Subterranean Homesick Blues
Covers of Dylan’s songs, covers of Dylan’s album covers, covers of Dylan's video's? We ask you: could there be one music-video that’s been more “covered" than the iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues “clip” that D.A. Pennebaker shot near the London Savoy Hotel in 1965? We don’t think so. ALthough his website focusses on covers of Dylan’s songs we cannot think of a reason to exclude this landmark in the history of rock ’n roll from this website. Please mail us if you can add another.
"Subterranean Homesick Blues" is an amalgam of Jack Kerouac, the Woody Guthrie–Pete Seeger song "Taking It Easy" ("Mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat / Sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast") and the rock'n'roll poetry of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business". In 2004, Dylan said, "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of 'Too Much Monkey Business' and some of the scat songs of the '40s."
Dylan has also stated that when he attended the University of Minnesota in 1959, he fell under the influence of the Beat scene: "It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti." Kerouac's The Subterraneans, a novel published in 1958 about the Beats, has been suggested as a possible inspiration for the song's title.
Covers of the song span a range of styles, including those by the reggae musician Gregory Isaacs on Is It Rolling Bob?, his 2004 album of Dylan songs, with Toots Hibbert; the bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien on his 1996 album of Dylan covers, Red on Blonde; the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers on the 1987 album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan; the Cajun-style fiddle player Doug Kershaw on Louisiana Man in 1978; and the singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson on his 1974 album Pussy Cats. The song was also covered by Alanis Morissette when she stood in for Dylan at his 2005 induction into the UK Music Hall of Fame. In addition, Robert Wyatt's "Blues in Bob Minor", on his 1997 album Shleep, uses the song's rhythm as a structural template. In December 2009, the rapper Juelz Santana released the single "Mixin' Up the Medicine", which features lyrics in the chorus, performed by alternative rapper Yelawolf, and maintains some of the song's original acoustics. Ed Volker of the New Orleans Radiators also has performed the song in his solo shows and with the Radiators, often paired with Highway 61 Revisited. The Arizona band Chronic Future covered the song on their 2004 EP, Lines in My Face. In 1994, The Day Today, a British spoof television news series, claimed that Dylan's performance was in fact a cover version of an original by ukulele virtuoso George Formby. The programme aired a clip of the purported newly discovered original, showing Formby performing to troops in a black-and-white newsreel with the song overdubbed.
The Film Clip
In addition to its influence on music, the song was used in one of the first "modern" promotional film clips, the forerunner of what was later known as the music video. Rolling Stone ranked it seventh in the magazine's October 1993 list of "100 Top Music Videos". The original clip was the opening segment of D. A. Pennebaker's film Dont Look Back, a documentary on Dylan's 1965 tour of England. In the film, Dylan, who came up with the idea, holds up cue cards with selected words and phrases from the lyrics. The cue cards were written by Donovan, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Neuwirth and Dylan himself. While staring at the camera, he flips the cards as the song plays. There are intentional misspellings and puns throughout the clip: for instance, when the song's lyrics say "eleven dollar bills", the poster says "20 dollar bills". The clip was shot in an alley close to the Savoy Hotel in London. Ginsberg and Neuwirth are briefly visible in the background. For use as a trailer, the following text was superimposed at the end of the clip, Dylan and Ginsberg are exiting the frame: "Surfacing Here Soon | Bob Dylan in | Don't Look Back by D. A. Pennebaker". The Savoy Hotel has retained much of its exterior as it was in 1965, and the alley used in the film has been identified as the Savoy Steps.
Click here for some interesting facts about Subterranean Homesick Blues
Here is a list of some behind-the-scenes info about the video from Wikipedia and also from a discussion between filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (D.A.P.) and musician Bob Neuwirth (who's in the film) on YouTube in a video called "Bob Dylan - Don't Look Back - Clip" . All of this is courtesy of Bob Egan's wonderfull popspotsnyc.com whichs gives also information about the exact location. Go there!
- Dylan came up with the idea that he wanted a lot of things written on paper. The cue cards are filled with intentional misspellings and puns. (D.A.P)
- The cue cards were written on the cardboard you get in shirt laundry. (D.A.P)
- The words and phrases were drawn by Dylan, Joan Baez, Pennebaker, Bob Neuwirth and Donovan. (D.A.P.)
- The song was filmed at the end of the tour that is the basis of the documentary, but Pennebaker moved it to the beginning to set the "stage" for the film.(Wik)
- The song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was released in March 1965 as a single on Columbia Records; it was then the lead track on "Bringing It All Back Home," released a few weeks later. It is 2 minutes and 20 seconds long. The first showing of the film was in May 1967. (Wik)
- In addition to the Savoy Steps clip, two alternate takes were shot: one just outside the back of the Savoy Hotel in the Victoria Embankment Gardens featuring Bob Neuwirth, Allen Ginsberg, and an unidentified man. And another, on the roof of the Savoy Hotel, featuring Neuwirth and Dylan's Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson who is wearing a fez. A montage of the three clips can be seen in the documentary "No Direction Home." (from Wikipedia, with updated clarifications)
- Tom Wilson produced The Times They Are a-Changin'; Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing it All Back Home. Bob Neuwirth, a singer/songwriter and friend of Dylan, is the person holding the camera behind Dylan on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited.
- Dylan wanted to make the short music film in order to show it on special French-made machines called 'Scopitones' that were available in many major world cities thoughout the 60's and into the mid 70's. (D.E.P.) A Scopitone machine was like a video jukebox that played 3-minute music films in 16-milllimeter. (see Wikipedia for the whole description and a photo). (I don't know if Subterranean was ever released as a Scopitone.)
- Wikipedia describes the song's origins this way: "It was in fact an extraordinary amalgam of Jack Kerouac (who wrote "The Subterraneans"), the Woodie Guthrie/Pete Seeger song Taking It Easy ('mom was in the kitchen preparing to eat, sis was in the pantry looking for some yeast') and the riffed-up rock'n'roll poetry of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." Wikipedia adds, "In 2004, Dylan said, "It's from Chuck Berry, a bit of "Too Much Monkey Business" and some of the scat songs of the 40's."
- The film clip was used in September 2010 in a promotional video to launch Google Instant. As they are typed, the lyrics of the song generate search engine results pages.
D.A. Pennebaker about the video
In an interview by Dave Itzkoff which was published in The New York Times on May 19, 2016, Pennebaker says the following about the clip:
Did you want to have a preliminary conversation with Dylan?
We arranged to meet in a bar down in the Village with Bobby Neuwirth, who was his road manager. We sat and talked, and then he said, “I’ve got this idea for a film where I take a whole lot of sheets of paper and write lyrics for a song, and hold them up as the lyrics come up in the song and then I just toss them away.” And I said, “That’s a fantastic idea.” So we brought along about 50 shirt cardboards, and that’s how we did the whole thing in the alleyway [“Subterranean Homesick Blues”].
How did you film the famous opening sequence for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”?
We first tried to do it in the garden of the hotel, and a cop came along and was grabbing me and telling me to stop. So we went into the alley, where there were no cops, and we did it just one time, and we just stuck a tape recorder in front of Dylan and it played the song. We had done the signs the night before, and Donovan had helped — Donovan was a very good artist, it turns out — and Joan Baez. I think I’d even done some, but I can’t remember which ones. [laughs]
Do you have any mementos you saved from “Dont Look Back” — any of the cards from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”?
No. We shot a second version of it on the roof, and it was very windy and I think they blew out all over London. I never saw them again. We never kept anything except the cameras. But there’s nobody to process the film anymore, so they’re kind of useless.
Subterranean Homesick Inspired Video's
The two alternate video's
In addition to the Savoy Hotel clip, two alternate promotional films were shot: one in a park (Embankment Gardens, adjacent to the Savoy Hotel) where Dylan, Neuwirth and Ginsberg are joined by Dylan's producer, Tom Wilson, and another shot on the roof of an unknown building (actually the Savoy Hotel). The montage of the three clips that was released in the documentary No Direction Home can be seen on the left.
Allusions in other artists' songs
- Echo & the Bunnymen's 1980 song "Villiers Terrace" includes the lyric "There's people rolling 'round on the carpet / Mixin' up the medicine."
- Robert Wyatt's song "Blues in Bob Minor" from his 1997 album Shleep includes the line, "Genuflecting, bowing deeply/It don't take a weathergirl to see/Where the wind is blowing/What the wind is bending."
- Radiohead's song "Subterranean Homesick Alien", from their 1997 album OK Computer, pays homage by referencing Bob Dylan's track in the title.
- The Gaslight Anthem's song "Angry Johnny and the Radio", from their 2007 album Sink or Swim, includes the lyrics "And I'm still here singin', thinking about the government" and "Are you hidin' in a basement, mixin' up the medicine?"
- Deaf Havana's album Old Souls contains the song "Subterranean Bullshit Blues", which references the title in homage to the songwriter James Veck-Gilodi's respect for Dylan.
- Adam Green's song "Novotel" includes the lyric "Novotel / The phone's tapped anyway."