Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the days when records came to us in dreams

Richard Williams' piece about the anniversary of Subterranean Homesick Blues got me thinking back to the first time I heard it. In those days the Light Programme hardly played any records. Thanks to the BBC's agreements with the Musicians Union, they were only allowed a handful. Most of their output was light orchestral. A pop record, any pop record, coming on the radio was exciting. If it was a record like "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which seemed to have no precedent, that was doubly the case.

I think I remember hearing it first on the TV. I dimly remember a minute of it was played on "Juke Box Jury", probably over shots of students and shorthand typists uncertainly trying to tap their foot along to the beat. It literally sent shivers up my spine. I had a presentiment that when I finally got to hear this record properly it would thrill me beyond measure.

I knew that I might not hear it again for weeks and if I did it would come without warning. I might turn on the radio just as it was finishing, which would be like arriving at the youth club dance to find the girl you fancied laughing at somebody else's jokes. Furthermore, when it actually came out you might not be able to afford to buy it and you'd have to hope somebody would bring their copy to school and you would be able to persuade the music teacher to let you use the gramophone at lunchtime.

In the gap between hearing something and being able to hear it again in those days a strange and rather beautiful feeling blossomed. You re-ran the memory of your hearing the record in your head and tried to uncover further details of it, as if you were the witness to a crime, going over your recollections again and again trying to come up with another line or a sound you had forgotten.

This meant that music came to you as if in a dream. This is interesting because that's often the way a song first occurs to the musician. Before it's something they play it's something they hear in their head. The dream analogy applies particularly well to "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a performance that still sounds today as if it's tumbling forth faster than the recording machine can handle it and that if it hadn't managed to capture it on that occasion the moment would have been lost to memory entirely, much the way most dreams are.



  1. I remember hearing it on Radio London Pirate station - Kenny Everett playing I think. I obtained 80% of the words by recording and transcribing from my Philips Compact Cassette.

    That year I bought the album Bringing it all Back Home on the first day of a 14 day hiking tour of North Wales and carried it up Snowdon and Crib Goch. Remarkably it played when I got home and I sat transfixed in glorious reverie to Mr Tambourine Man which I'd never heard before.

    I didn't see the Video until 20 years or so later and it's interesting to note how different the song feels with graphics. They are just throwaway words.

  2. Hi David,your words resonate greatly with me and no doubt with all pop enthusiasts of "our generation". It seemed like an eternity between hearings in those days,desperately hoping for chart action of the song in your head.I recall "borrowing" my brothers' state of the art cassette recorder and microphone in order to hum and la-la a tune so as not to forget it...

  3. Large gaps between hearings on the radio (when the 45 was at least available for you to buy or listen to in a shop) have been replaced by large gaps between the first airing of a song and its eventual release date.
    I know this because of the goals round-up on 'Soccer AM' where they play a song, which is always awful, and announce that it's due for release in two months time!

  4. I only came to Mr. Dylan 2 years later so missed the initial shocks of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like A Rolling Stone. In Ireland in those days we were even more deprived. Music of the day on radio when there was radio was mainly provided by the horrible Showbands. But as you can imagine I can more than identify with David as regards cherishing listening experiences.

  5. Anonymous10:05 am


  6. New Zealand was even worse. We had our ten song 'hit parade' and a song like Subterranean would never appear. I heard it at a party where a copy of the 45 was treated like a precious bootleg. When I first heard Visions of Johanna I nearly fell off the floor. I had no idea you could do things like that with words and music. Now, with the net, I can listen to just about everything and anything Dylan has done, just about every concert he's ever done... and maybe with this instant availability we have lost something... the magic of that dream.

  7. I like it when you pause the trenchant analysis and dare to mention dreams or the fraught nature of male identity, both of which lurk under the icy sheen of the well-packaged poetry we call pop.

    Like the eye lurking under the floorboards in the Tell-Tale Heart (Poe)

    William Milne