Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Album: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Mobile is a town in Alabama that is known for folk music, while Memphis, Tennessee is known for blues and rock.
A few different characters show up in the narrative, starting with “the ragman.” Dylan did offer a rare song interpretation when he told Robert Shelton, author of No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, that the ragman is Satan. Many of Dylan’s lyrics are filled with biblical images, but shrouded in inscrutable stories.
It is often said that Dylan “found God” in the ’80s, but the Bible and God have been running through his work in a very serious way ever since the very beginning. Dylan later said that if he had to “do it all again,” he’d teach theology or ancient Roman history.
Dylan session artist Al Kooper’s memoir, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards , tells many fun anecdotes of the time around the recording of Blonde on Blonde. Anecdote the first: He was delayed on his way to Nashville for the first day of recording with Dylan, due to a night with some lady fans. So he delayed the plane the next morning while he came riding up beside it in a jeep. He boarded literally minutes before the plane’s wheels would have left the runway, only to turn around and discover that this flight had originated in New York and was half-full of people who knew him.
Kooper Anecdote the second: He was on foot in the city when a gang of thugs started chasing him with the idea of beating him up. He ducked into a bookstore and called to Dylan’s manager, Al Grossman, from a phone booth (remember this was in the day before mobile phones). Al Grossman dispatched Lamar Fike, a bodygaurd who had also worked for Elvis, to the scene in a Cadillac to retrieve Kooper from his imminent curb-stomping, thoroughly freaking out the thugs in the process.
Kooper Anecdote the third: one of the session players for Blonde on Blonde was a keyboard player named “Pig,” who happened to be blind. On a night when the band was drinking and blowing off steam, winding around the streets of Tennessee, they decided to let Pig drive. Pig was doing quite well, supplemented by directions from the passengers, until the Highway Patrol pulled them over.
Some notable uses of this song include the opening credits of I’m Not There, both the film and book version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas play it and mention it, respectively, and the various Grateful Dead covers throughout the ’60s and ’70s.
One of the lines in the song was inspired by “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Lumsford, who was known as the “minstrel of the Appalachians,” wrote:
‘Cause a railroad man they’ll kill you when he can
And drink up your blood like wine
Which compares closely with Dylan’s:
Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine
Mona tried to tell me/To stay away from the train line/She said that all the railroad men/Just drink up your blood like wine/And I said, “Oh I didn’t know that/But then again there’s only one I’ve met/And he just smoked my eyelids/And punched my cigarette
Attempting to ascribe specific meanings to Bob Dylan lyrics is most often a fool’s errand. As with abstract paintings or films like 2001: A Space Odyssey or TV shows such as Twin Peaks, everyone who experiences a Dylan song comes away with his or her own unique understanding of what was being communicated and to what it all might (or might not) add up.
As part of the 1966 landmark Blonde on Blonde, speculation over “Stuck Inside of Mobile” often suggests the sprawling words and Ferris Wheel structure of the song relate to Dylan’s revolutionary “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
The idea, it’s been said, is that Mobile, Alabama could represent old-style, acoustic music, while Memphis had forever been transformed by the plugged into rock of Elvis Presley.
All that comes close to being likely is that Dylan makes reference to an age-old mountain ballad titled “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” that contains the words, “I don’t like a railroad man/A railroad man, he’ll kill you when he can/And he’ll drink up your blood like wine.”
As for the smoking of an eyelid and punching of cigarettes: that’s just Bob Dylan for you.