Bob Dylan’s release of a seventeen-minute song about the assassination of President Kennedy strangely coincided with the Corona lockdown, taking the world by surprise, even more so, as it perfectly blended in with the gloomy atmosphere of the time. The song was released, alongside nine others, on Dylan’s new double album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” on 19 July 2020.
By Leo Ensel
Perfect timing to a fault.
In approximate synchrony with the beginning of the global Corona lockdown, the almost 79-year-old Bob Dylan, who had not released a new song in eight years, unexpectedly returns to the world to show once again with a precise strike where God lives in the singer-songwriter scene. And this with the longest song he has ever written. It is, irritatingly enough, a lamentation about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, almost 60 years after the event.
The song appears to come out of nowhere only to lose itself in infinity. Its magnificence and its heartbreaking beauty only reveal themselves little by little. It is a song that begs to be discovered and mulled over—over and over again—as an infinite loop, because, as it finally turns out, this is how it was designed.
But is this even a song? On the first listening, it appears to set the field for a huge surface of sound. Then, sparingly orchestrated, it creates an atmosphere in which music and time stand still, generating one never-ending moment. Harmonies are reduced to the minimum three chords of the cadenza scheme. Light years away, traces of a modified blues scheme appears to shimmer through.
And is it even singing? The Dylan of our time rambles or chants—much like a priest would read his litany, or a rabbi his Kaddish—his endless requiem. He recites most of the lines almost exclusively on one note, which, in combination with the extraordinary length of the song and its endless loop character, lures the attentive listener deeper and deeper into trance, during which—like in a dream—the described events step out of time, break the chronology, and overlap each other.
The title of “Murder Most Foul”, as the net community was quick to point out, has its roots in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (I/5), a literary allusion by which Dylan taps into a historic and associative space. The seventeen-minute song spirals around the events of 23 November 1963, the “Dark day in Dallas, November ’63 / A day that will live on in infamy”. It approaches Kennedy’s murder from a thousand perspectives and ends in a gigantic, almost endless lament for the dead.
A narrator, eyewitnesses, real or fake murderers – who can tell the difference in this confusing kaleidoscope? – they all appear in the song to act out their part, including the dying victim himself, in whose comatose inner monologue shreds of third party communication show up, uttered by speakers who are pretending to care about the dying man, when in reality being busy covering up the traces of the most foul murder of the century. The song juxtaposes powerful images, such as “Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die” or “Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing”, lyrics that have the potential to become classic quotations right away and reveal Dylans genetic fingerprint on the spot.
For Dylan, the murder of John F. Kennedy, the “murder most foul”—that much even listeners unfamiliar with the events will understand—is the result of a scandalous conspiracy. Characters like the official lone gunman Lee H. Oswald and his murderer Jack Ruby are “Only a pawn in their game”, as a Dylan song from the year after Kennedy’s murder has it. – But who are ‘they’, the apparently well-organized men behind this timeless crime? Dylan leaves this open for our speculation – which only makes the pale scenery of the song even more eerie.
Voices: Tommy, Pussycat, Lady Macbeth and the Dying President
The song begins with an exact recount of the time and place of the events. But linearity soon gives way. When at the end of the first verse the singer calls on Wolfman Jack, the legendary US disc jockey of the sixties and seventies, to lament for the dead and quotes the title-giving Shakespearean words “murder most foul” for the first time, all contours begin to blur. To an increasing extent, both the meticulous account of the murder’s fragmented details and its cover-up, are mixed and contrasted with snippets from songs and films, with myths and figures of American pop culture from the 1920s to almost the present day. Condensed into archetypes, these figures reappear to surround the scene of the murder like ghosts from ancient and timeless spaces.
First there are the Beatles, who—so it is promised—come to hold the hand of distraught “little children” (the children of the murdered president?); from Liverpool’s River Mersey, the lyrical subject is drawn to the legendary Woodstock ‘Love & Peace Festival’ – only to land directly in front of the stage of its West Coast antipode the Altamont Speedway immediately afterwards. (Where, and there is no need to mention this association in the song, the hippie movement lost its innocence in December 1969, when, in front of the eyes of Mick Jagger singing “Under my thumb”, the African American Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of the biker gang Hells Angels).
Armies of classic and long forgotten heroes and figures from the early days of silent movies, from the Rhythm & Blues of the 50s, Rock ’n’ Roll, early Beat and late Rock music, Pop and Jazz, embodied in artists like Buster Keaton, Little Suzie, and the ‘dizzy’ Miss Lizzy, like Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind”, The Who’s Tommy and his poisonous Acid Queen, Marilyn Monroe and Lady Macbeth, all dancing round the deadly wounded president and making comments, partly in sympathy, partly maliciously cynical, on his slow glide over into that other world. Dreams, nightmares, witches, real and false good fairies, saints and Judases, pop icons and real persons of contemporary history are mixing, overlapping, reminiscent of ancient nursery rhymes in sound and form, like an ancient choir. All this constitutes the invisible background of the ‘murder most foul’.
And, as usual in his late work, Dylan assembles countless set pieces and quotations from more or less well-known songs from the entire Pop universe into his own lyrics, which thereby grow into a tremendous patchwork. At the same time, some passages, such as “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb”, “We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face” or “They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice” almost compellingly evoke associations with Jesus’ death on the cross.
The silhouettes blur, the voices overlap: victims, murderers, spectators, narrators, the countless ghosts in the background. In the feverish hallucinations of the president in a coma, all this flows together into a single broad stream of unconsciousness beyond time.
Lamentation of the Dead
And then the song rises to the most powerful litany of the dead in pop history. It is the ‘Ghost’ of the President himself—“Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack”—whose body is on its way to his pompous funeral—“Play it for me in my long Cadillac”—beckoning the legendary disc jockey to perform the president’s own requiem. The entire universe of American popular culture—folk, beat, rock, jazz, film—and yes, even Shakespeare and Beethoven are called upon, summoned to the most grandiose lamentation of the dead. And instead of the Latin “Ora pro nobis!” (“Pray for us!”) the litany that the 25-years deceased Wolfman Jack is supposed to celebrate for a US president assassinated over half a century ago, laconically repeats: “Play!”
For seven long minutes the ‘prayer’ ritual lingers, and at times it seems that it has no end. As the logic of time has already been suspended and borders everywhere have become permeable and dissolved, songs and film scenes that Kennedy might have known appear, just as they would in a dream, blending together with songs and myths that were created long after his death.
It is a song litany that will give lyrics-oriented dylanologists enough interpretation homework for the next months, if not years. The international fan community already claims to have found at least 75 references to other songs in “Murder Most Foul”. The listing seems endless, whereas the mood is familiar. It is impossible not to be reminded of Dylan classics such as “Hard rain’s a-gonna fall”, “Chimes of freedom” or “Ring them bells” from time to time.
And to come full circle, the litany finds an ending, which is really not an end, by including itself in the list of songs to be played:
“Play ‘Murder Most Foul’!“
There is a boundless sadness in this song, in its thrifty and therefore most potent pathos. This culminates in the small pauses between the verses, when violin and cello come to the fore for a brief moment and give free rein to their longing. But the strangest thing about this song so rich in remarkable details is that it never gets boring despite its endless length and monotony! How Dylan managed to pull this off will probably remain his secret.
Presidential Assassination and Corona Freeze
It is well known that the Kennedy murder has been on Dylan’s mind since “November ‘63”. And this song proves that he must have been deeply involved in the details of the events. But why is Dylan writing this requiem almost sixty years after the event, and why is he releasing it now of all times, at a moment when—for the very first time ever —the entire globe is forced into a pandemic state of shock? What associations, what fantasies is he trying to evoke?
In any case, Dylan’s timing could not have been more precise. The singer takes nothing less than the entire Corona-solidified globe as his resonance chamber. And in its ghostliness the song fits exactly into this bleak and gloomy time of the global lockdown.
And this lockdown has very real, almost physical consequences, even for a Bob Dylan.
Something that no event and no person had been able to achieve or predict: an invisible virus is threatening the life’s work of the author of this song himself on a worldwide scale. Dylan’s famous Never-Ending Tour, a continuous loop of hopping around the globe, has been stopped for the first time in over 30 years. And, sadly, this appears to be the status for the foreseeable future.
Let’s hope the virus is not successful.
It would be the second –
Murder most foul!
There is an index to other articles on Rough and Rowdy Ways here.
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