Bob Dylan and the Savoy Hospital


The Savoy Hospital in London was the creation of Henry VII and Henry VIII and was located at the south side of The Strand, next to the site of the present Savoy Hotel.


With his ambition to build a fine new hospital, Henry VII wrote to the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, which at the time was one of the most important hospitals in the world.  He asked for advice about how to build a city hospital. Santa Maria Nuova responded by sending him ground plans of their hospital, which was in the form of a giant cross, each arm being a ward. Male and female patients could be separated in their own ward, and nursing staff had the advantage of being able to see all wards from the centre of the cross.


Henry followed this plan and founded his hospital in 1505. It was designed to take both the sick and the homeless poor, who would turn up each evening in the hope of getting a bed for the night.


Here below is a ground plan of the Savoy Hospital in The Strand as Henry VIII built it, a cruciform building facing east-west. Almost all of the hospital has been lost, but at the bottom left you can just see St. John’s Chapel, the hospital chapel, which is the only surviving fragment. It has survived because it is a royal chapel, which are very few and far between and which carry high status for the establishment.


Note also that there is passage from the Middle Tower (at the bottom of the plan but no longer existing) to a set of steps leading up to The Strand, seen at the bottom left of the ground plan.


Savoy Hospital Plan

Ground plan of the Savoy Hospital


This passage or alley became known as the Savoy Steps, and it was here that Bob Dylan recorded his performance of "Subterranean Homesick Blues". The song was recorded in January 1965, and the video was made a few months later during a 1965 tour of England.


Here is a clip from the video of his performance. The Savoy Chapel is the stone wall to the right of Dylan. The bearded man at the left is Allen Ginsburg, the great American Jewish intellectual of the beat and hippy generation.


Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues

Dylan doing Subterranean Homesick Blues at the Savoy Steps.


At the end of the performance Dylan walks away, as does Allen Ginsberg, giving a clear view of the alley, seen here below. The other man, back to camera, is Bob Neuwirth, singer, song writer, producer and visual artist.  The three of them, Dylan, Ginsberg and Neuwirth, put this thing together and actually wrote out the cue cards Dylan uses.


Notice also that both Ginsberg and Neuwirth walk with a long stick, probably broom handles bought at the nearby Woolworths on the Strand. This, I believe, is a clear reference to the walking staffs carried by pilgrims in medieval days, suggesting they are pilgrims making their way through the world, a hint at what the song is about. Traditionally pilgrims would find rest and nourishment at a hospital for the night as they made their way across the country. The location of the performance beside the Savoy Hospital Chapel is, therefore, understood and taken account of, making a bridge between the modern angst-ridden American 1960s expressed in the lyrics and wandering pilgrims of the distant past.


Walking away

Ginsberg and Neuwirth walking away with pilgrim staffs.


And here below is a modern image of the alley called the Savoy Steps. The Chapel is clearly seen at the right. The alley is running directly north and the modern building at the end is blocking off what would have been the set of steps going up to The Strand.


Savoy Steps


The Savoy Steps as seen today. View from Google Streetview.


Here is an old nineteenth century drawing of the Savoy Steps going up to The Strand, the chapel is seen at the right.


Savoy Steps, Nineteenth Century

The Savoy Steps, nineteenth century drawing done during building works.




Here is Bob Dylan's performance, just in case anyone has not seen it before:



Here are the lyrics, written by Dylan, which show how it is like a modern pilgrimage through life, inspired by the stream of consciousness writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.


Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten


Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid
Don’t matter what you did
Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try “No-Doz”
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows


Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
But users, cheaters
Six-time losers
Hang around the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters


Ah get born, keep warm
Short pants, romance, learn to dance
Get dressed, get blessed
Try to be a success
Please her, please him, buy gifts
Don’t steal, don’t lift
Twenty years of schoolin’
And they put you on the day shift
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles


Copyright 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music