The confusing, confounding, frustrating, and brilliant surprises seem to keep coming for Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. He will be celebrating his 79th birthday in May, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, swirling through the vortex of fear and dread along with the rest of us. At first listen, and at the first look of the quickly transcribed lyrics that surfaced quickly after the 27 March streaming release of “Murder Most Foul”, even the diehards (this writer included) probably laughed at the man’s audaciousness. Why release a nearly 17-minute rambling story song about the assassination of JFK? There’s a lack of melody, an absence of harmony, no immediately discernible tune, and the initial run of rhymed couplets in the first verse can come off as doggerel.
Before listening, we have to read the publicity statement and parse through it for any deep meaning. Dylan addresses his “fans and followers” and thanks them for their support and loyalty. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting,” he writes, probably knowing all too well that Dylan scholars worldwide would immediately make their way through it. If ever a song called for genius.com annotation, this one was it. Like Billy Joel’s 1989 hit, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” only in its references to many other historical and cultural moments gone for good, “Murder Most Foul” was going to take time to consider. It’s the final line in the written introduction to this song that will linger for a while during our times of quarantine: “Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.”
“Murder Most Foul” comes in the tradition of Dylan’s 2012 “Tempest”, another long song (nearly 14 minutes) about the sinking of the Titanic. 1997’s “Highlands”, a more internal reflection about place and time, rambled as well, at 16:34. Both of those songs worked well, but the arrangements were a little too slow, a little too sparse. After the first two verses of “Murder Most Foul”, with just the slow piano and lazy rhymes (“63” with “Infamy”, “ridin’ high” with “good day to die”) the music soars, solo violin, a bed of a string section, and brushed drum strokes. Dylan leaves the JFK assassination narrative for a while and starts referencing other cultural touchstones that would affect him (and all of us) for years to come: The Beatles, Woodstock, and Altamont, where he’ll “sit near the stage”. That last ride of the limousine stays with him, though. No matter the diversions, he’s always going to make that left turn on Dealey Plaza.
There are no stones unturned in Dylan’s narrative. He puts us in that limousine, before the shots fired, during the assassination, and on that six-mile trip to Parkland Hospital, to when Vice President Lyndon Johnson is sworn in as President at 2:38 pm that afternoon. It’s especially chilling then and in our times today, and emotionally soaring, when he notes in the next verse, “I said the soul of a nation been torn away / And it’s beginning to go into slow decay / And that it’s 36 hours past Judgement Day.”
It’s at this point in the song where the uninitiated might think Dylan goes off the rails. He’s always rambled, always reflected on history and referenced cultural heroes. It’s when he evokes legendary radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack “speaking in tongues” that the listener gets the point. If anything, Dylan is drawing as much from Van Morrison’s “Rave On, John Donne” as he is the gravelly hipster magic of the Wolfman. By citing all these artists, from Etta James to Marilyn Monroe to Buster Keaton to Bud Powell, he’s evoking a vanished culture, probably hoping to remind us of who we once were and what we may eventually become again if we can only focus.
Dylan has insisted throughout his career that he is apolitical, not a sloganeering rabble rouse but rather just a singer, just a song and dance man. It’s just difficult to imagine that he didn’t have politics in mind as he released “Murder Most Foul” on the last Friday in March 2020. This in an era when a US President is considering a back to work policy that would, in effect, murder our most vulnerable citizens as the price for resuscitating our economy. We can cure the disease and surrender our dignity as a nation. It’s Hamlet’s “Murder Most Foul” manifested.
On 19 March 2020, Expectingrain.com listed Dylan as “off the radar”, an ominous statement in any other time and deadly in ours. Today, Dylan is back with us. There’s no date on this song, but like most of his 21st-century recordings, it’s got a timeless and eerily touching elegiac quality. It might not win any new fans, but it will keep anybody occupied for hours visiting (or revisiting) the references and allusions. Stay safe and stay observant indeed.