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 somethin' you did
God knows when
But you're doing it again
You better duck down the alleyway
Lookin' for a new friend
The man in the coonskin cap,in the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills but you only got ten

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin' 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 D.A. look out kid
Don't matter what you did
Walk on your tip toes
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 a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin' to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, ride rail
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
But losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders, watch the parkin' 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 schoolin'
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
'Cause the vandals took the handles

Lyrics submitted by Kitten_61, edited by luisjavier, perry10153

Subterranean Homesick Blues song meanings
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  • +8
    My Interpretation

    One 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
  • +4
    General Comment

    this 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
  • +2
    General Comment

    according 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
  • +2
    General Comment

    It 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 19, 2004   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    Some 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 20, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    Mama's in the pantry preparing the yeast Sister's in the kitchen preparing for the feast Papa's in the cellar a-mixing up the hops And Brother's at the window a-watchin' for the cops

    This is from a song called "New Talking Blues" by Hershal Brown, recorded in 1927. It wouldn't surprise me if Dylan, who had a voracious apetite for all kinds of traditional music, heard this song one day (or one like it) and used that 3rd line as a jumping off place for Subterranean Homesick Blues. With this song, and several others during that period, Dylan was evidently experimenting with the "Talking Blues" genre, and for him, the song may very well have had no meaning beyond that. I think that very creative people like Dylan will have an itch about something and it will pour out in their work. But then, once it's on the page, so to speak, it's value to the artist is spent, and as Dylan claimed, it really did not have any other meaning for him. On the other hand, Dylan was really something of a "channeler" for the mass consciousness in those days (as someone suggested in Scorcese's documentary), and the 50's and early 60's were very much about trying keeping a low or "subterranean" profile where the government is concerned. ("think McCarthyism") SHB was released in 1965 and activist movements (outside of civil rights) did not really take off until the late 60's.

    As to what the "medicine" was, I really don't think that Dylan was talking about LSD here. LSD required fairly sophisticated lab equipment that the average "johnny" would not have laying around in the basement. Dylan might have been talking about amphetamines (considering the "speedy" tempo of SHB, this might even be likely), but this would have nothing to do with "meth labs", which were unheard of in those days. Amphetamines were readily available in pill form throughout the 60's and early 70's, so the only "mixing up" required would be pulverizing the pills and mixing with water.

    dot50on September 04, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    Ok I completeley agree with "yamahasixstring" and the moonshine theory. Johnnie is in the the basement making booze, which is commonly refered to as "grandpas cough medicine". then an off duty cop comes down who is in need for his cough medicine, but wants it free, like payin' him off for not arresting him. although I think this is a metaphor for cooking drugs during the sixties. just like everyone who has commented, I believe is a rant about what society tells youth to do, to follow a straight path. Yet the kids don't. follow this path they. they do things like take amphetemines, wear sandals, protest, blah blah.

    cellordoreon March 29, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    The first two verses are a story.

    Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine - Johnny's brewing booze. This is probably during the prohibition, but it also parallels cooking LSD or acid in the basement in later generations. It's same as it ever was, so the images here are transcendent of ongoing societal phenomena.

    I'm on the pavement thinking about the government - Literal, but also just painting a picture of Dylan trying to make sense of things.

    the man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off, says he's got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off. - He wants some cough medicine, aka he's looking for some booze.

    Look out kid, it's something you did, God knows when, but you're doing it again. - The kid is presumed guilty. Even if he hasn't done anything wrong before, he's doing it "again", and he's destined to do it again because society assumes he's the kind who would do it. Amazing line.

    You better duck down the alley way, looking for a new friend, - Run away from the cops, try again.

    the man in the coon-skip cap in the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten. - The man in the coon-skin cap is a bounty hunter, or a cop, the big pen is jail, to get out he wants eleven dollar bills, just one more than you've got, and that's the way it's always going to be: why not ten bills? Because it's better to torture you with not making it by just THAT much.

    So so far we've had an image of the lower class: brewing booze in the basement, assumed criminals who are destined to end up in jail, and the people with the keys set bail a dollar higher than you could pay. It's just a basic critique of society.

    Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot, - Black soot could be some sort of drug, but basically this is just a metaphor that Maggie's running into the apartment, the underground, in quite a haste.

    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. - Maggie warns everyone that "the heat" (the cops, the fbi, cia, whatever) put mics in their house. But her warnings don't matter, because the phone is tapped anyways. She says word on the street is that they'll be a drug bust in early may, ordered by the District Attorney's office.

    Look out kid, don't matter what you did. Walk on your tiptoes, don't try 'No Doz.' - Be careful, don't get caught, NoDoz is a caffeine pill.

    Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose, - Watch out for the riot police.

    keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes, - The "plain clothes" are undercover cops. "Keeping a clean nose" is not looking suspicious.

    you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. - The Weathermen (Chicago terrorists) took their name from this line. "The way wind blows" is what's going on, what's coming down, what's happening on the street. You don't need a weatherman to figure it out, it's just street smarts.

    The next to verses are starkly contrasted one with the other:

    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 failed. Look out kid, you're gonna get hit, but users, cheaters, six-time losers hang around the theaters. Girl by the whirlpool looking for a new fool, don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters.

    That verse is about someone living in the underground. Using drugs, getting arrested, going in and out of jail, out with the whores and the drug dealers, just getting by.

    The next verse is meant to contrast the preceding verse:

    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 wanna be a bum, you better chew gum. The pump don't work cause the vandals took the handles.

    Basically this verse just shows that trying to live successfully, clean, is really no different. It's just as crazy and back-and-forth and pointless and full of despair.

    Ethan_Mon July 24, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    who says rapp in new

    fanniegon April 09, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General Comment

    My 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

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