for some yeast
Pop is in the cellar mixing up the hops
And Brother’s at the window, he’s watching for the cops

… which resonates in “Tombstone Blues” as well, obviously.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” marks the First Big Turn in Dylan’s career on more fronts. Thematically, the change may be less dramatic than the conversion to electrically amplified music and to nasty rock ‘n’ roll, but when the first major shock waves have passed, the recovered listener may also notice: this is big city balladry, urban poetry. No pastoral desires for a sweet girl in the North Country, no provincial oboes roaming down the highway, rural lyrical impressions of flickering freedom bells and no motorpsychic nightmares in the countryside – this is a bare, expressionist eruption on the cadence of a shaking subway train. This is not the poet of “To Ramona” and “One Too Many Mornings”.

New are, for example, the accumulations of short imperatives. Look out, get sick, get well, ring bell, write braille, get born… in total the poet issues thirty-nine short commands, in an increasing frequency: two in the first verse, six in the second, fourteen in the third and seventeen in the last verse.

Dylan has learned its power from his devoted fan Allen Ginsberg, with whom he finds collaborative poems such as “Pull My Daisy” (poems that he wrote together with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in the late 1940s):

Rob my locker
lick my rocks
leap my cock in school
Rack my lacks
lark my looks
jump right up my hole
Whore my door
beat my boor
eat my snake of fool
Craze my hair
bare my poor
asshole shorn of wool 

… is the fourth verse. The poem, whose three poets take turns in writing a line, consists of five comparable couplets: accumulations of short imperatives, content-wise absurd.

Dylan likes the style – he will fall back on it more often (“Yea! Heavy And A Bottle Of Bread”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, “Baby Won’t You Be My Baby”). The reverence to Kerouac’s The Subterraneans is possibly related to Dylan’s gratitude for this trick.

He may also owe Ginsberg a second source of inspiration. With a footnote, in the last six verses, he reveals that source quite explicitly:

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

… winking at the finale of Robert Browning’s “Up At A Villa – Down In The City” (from the collection Men And Women, 1855):

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

… Brownings ode to the big city, to the joys of living in the urban jungle. Even more than those rhymes, Dylan is probably touched by the form – the dramatic monologue, the style form which lets the entire poem consist of a single person’s monologue. Any conversation partners or addressees can only be deduced indirectly from the content of the monologue. Perfect for a poet with a preference for keeping things vague.

Browning, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Louis Jordan and Chuck Berry… if the Dylan of 1965 fits in a frame, then postmodern comes the closest. And, quite fittingly, later artists use “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in a very postmodern, intertextual and paraphrasing way, in their work: Elvis Costello (“Pump It Up”), U2 (“Get On Your Boots”), R.E.M. (“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It”), Radiohead (“Subterranean Homesick Alien”) …

Enough meaningful conclusions can be drawn from this, but never as comprehensive as the observation of Jakob Dylan, indirectly quoted in the New York Times interview with Anthony DeCurtis, May 2005:

“When I am listening to “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, I am grooving along, just like you.”

As for the real covers: Dylan himself is kind on the attempt by Alanis Morissette:

“I’d even seen Alanis Morissette sing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” somewhere and I couldn’t believe she got that so right, something I’d never been able to do”

… and it is a nice version indeed – one of the few with a harmonica, too. Like most covers, Alanis maintains the neurotic, urban groove of the song, and there are plenty of attractive, comparable ones. Red Hot Chili Peppers (1987), Stereophonics (2013), the spare, bluegrassy approach of Tim O’Brien (funny, but not as fun as for example “Tombstone Blues”, on his Dylan tribute Red On Blonde, 2006), the jazzy approach of High Treason (1971), or even more jazzier Bill LaBounty (Into Something Blue, 2014) or a rather irresistible Rickie Lee Jones (on the tribute album The Village, 2009).

All beautiful, but more entertaining are the covers that radically differentiate the song. Not necessarily better, but so alienating that it gets a special charm. First and foremost Greg Kihn’s pop jewel (Mutiny, 1994)

The grooviest of them all, though, is the most famous cover, the collaboration of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson in 1974 (for Harry’s album Pussy Cats) – bringing the song onto the crossroads of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Chuck Berry.


What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews



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