Uh oh. This was the initial thought that crossed my mind when I saw the news on Friday that Bob Dylan had released his first original song since 2012’s LP Tempest. The timing, coinciding with the terrifying spread of the global Covid-19 pandemic, naturally seemed auspicious. The accompanying tweet was vintage Dylan myth-building through understatement:
Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you. Bob Dylan
Do we, his loyal fans and followers, find it “interesting” that he has been sitting on a 17-minute song about the JFK assassination that proceeds through fifty years of ensuing American cultural life and spiritual chaos, which he has chosen to unleash at the onset of arguably the greatest existential challenge to our nation since the Great Depression? Yeah, Bob, that’s pretty interesting.
So many questions. The normal ones they teach you in your training: who, what, when, where and how. But most of all, for the love of a righteous God, why? What is he trying to tell us? When the Coronavirus first took hold of our consciousness and then, in short order, our day-to-day life, I thought of this opening line from “License To Kill,” a deep track on his 1983 half-of-a-masterpiece Infidels: “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth/ He can do with it as he please/ And if things don’t change soon/ He will.” And so we’ve done.
The Corona pandemic has revealed just about every consequence of the short-sightedness and greed that has characterized the multi-national cabal of billionaires and barons who have over the past few decades purchased the levers of government, loosened the social safety net and treated a looming climate crisis as just another nuisance to shareholders. In America, where even in moments of great prosperity we have failed to invest in prudent and affordable health care, improve infrastructure and place even cursory restrictions on special interests, we are finally seeing the full balance of the bill following the one percenters’ bacchanal. In terms of human suffering and cost to our economy long term, it is so much larger than even the most dire of soothsayers had predicted.
“Murder Most Foul” fixates on the JFK assassination and suggests that Dylan regards this as a signal moment in American life that supersedes even the tragedies of MLK, Malcom X or JFK’s brother Bobby. However flawed, JFK remains the last president who stood in old-fashioned earnest for the notion of service to the nation, making “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” a signature campaign pitch, courtesy of the great speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger. Politicians continue to spew endless patriotic platitudes, but in real world terms it is difficult to conceptualize how far we have migrated from Kennedy’s call to service. In an era in which long-serving government officials are demonized as apparatchiks of a “deep state” and the draft has long been abandoned in favor of a volunteer military whose volunteers are rarely the sons and daughters of landed gentry, JFK’s pronouncement sounds practically radical.
The profound belief in service has always been a crucial element of Dylan’s worldview. From the early aphorism “Sometimes even the president of the United States/ Must have to stand naked” to the nut-cutting evangelism of “It may be the devil/ Or it may be the lord,” the through line over fifty years of work is a sublimating of self in the service of a larger spiritual project. That Dylan is so closely associated with the youthquake convulsions of the late 1960s is a central irony of his career, as he has philosophically always been far closer to the Truman-Eisenhower ethos of the previous decade: collectively-minded, respectful in an awestruck manner of the lessons of the past, and intuitively humble in the face of forces far greater than man. JFK’s assassination effectively closed the book on that era, a final period point placed on the 1950s which coincided with the rise of mass media and encroaching corporate consolidation. “Murder Most Foul” depicts the death of one man, but clearly presents the view that an entire way of life died in Dallas that day.
The music is another matter altogether, a trance-like fever of exquisite fear and wonder. Its simple piano figure feels borrowed and extrapolated from Van Morrison’s beautiful 1974 composition “Linden Arden Stole the Highlights” and is repeated unhurriedly in a sort of incanting perpetuity, abetted by the kind of queasy but moving strings that John Cale might have contributed to early Velvet Underground. This is pretty audacious, even avant-garde, stuff for a 78-year-old man. Dylan has gone long before, of course: on the epic devotional “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” the extraordinary meta-western “Brownsville Girl” and the shaggy dog hijinks of “Highlands,” but it is fair to say that he’s never done anything quite like “Murder Most Foul”, which fits into no genre and has few points of comparison.
A singular gesture to be sure, but there are antecedents. Certainly Dylan is aware (and a fan of) Lou Reed’s “The Day John Kennedy Died” from the great 1982 album The Blue Mask, whose melancholy musings on the event serves as a kind of dry run for the stolen virtue themes of “Murder Most Foul.“ The leisurely, pulsing dreamscapes of Van Morrison’s middle-period work on songs like “Take Me Back” suggests a template for the track’s jazz and gospel inflected hybrid and Leonard Cohen’s apocalyptic prayers “The Future” and “You Want It Darker” share the fatalistic sense of man’s comical, losing war against nature. But in musical terms, Dylan has given us something that seems almost implausible provided the absurdly prodigious nature of his creative output for more than five decades: a true novelty.
Harder to parse is the exhaustive namechecking of cultural and musical figures which makes up a significant bulk of the song’s five lengthy verses. There is a dark whimsy in the invocation of everyone from Patsy Cline to Bud Powell to Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham – one can almost hear him winking at us: “I bet you didn’t know I listen to Tusk!”But there is also something of the unspooling of memory, King Lear-like, as a suddenly and frankly geriatric sounding man attempts to reorder the furniture of his mind while the room keeps shifting and the lights glow more dim. He has some zingers, a bullseye shot at the vexingly enduring myth of the Hippie Dream: “I’m going to Woodstock/ It’s the Aquarian Age/ Then I’ll go to Altamont/ And sit near the stage.” But a lot of it feels like free-associating: grasping at half-remembered phantoms, attempting to stitch together a coherent psychological space from the detritus of endlessly disconnected culture. Dylan’s signature wryness is intact, but the undercurrent suggests infinite loss and unscalable confusion. It is, excruciatingly, a song about the end of his life as well. In Hamlet, the phrase “murder most foul” is spoken by a ghost. This is in no way coincidental.
Finally, I think of Whitman, the deeply patriotic lodestar for Dylan’s version of a wild, free and virtuous America who volunteered his time as an untrained battlefield nurse during the Civil War and walked away forever scarred by the vast, unimaginable horrors of that national tragedy. His heartbroken lamentation regarding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln “O Captain! My Captain!” exults in the martyr’s greatness while recognizing the nightmare of what is likely to ensue in his absence:
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead
In 1979, in one of his great songs of prophecy, Bob Dylan sang of a Slow Train Coming, a reference to accumulating corruption and dehumanizing selfishness which would surely be the death of American ideals should we allow ourselves to remain tied to the tracks of accumulating self-obsession. In fact, he told us just who to look out for.
Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters
Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition
Many years later he was asked about the song by an interviewer who wanted to know “When you look ahead, do you still see a slow train coming?”
“When I look ahead,” Dylan responded, “it’s picked up quite a bit of speed. In fact, it’s looking like a freight train now.” The train’s pulling into the station. You might find that interesting.