The original version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” opens with a few gently strummed acoustic chords disrupted by plucked electric notes that drop through the mix like mercury in water. Immediately the song’s jaunty rhythm gallops off beneath Dylan’s energetic rap. The insistent tone never lets up even while those electric notes become more scattered, only to reconvene in glittering pools in the latter part of the song. The rhythm mostly rests on a bluesy bassline and a noisy tambourine splashing out the beat.
Nilsson’s version eschews all those pretty elements of the original and creates something much rawer and primal, most notably in the stamping drums and the rock & roll vocal. But while the sax replaces the harmonica and the guitars are more Lou Reed than Hank Williams, the jauntiness still prevails. What gets lost in translation here is the message. The original was a vehicle for Dylan’s observations on the obscenity of the social and education system, and the hostility between drop-out drug users and the pigs. I’ve no doubt Lennon & Nilsson chose to cover this song because of the lyrics; they were, after all, getting up to all sorts of drop-out mischief in LA at the time. But the more Nilsson tries to Jaggerize the lyric, the less you care.
So what do the Walkmen bring to the Subterranean party? In choosing to cover the whole of Pussycats, they obviously had no choice but to record “Homesick Blues” indicating that the songs themselves were less important than the album as a conceptual whole. Something I like about the Walkmen’s version is the way two vocalists shout the rap, somehow rendering the lyric even less meaningful still. While Nilsson’s version is a cover in the true sense, the Walkmen simply fax it back into our ears with the messiness that usually accompanies ink rolled over thermal paper. If they were going to be true to Nilsson’s cover, they ought to have noted the one step remove from Dylan’s version and recorded their version one step removed from Nilsson’s.
Who’s guilty here? Firstly Nilsson for singing his version in a fairly strict staccato and utterly foregoing Dylan’s singular talent for vocal flexibility and accentuated flourish. The Walkmen are guiltier still for miming said staccato rhythm with even less grace than Nilsson, although they receive top marks for reviving what I perceive to be a party-in-the-studio caution-to-the-wind quality of the original.