Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it's something you did
God knows when, but you're doing it again
You better duck down the alleyway, looking for a new friend
The man in the coon-skip cap in the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot
Talking that the heat put, plants in the bed but
The phone's tapped anyway, Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May, orders from the DA
Look out kid, don't matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes, don't tie no bows
Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes
You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows

Get sick, get well, hang around an ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell if anything is going to sell
Try hard, get barred, get back, write Braille
Get jailed, jump bail, join the army if you fail
Look out kid, you're going to get hit
But losers cheaters, six-time users hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool looking for a new fool
Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters

Ah, get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts, don't steal, don't lift
Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift
Look out kid, they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle
Don't wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals
Don't want to be a bum, you better chew gum
The pump don't work because the vandals took the handles


Lyrics submitted by Kitten_61, edited by luisjavier

Subterranean Homesick Blues song meanings
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  • +3
    General Commentthis song really isnt that hard to figure out. its all about the underground, or "Subterranean" (which dylan took from jack kerouacs book The Subterraneans) culture. its called subterranean homesick blues because dylan misses being part of that underground culture now that he has all this fame. its actually pretty easy to break down the song line by line... for example "Johnnys in the basement mixin up the medicine Im on the pavement thinkin bout the government" johnnys makin lsd in the underground while bobs up top worryin about the government, whos always out to get them for anything they can... "Look out kid its somethin you did, God knows when but youre doin it again." it all adds up... "Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot, talkin that the heat put plants in the bed but the phones tapped anyway maggie says that many say they must bust in early may orders from the DA." come on now thats obvious... she comes running in from the surface to the underground to warn them all that the govt has planted mikes in the bedrooms (a common practice by the feds in the 60s) and that the phones are all tapped (also common) and that they are lookin to make a bust. those that carry round a fire hose? riot police. the plain clothes? undercover cops. just think about the lyrics and it becomes pretty clear.
    The Roveron February 16, 2005   Link
  • +3
    My InterpretationOne of the first noticeable steps into Dylan's electric instability is the first song off his first '65 album Bringing It All Back Home, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. This album was about when Dylan's stability began to deteriorate. He began to walk away from the solo-acoustic-folk direction and bought a nice loud amp that his new makeshift band could hear him bang his guitar through. Subterranean Homesick Blues is sort of a protest song, but more of a warning to the youth about the corruption of the government and how they basically screw the youth over, and he's telling them that regardless of what the government says, you should live freely.

    The song starts out with an average Johnny, “in the basement mixing up the medicine”, meaning he's making booze (which is commonly referred to as “grandpa's cough medicine”) in the basement, which an average Johnny has the ability to make, while Dylan's “on the pavement thinking about the government.” Dylan is out on the street with the rest of the young generation as he begins his loud rant about the government's corruption. He talks about “The man in the trench coat”, an off duty cop, with his “badge out, laid off”, coming up to his door, who “says he's got a bad cough”, wants some “cough medicine”, and “wants to get it paid off”, meaning that he wants it free so he's blackmailing them and will arrest them if they don't give it to him. So you better “Look out kid, it's somethin' you did, god knows when, but you're doin' it again.” because even if you didn't really do anything wrong, the cops have the power to get you in trouble. Dylan gives advice that “You better duck down the alley way, lookin' for a new friend”, when you're running away from the cops and just try again. He then describes a cop as “The man in the coon-skin cap”, “In the big pen”, which is jail, and he “Wants eleven dollar bills” to bail you out of jail when he knows that “you only got ten.”, but that's just how it is, because the cop can do that.

    In the second verse, Dylan says, “Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot, talkin' that the heat put plants in the bed but”, Maggie comes running downstairs where they make their booze saying that the “heat” (cops) planted microphones in the bedrooms, which was a common practice for drug busts in the 60's. In the next lines, “The phone's tapped anyway, Maggie says that many say, they must bust in early May, orders from the D. A.” Maggie says that she's heard some of the underground warnings that busts have been ordered in early May by the District Attorney. “Walk on your tip toes, don't try 'No Doz'”, be careful with what you do. Then Dylan warns to “Better stay away from those, that carry around a fire hose”, which are the riot police, and “Keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes”, which are undercover cops, and “You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”, meaning that you don't need a random person to tell you what's going on with the world and what to believe when you can figure it out for yourself.

    “Get sick”, when your drug supply is dry, then “get well” when they come back around, “hang around a ink well” is hanging out with other junkies. “Ring bell”, like a service bell at a store, “hard to tell if anything is goin' to sell”, it's really tough to make it as a drug dealer. “Try hard” and put in a lot of effort as a dealer, “get barred”, get busted for dealing. Then you “Get back, write braille, get jailed, jump bail, join the army, if you fail.”, meaning that you should try something new, writing braille is a term for being really drunk, try to do something with your life, and if all else fails, join the army. The next lines, “But users, cheaters, six-time losers, hang around the theaters, girl by the whirlpool, lookin' for a new fool.”, are about drug users and dealers, pimps, and prostitutes that hang out around theaters at night, particularly 42nd street (a street in Manhattan referenced in multiple songs by Dylan which in the 60's to the late 80's was well known for it's low class, ghetto inhibitors). The last line of the verse, “Don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' meters.”, says that instead of worrying about other people so much, you should worry about your own problems, like when your parking meter runs out of time. This verse sums up the life of a person living living in the underground, in a life of drugs, jail, and prostitutes, in complete contrast with the final verse.

    The next lines, “Ah get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success, please her, please him, buy gifts, don't steal, don't lift, twenty years of schoolin', and they put you on the day shift.”, talk about how if you don't live your life (relatively) like the previous verse, you work hard your whole life trying to be a success just to look forward to a boring, average job. “Look out kid, they keep it all hid” - a fair warning to the youth to watch out for the corrupt government. Dylan suggests that you “Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle, don't wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals, don't wanna be a bum, you better chew gum” and get yourself away from the corrupt society, and to stay low and keep off of the cops' radar. In the last line of the song, Dylan says that “The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.” In the 60's and 70's, one of many common ways that people would warn others about upcoming drug raids was by stealing the handles off gas pumps.
    gonsfootballon March 10, 2009   Link
  • +2
    General CommentSome things in the song are obvious. Cooking up the medicine has to do with cooking up drugs. The man in a trenchcoat is a cop who wants to be bribed. Get sick get well refers to getting high and withdrawal.The new friend he looks for is a new dealer who wants more money than you've got. Maggie is running in to tell them that the cops are bugging the bed as well as the phones and that the DA has ordered an increase in busts.

    In the first part of the lyrics, this is a song about the metaphorical subterranean life in NYC in the early 60's, probably in what is today, fancy shmancy Noho and nolita and parts of the lower east side and east village, but was a slum filled with beats, drug addicts, hookers, con men, crooked cops and the very poor people they prey on.

    The second part describes what someone was "supposed to do" to do the right thing and survive but ...
    nycdbeon September 19, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General Commentaccording to Bob, this song is just a collection of slang, hip terms. if it has any cohesive meaning, only the writer knows.
    roger wilcoon June 09, 2002   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt reminds me a lot of "Rules and Regulations" by Lewis Carroll. It's quite similiar in theme and structure. Anyone else see the parallel?
    edge of the worldon September 18, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIf hip hop was anything close to the poetry bob writes id like it lol
    JohnDylanon August 14, 2005   Link
  • +1
    General Commentwho says rapp in new
    fanniegon April 09, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General CommentMy thoughts on this:

    The title could mean living in the Subterranean underground, missing not home because that Is his home, but missing a safe place perhaps from a childhood memory or something, and of course this life-style is difficult and bringing him down (giving him the blues).

    As for the medicine Johnny is mixing up, I believe he's referring to cocaine. One of many cocaine withdrawal is a nasty cough, which is why the coughing cop wants to interfere with the main character's hookup. The cop shows his authority with his badge and suggests that unless he is given the cocaine, he will rat him and Johnny out in order to get his job back because he's laid off. No matter what the main character does, he loses. He can hand over his dealer Johnny and the cocaine or he can get in trouble with the law again. They both sucks, it sounds like. He's always a dollar short.

    I agree with previous explanations about the second stanza, except for the final verse. I believe the wind blowing is referring to the direction of the crowd. Since he's trying to keep his nose clean and stay out of plain site, the main character needs to blend in with his surroundings. I think it's suggesting that it's not difficult to know on your own what's hip and to follow along with it. In other words, you don't need to ask others what's trendy, you can see it with your own eyes. The trends are everywhere like the wind is. The direction the wind blows is the direction the main character needs to go.

    Same goes for the third stanza. I think the last verse means don't trust anyone else. Parking meters show how much time has gone by and for a guy like the main character here, time is important because he can't stay in the same spot for too long or trouble will come his way, just as it has at Maggie's and Johnny's place. So basically, know the time and stay in the crowd but don't get too close to anyone.

    Let me know if the following makes sense, avoiding being a bum by chewing gum could refer to being employed. Gum is something you shouldn't swallow, just chew. In other words, jobs should be kept temporary and only to keep from living cold on the street. You want to keep warm by keeping a job but get born by not staying in one place for too long.
    getborngetwarmon January 24, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentThis song is about entrapment for the most part
    JohnRussellon January 24, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General Commenti think this song is just about how the country and socity thinks you should be,it's about nobaody letting you be your own indivdoul
    TIMMAY!on May 23, 2002   Link

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