The Story of Bob Dylan’s Groundbreaking ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ Video
In 1965, Bob Dylan had a surplus of creativity. In addition to electrifying folk and merging existential poetry with rock 'n' roll, the singer-songwriter was turning everything he did into something more. Even boozy conversations and silly press conferences – as seen in D.A. Pennebaker's arresting documentary Don't Look Back – became thought-provoking (or simply provoking) works of art.
So it's not surprising that the bard of rock 'n' roll would seek to enhance the burgeoning art form of the music video with visual representations of his lyrics. A film clip for the 1965 single "Subterranean Homesick Blues" went beyond the existing tropes of pop music on film (either straight-forward performance or Hard Day's Night-style hijinks) to create an experience that was strange, clever and utterly Dylan.
While on tour in England (and being filmed for the Pennebaker doc), Bob got the idea to take advantage of the film crew following him around. He sought to make a short music film for French machines called Scopitones, which were visual jukeboxes that played three-minute music videos on 16mm film. Dylan selected "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the single he released in early 1965, to accompany the clip, in which he would flip over lyric cards in time (or sometimes not in time) with the music.
Members of the Dylan entourage – including fellow singer-songwriter Donovan, writer Allen Ginsberg and cohort Bob Neuwirth – helped Bob scrawl portions of his politicized hodgepodge onto flimsy cue cards (which were actually re-appropriated sheets of cardboard from a shirt laundry). Some cards displayed lyrics lifted straight from the song, while others included intentional mistakes, puns and jokes about Dylan's accent ("pawking metaws").
Watch Bob Dylan Perform 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'
On May 8, 1965, Pennebaker set up his camera in front of Dylan, looking as insouciant as ever as he dropped the cards one by one in the alleyway behind London's Savoy Hotel. (That's Neuwirth and "rabbi" Ginsberg in the background, pretending to have a conversation.) The two-minute, 20-second clip was filmed in one, continuous take, with Dylan holding up a "What??" card before ducking out of frame.
The documentarian actually filmed Dylan repeating the performance in two other nearby locations (the hotel roof and a nearby garden), one featuring Ginsberg, Neuwirth and an unknown man in the background, and one showing just Neuwirth and Bringing It All Back Home producer Tom Wilson. The other versions went unseen until 2005, when Martin Scorsese integrated all three into one sequence for No Direction Home.
The original version was first seen in 1967, when Pennebaker chose to use the short film as a trailer for his Don't Look Back doc. (After Dylan exited the screen, big white letters read: "Surfacing Here Soon: Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back.") The director also used the clip in the finished documentary. Even though it had been filmed at the end of shooting, Pennebaker placed the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" scene at the beginning of the film in order to set the wry tone for what was to follow.
Almost instantly, the clip became famous, enduring as a classic of the short music film (later to become the music video in the MTV era) and as one of Dylan's most iconic moments. As such, it's seen a vast array of homages, imitations and parodies. Just check out videos by INXS ("Mediate"), Steve Earle ("Jerusalem") and "Weird Al" Yankovic ("Bob"), commercials for Maxell cassette tapes and references in Bob Roberts and Love Actually.