Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? – Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man
Bob Dylan, the Nobel laureate and impish nowhere man, has released a new song. Murder Most Foul is a dark C-major contemplation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as brutally frank as the Dallas footage by Abraham Zapruder.
The sparsely arranged, structurally repetitive piano-bound ballad clocks in at an indefatigable 16 minutes 50 seconds. A sombre string player might be wearing a veil. Kettledrums happen in the cold distance.
Pop culture references abound, with shout-outs to the Beatles, Nightmare on Elm Street, Buster Keaton, Oscar Peterson and so on. It’s an attention-getter, audacious in its musical simplicity and freewheeling in its lyricism. The Antichrist is invoked.
And servile music writers are losing their collective minds over the song.
In a short piece from the fogey house organ Rolling Stone magazine, a critic is blue-in-the-face breathless: “This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song … as allusive as it is elusive … mesmerizing arrangement.” An excitable headline writer declares the song, Dylan’s first original one released since 2012, as “absolutely mind-blowing,” and “about so much more” than the killing of JFK.
One supposes it is about more than the magic-bullet takedown in 1963. And maybe guessing Dylan’s motivations for releasing this song at this time is the parlour game we need. But let’s not elevate Dylan and his new elegy with so much gusto, irreverence and overcomprehension.
One music writer’s knee-jerk reaction was that the song was “maybe” about COVID-19, without nailing down the suggested parallel – or even trying to do so. Another anointed Murder Most Foul as 2020′s American Pie, which is far too much praise.
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
"Of course we do, we know who you are!”
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car
That’s just bad poetic expression, nowhere near Don McLean’s American Pie standards. And where McLean gracefully obscures his pop music references, Dylan drops names without subtlety: “Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz; play Blue Sky,” play Dickey Betts/Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk; Charlie Parker and all that junk …”
(McLean, instead, sang about “the jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Wonder who that was.)
There are better songs about the death of JFK, notably Phil Ochs’s Crucifixion. In 2013, the Cowboy Junkies and songwriter Scott Garbe released The Kennedy Suite, an ambitious Canadian-made song cycle that went criminally undernoticed.
If we see Murder Most Foul as a lament for America, there are more graceful allegories, including Joe Henry’s Our Song and Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. (Both use past heroes of baseball, America’s national pastime, as a metaphor for the country’s decline.)
All that being said, if Murder Most Foul is a poor man’s American Pie, perhaps it’s what America deserves. In 2016, a country inexplicably voted for an unqualified candidate to be its leader, and now the President’s shortcomings are being exposed in crisis.
“I said the soul of a nation been torn away,” Dylan sings on Murder Most Foul, his voice typically tubercular. “And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.”
The title track to Dylan’s Tempest from 2012 is 14-minute sea shanty ode to the RMS Titanic. Eight years later, America’s ship has come in.
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