‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

For as long as it’s occurred to me to consider one, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has been my favorite Bob Dylan song. Because, well, why not?

Even though I can’t always remember the name of it. As much as I’d like to chalk that up to age, it’s been like this since I even knew the name of the song.

“Positively 4th Street” is the same way. “Which one is which again? I can’t even remember either of the words besides ‘Blues’ in the title of the one some of the time.” And I think ‘Positively 6th Street,’ and Highway 61 and Bob’s 115th dream sometimes work their way into that litany of numbers.

It’s a great second step in what’s become a rock tradition. When I first heard Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” it was after hearing “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Suddenly I realized a good part of Dylan’s inspiration.

And then Elvis Costello did this:

(You’d think after staring at this video for hours, I would have become less self-conscious about dancing. You’d be wrong.)

And R.E.M. did this:

And then Sheryl Crow did this:

(Hey, don’t sleep on Sheryl Crow. For every stupefyingly bad thing she’s done, I can find three stupefyingly brilliant things she’s done. I think “Na Na Song” is amazing. Especially the lyric about how she’d have had a hit if she blew Michael Jackson’s manager.)

(And Sheryl Crow did this to her biggest hit when she did “MTV Unplugged.” Bold and fantastic.)

(And Sheryl Crow recorded a Dylan cover I enjoy as much as any of Roger McGuinn’s.)

It’s almost unfair that Dylan’s video is as fantastic as it is. It’s inspired theft from many,  but this one is still my favorite:

I just started singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” at karaoke as a matter of course. There’s one tricky bit where the break between verses is a measure shorter, and that can throw a person off, and especially would throw me off when my count of whiskey doubles would reach a crooked number late in the evening.

I’ve had onlookers amazed. One of my favorite memories was returning to the family table at a gathering, and having two of my uncles, both in their teens when Dylan first came on the scene, slapping me enthusiastically on the back for the performance. It was as if they were both validating all of the other songs I’d sung that evening that they didn’t know, like they were saying, “All right. The kid knows Dylan songs. He can’t be all bad.” I suspect my enthusiastic singing also validated some of their remaining or ongong love of Dylan.

So when “The Cutting Edge” first came into my orbit, it was natural that I’d want to hear as many different versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as he recorded. How did it evolve? How did it change? How did it become the amazing thing that it is?

I knew I was never going to figure out how Dylan did it all. In 14 months time in 1965 and 1966, he released almost three hours (171 minutes) of unbelievable music, the stuff that cements his status, reputation, legacy, myth and everything. Obviously he’s extremely talented, was at the top of his game at the time, and employed and enjoyed amphetamines thoroughly.

But just as it wasn’t just steroids that made Alex Rodriguez hit home runs, it wasn’t speed that fueled Dylan’s genius. It was just helping him empty his head of all of that fantastic flotsam.

Certainly on “The Cutting Edge” we’re not hearing this song (or any of the others) at the same first time the players heard it. I’ll presume (acknowledging I may have yet to read something that counters this assumption) Dylan ran through the song structure and chord chart for his fellow musicians.

Not that it would make any difference. What my early brief entries into “The Cutting Edge” show is these guys were missing chord changes all the time. They were recording things that sounded similar, they were changing tempos and time measures on the fly, and they were trying to keep up with America’s greatest and extremely prolific singer-songwriter, who at that time was spinning gold with every line.

Dylan said of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” hat “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song,” That’s fantastic. But almost every song released in 1965 and 1966 is the same way. Take a look at the lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or “Like a Rolling Stone” or especially “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” It’s easy to say the same thing about those three songs.

So the first “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on “The Cutting Edge” is just Dylan and a guitar and harmonica. He’s got the chord structure and that fantastic chunky rhythm already. The start of the verses are in good shape, but the conclusion of them find Dylan still feeling his way. The beauty is in that that whole idea of feeling their way through came through even in the released versions. For fun once, I was counting the “mistakes” in the released version of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh.” Like missed chord changes (my favorite, because it generally shows how much they were struggling to figure out what Dylan, set at his own metronome and as a flexible vocal stylist) and the drummer doing fills early. I stopped counting at seven. Sure, there were errors, but the feel was perfect, and even when I was looking for them, their existence didn’t deter from the song at all.

On the second version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” we hear the band for the first time. I’m stunned at how important that electric guitar note on the song’s third beat is to my ears. Its absence makes for an inferior version already.

They’re already close as the band runs through, and in some ways this first version feels like everyone knows it’s something where they can experiment with the frame. Dylan’s singing is experimental, as though he’s checking how the words feel in his mouth. And his lyrical flubs don’t bother him a bit. He charges forward and keeps finding his way.

In a 24-second cut, the electric guitars clearly are prepared to advance on “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” This is the point at which I realized the electric guitars’ somewhat shocking intrusion on the song are as important to it as that opening drum shot on “Like a Rolling Stone.” Producer Tom Wilson encourages the band, “Let’s keep that intro right.” When he turns off the talkback switch, we hear a general studio cacophony, and then Dylan asks “What IS the intro?”

This is one of the reasons I think he’s one of the greatest comedians in rock history.

Then, just a little bit of time after they’ve played it, Dylan has to remind himself how it starts, doing so after giving instructions to the drummer on how to start, and then reversing field. A great conclusion to the whole discussion comes from Wilson: “That’s right, you just play the guitar.”

And then the third version is the one we know. That’s how long it took them to get it on tape – one rough runthrough, and then the take.

There was, after all, plenty of similarly important things to take care of.

Did I mention in 1966, he also did a 40-plus-date tour with The Band?

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