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After the Bell: The subterranean homesick news flow

After the Bell: The subterranean homesick news flow
Bob Dylan performs as part of a double bill with Neil Young at Hyde Park on 12 July 2019 in London, England. (Photo: Dave J Hogan / Getty Images for ABA)

The idea that we live in different worlds, one presented and public, and one underground and unacknowledged, has always stuck with me. It pops up in odd places and at odd times, particularly in politics, and particularly in modern politics.

As all Bob Dylan fans will know, he based the song Subterranean Homesick Blues on the Jack Kerouac novella The Subterraneans, in the style of what Beat Generation writers called “spontaneous prose”. The idea was to write down whatever came into your mind without thinking about it. 

It sounds great as a writing concept. Innovative, genuine, immediate — all the good stuff. Unfortunately, the result is often completely unreadable drivel. Consider, for example, this sentence from The Subterraneans: “I felt the sensation of each of the directions I mentally and emotionally turned into amazed at all the possible directions you can take with different motives that come in like it can make you a different person.” 

Right. Gotcha. On the other hand, in the middle of the morass of words, some wonderful phrases popped out, like: “What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?” Anyway, it was all very random and, at the time, was very hip and funky and, dare I say it, far out. 

Dylan’s song was equally impromptu and haphazard, but occasionally makes more sense than Kerouac’s meandering thought experiment. The most famous line in the song is: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. As we now know, a left-wing militant group subsequently called themselves the Weathermen and, ironically, were adamant about telling everyone in the world which way the wind blows. 

But oddly, for such a tuneless song that is largely unintelligible except in snatches, Subterranean Homesick Blues became Dylan’s first Billboard Top 40 hit. The song’s success was wonderfully portrayed in the movie Don’t Look Back with Dylan standing in an alleyway in Soho, London, dropping flip cards as he sang the song’s enigmatic, staccato lines. The cards, written by poet Allen Ginsberg and singer Donovan, amusingly misquoted the song and misspelt some of the words. 

The song struck a nerve at the time and perhaps still does today. My impression is that it was the first rap song, long before Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang, leaning as it does on rhyme in fast, quasi-spoken lyrics. However, the enduring sense of the song lies in the recognition of a world beneath the surface, a truth being told that is different to what you see and read about in what might be called “the media”. The idea that we live in different worlds, one presented and public, and one underground and unacknowledged, has always stuck with me. 

It pops up in odd places and at odd times, particularly in politics, and particularly in modern politics. There are things you just can’t say or do publicly now, which many do say in private. Another way of describing it would be the political correctness of modern society. It’s powerful and weirdly not exclusive to either the left or the right. 

If you are a Republican in the US today, it almost seems that there is a law applicable to public speech which declares it a felony to say that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. How crazy is that? Likewise, try claiming on a university campus almost anywhere in the world that being racially colour-blind is a positive idea and I’m pretty sure you will be cancelled forthwith. 

It is true too in economics, though the misapprehension is more unintentional than deliberate. Just to take one example, I recently read a report on the modern phenomenon of “onshoring”, supposedly the consequence of the parlous state of international trade as a result of geopolitical conflict.

The report noted a global rise in trade restrictions since the US-China tariff war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other geopolitical tensions. The report says it presents “evidence of new forces that now drive global trade — forces that are no longer guided by profit-oriented strategies alone but also by geopolitical alignment”. And yet, it also finds that trade between geopolitically aligned countries increased by 6% since 2018 compared with 2012-2017, while trade between rivals decreased by 4%.

My response to that is, wow, for all you hear about the geopolitical “polycrisis”, a 4% decline after 2018 between rival countries seems pretty small. Clearly, people are talking about geopolitical tensions but, honestly, they are not changing how they trade.

Anyway, just a general point. As Dylan once wrote, “You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.” DM

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  • Michael Clark says:

    Thanks Tim, top analysis again – possibly maligning Bob a tad but we’ll let that go….. my 6yr old grandson with his bathtime ‘stream of thought’ raps/rants/commentary is probably more in touch with the real world than the majority of pols out there…. just saying.

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