There are few songs that encapsulate the mood of America in the 1960s as well as Bob Dylan’s ‘Homesick Subterannean Blues’. For me, there’s no other Dylan song like it. It sits on the threshold between old Bob’s early balladry and his embrace of a more rock-driven electronically-enhanced sound, making it immersive both lyrically and rhythmically — and the world clearly agrees. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ has been covered by all manner of artists, from Gregory Isaacs reggae version on Is It Rolling Bob? to this Red Hot Chili Peppers rendition, a demo recording of the cover that featured on their 1987 album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
Much of the charm of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ stems from the stream-of-consciousness lyrics which seem to fly past your ear at 100mph. Skipping from one cultural reference to the next without taking a breath, Dylan sings of America’s disillusioned youth, (“20 years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift”), notable drugs busts (“The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.”), and the Police’s violent treatment of civil rights protesters. (“Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose”) – combining it all in a kaleidoscopic swirl of social commentary reminiscent of Beat pioneers, Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
I suppose that explains why ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is such a damn good song to drive to. It was Dylan’s first attempt to implement the motoric spirit of Kerouac’s beat manifesto, On The Road, into his own music; giving it a drive that seems to exude from its every pore. The track’s road-ready charm obviously wasn’t lost on Red Hot Chili Peppers either, who introduce their funk rework (which itself is a reworking of their previous cover of Dylan’s song) with a clip of Anthony Kiedis talking about his new Cadillac: “You know what’s really really cool? I just bought this Cadillac, this convertible 1960’s Cadillac with a white interior – and I drove it up here – and I’ve just been cruising in it on the freeway, having a really really good time and smoking big spliffs… It’s a good feeling, I can tell ya.”
In this cover, we hear RHCP strip back their original, high-octane rap-funk version of ”Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and deliver something a lot more laid-back. Chad Smith’s reverb-drenched snare roots the track firmly in that west coast 1980s sound, while Flea’s slapped bass wiggles and winds its way around Kiedis’ vocals, finding every gap in the sonic canvas and filling it with colour.
Make sure you check out this incredibly inventive cover below.