The lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” don’t make much sense. A “man in a coonskin cap in a big pen”? A “girl by the whirlpool”? What is Bob Dylan talking about? And yet, on this opening track to 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan weaves these disconnected images together to form a rollicking, rambling two-and-a-half-minute song that perfectly describes the frantic urban life that so many disillusioned young people were experiencing in the mid-1960s. Dylan had written a number of chart-topping songs before “Subterranean,” but the hit versions were always sung by other artists. (Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 “Blowin’ in the Wind,” for example, reached No. 2 on Billboard’s pop chart. Dylan’s did not.) “Subterranean” was the first song performed by Dylan to make it to the Billboard Top 40. His rushed, spoken-word delivery is, in some ways, an early form of rap. And the cue-card-tossing introduction to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back — in which Dylan flashes bits of the song’s lyrics while Allen Ginsberg skulks around behind him — is essentially an early form of the music video. That’s a lot of historical firsts for a song that lasts less than three minutes.
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