Bob Dylan is not like you and me. You and I cannot know what it is like to hear thousands of people scream your name and to live with worldwide adulation for over half a century. (Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Bruce Springsteen know what this is like, but hardly any other living performers do.) Dylan is also not like you and me because he doesn’t think in categories like high culture and popular culture. He can admire Elvis and T.S. Eliot, Little Richard (his high school idol) and Pablo Picasso equally.
Bob Dylan is also not like you and me because he is a player. By that I don’t mean that he is a guitar player, although there is that. By that I mean that he is a player on the world stage, not just on the concert stage. When he went to Paris a few years back to give some concerts, the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited him in his dressing room. So Dylan has the authority and gravitas to comment on the state of the world, and specifically on the state of America. You could say that “Murder Most Foul” is Dylan’s state of the union address.
And, finally, Dylan is not like you and me in that he doesn’t distinguish between society and culture. For him, society and culture merge; he experiences society in terms of culture and culture in terms of society. We can say that Dylan has always been a rebel if by that, we mean that he has always rebelled against the disjointed one-thing-at-a-time mentality that still dominates American life. Dylan experiences the world as a single integrated entity. That’s a key point, because when he wanted to comment on the state of America in “Murder Most Foul”, he didn’t do so directly.
“Murder Most Foul” is many things. It’s an update of Don McLean’s “Miss American Pie”. In doing this, Dylan closes a circle because in his song, which dominated the airwaves in the early ’70s, McLean references Dylan himself as The Jester. If McLean refers to “Jumping Jack Flash”, and thus to the Rolling Stones, Dylan mentions Altamont by name.
Altamont, of course, was the place where the music died. On 6 December 1969, at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, a member of Hell’s Angel killed a spectator, and in effect, he killed the peace and love ethos of the ’60s that had just been celebrated at Woodstock a few months prior. It’s as though “Murder Most Foul” completes “Miss American Pie” by taking it to the limit, to use a phrase from a great song by the Eagles. If “Miss American Pie” mourns “the day the music died” at Altamont, “Murder Most Foul” mourns the day US President John F. Kennedy died in Dallas. These two events, which happened about six years apart, defined the beginning and end of the ’60s.
Speaking of death, Dylan knows—and expects us to know—that the title of his song comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and specifically from Act I, Scene 5. Although this is a classic example of Dylan’s refusal—or perhaps his inability—to distinguish between culture and society. It’s the first time he’s ever used a quotation in a song title. His use of a quotation from the world’s most famous play connects his song with a work by another genius and thereby underscores the gravity of this moment in world history.
In this scene, Hamlet is talking to the ghost, who tells him that his father was murdered and imposes a task on him: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” “Murder?” Hamlet asks. “Murder most foul,” the ghost replies. In the song, then, Dylan takes revenge on—calls out—those who killed his surrogate father figure, President Kennedy, who had particular significance for Dylan, since he had an unsatisfactory relationship with his biological father, Abraham Zimmerman. (Much of the young Dylan’s life was animated by his search for a satisfactory father figure. He first seized upon Woody Guthrie, and then settled on Pablo Picasso, the key role model in his whole life.)
As McLean did in “Miss American Pie”, in “Murder Most Foul”, Dylan brings back the society that we lost that day in Dallas with references to popular culture. Names of songs from the Kennedy era of the early ’60s like “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio and “Wake Up Little Suzy” by the Everly Brothers fly by so fast that we have trouble keeping up with him. (So what? We listen to Dylan songs over and over again, anyhow.) Finding his references to singers and musicians will occupy Dylanologists like me for some time to come.
There is paranoia in American culture about who really killed Kennedy, and the paranoia in “Murder Most Foul” comes from a specific source. Dylan hides his sources when it suits his purpose, and if “Murder Most Foul” brings “Miss American Pie” up to date—mostly by darkening it—it also takes over the paranoia promoted in Oliver Stone’s JFK. This 1991 movie, which starred Kevin Costner as crusading district attorney Jim Garrison, explains just how the killing took place, and how President Kennedy was trapped in a killing zone. It would appear that “Miss American Pie” combined with JFK gave Dylan the immediate impetus to write “Murder Most Foul”.
Most conveniently for Dylan’s tendency to merge history and art, the street in Dallas onto which the presidential limousine turned on that fateful day in November was Elm Street. (“Murder Most Foul” makes many references to the streets of Dallas.) So Dylan expresses his integrated, holistic sensibility by referring to the assassination as a real-life Nightmare on Elm Street, citing the title of the 1984 slasher film directed by Wes Craven that introduced Freddy Krueger to the world.
Indeed, there’s a lot more than can—and will–be said about the references to singers like Nat King Cole and Stevie Nicks and the references to Dallas that Dylan uses to construct the labyrinth of “Murder Most Foul”, but some general remarks will conclude these thoughts. Dylan is in his mid-70s now, and he’s been playing guitar for over 60 years. But there’s not a guitar to be heard on “Murder Most Foul”. We hear only piano and violins— instruments appropriate for a dirge.
People who don’t like Dylan say that they don’t like his voice, and “Murder Most Foul” will just give them more evidence that he can’t sing. Mostly he half-sings, half-talks his way through this long song without inflection or changes in tone. It’s as though he wants to impress upon us the enduring gravity of the moment and refuses to let us escape from that gravity by vocal embellishments.
There’s a line from Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” that encapsulates the emotional weight of “Murder Most Foul”: “Let us not speak falsely now, for the hour is getting late.” It may well be that Dylan has mounted the watchtower one last time to give us his most urgent warning. The implication of this song, expressed with a passion that is no less strong for being understated, is that in 2020, it may not be just the music or even the president that has died. “Murder Most Foul” sounds like a dirge, and Dylan may be announcing that democracy itself that has died.