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On This Day In Music… May 8, 1965: Bob Dylan Films the 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' Video

Dylan’s revolutionary two-minute film was a startling statement of intent.

dylan subterranean homesick blues wind blows
Source: YouTube

'You better duck down the alleyway.'

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It’s one of the most recognizable music videos ever made – and it was also, arguably, the first. The two-minute and 15-seconds promo clip for Bob Dylan’s 1965 single “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was filmed on May 8, 1965, and set a standard still being copied by musicians and filmmakers nearly 60 years later.

Showing an impassive Dylan tossing away cue cards that (roughly) correspond to lyrics in the song, it was shot in an alleyway by the side of the Savoy Hotel in London, and was originally intended as the opening segment of D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film Don’t Look Back, about the singer’s 1965 tour of England. The cards (supposedly borrowed from a nearby launderette) were written by Dylan, road manager Bob Neuwirth, British singer Donovan, and the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Neuwirth and Ginsberg can also be seen in the background, engaged in apparently earnest conversation.

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As a visual spectacle it’s arresting – and as a representation of the song itself it’s a work of near-genius. Dylan’s lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are a breathless whirlwind of jumbled images and rapid-fire aphorisms spilling out one after another almost too rapidly to process – and here in the video was the singer literally throwing down his truths before our eyes… on the pavement, thinkin’ about the government.

The inference was as simple as it was brilliant: forget about everything else, focus on the words. It’s the words that matter. And with words you can change the world: you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

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bob dylan
Source: mega

The video was originally shot as the opening sequence for 'Don’t Look Back', about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.

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Dylan’s razor-sharp, scattergun dissection of the zeitgeist had been recorded in New York in January 1965 as part of the sessions for his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home, now recognized as the moment he “went electric”.

Speaking to the NME at the time of its release, Chas Chandler of The Animals described Dylan playing an early composition to his band when they toured America. Staying at Dylan’s New York apartment, he debuted “Those Old Subterranean Blues” as they “got smashed on some huge casks of wine he had”.

Dylan also explained that he had drawn inspiration from the Beat poets for the stream-of-consciousness lyrics, citing “Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti” as muses. The song’s title was taken from Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Subterraneans.

bob dylan
Source: mega

Dylan drew inspiration from the Beat poets' freewheeling stream of consciousness style.

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Just as the Beat poets had written in a freewheeling, jazz-influenced style, so Dylan created in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” a wild mashup of allusions and metaphors that put together made a skewed, surreal, state-of-the-nation diatribe. From the opening lyric, “Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine,” to the closing line, “The pump don’t work cos the vandals took the handles”, we’re taken on a breathless ride through drugs, politics, protest, poverty, social discontent, civil rights, police brutality and simmering revolutionary intent… and all in less than two and a half minutes.

The song itself was recorded in a single take, with mistakes left in, and the film that accompanied it was made with the same spontaneous freedom. As Dylan fidgets with the cards, mostly keeping in time with the lyrics but occasionally jumping ahead or slipping behind the cues, several of the written lyrics are deliberately wrong. “Eleven dollar bills” is written as “20 dollar bills”, “parking meters” is misspelled as “pawking metaws”, and “success” and “suckcess”. The overall effect is as strange and brilliant as the song itself… and even comes with a payoff: the final card Dylan holds says simply, “What??” before he walks forward, past the camera and out of shot.

dylan subterranean homesick blues what
Source: Youtube

Sixty years later, questions remain over what the video's final card meant.

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It's the perfect punchline. Just as Dylan’s blank, rather bored expression throughout the video only heightened the intellectual ferocity and barreling rhythm of the song itself, so that final question and casual exit leave the viewer wondering just what it was they had witnessed. Was the “What??” a challenge? Or was it an admission that none of the previous two minutes had really made any sense at all? Was he asking what we intend to do about the state of the world, or was he questioning his own ability to make sense of it?

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” would give Dylan his first Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 entry, and peak at No. 9 in the British chart, as well as reportedly prompting John Lennon to remark that he didn’t know how he would ever be able to write a song that could compete with it.

And the short, strange, one-take film that accompanied it continues to captivate (and be copied) today – in movies like Love Actually and Bob Roberts, and in music videos by artists as diverse as the Flaming Lips, Evidence and INXS. In 1993, Rolling Stone ranked the clip seventh in its list of the 100 Top Music Videos… despite it having a case for also being the very first music video ever made.


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