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Why Bob Dylan matters: ‘Murder Most Foul’

| Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

When I woke up last Friday, I knew new music would be coming out. 

And, having endured our world’s current situation, I was excited.

(Constantly checking my Spotify until my parents told me to put my phone away because I’m living with them again — yeah that’s great. No, I really do love them.)

 What I did not expect was for Bob Dylan to release a song about JFK.

(I have been obsessed with both of these men since I was 17, and by the time I saw the song I’d drunk half a bottle of wine while watching “1917” with my parents. I then announced, as if it were life-changing news, “Bob Dylan just released a song about JFK.” My mom, not a Dylan fan, said, “Doesn’t he realize there are more pressing issues right now,” followed by, “Of course, he wrote a song about a dead man — he’s half-dead himself.”)

Long parenthetical aside, the 16-minute 55-second epic ballad tells the story of the assassination of President Kennedy, describing it as a “Murder Most Foul.”

(It took me the whole song to make an Instagram post about it, and that Instagram post still had a formatting error, so now I’m generally concerned to find out it was that long because it reveals a certain ineptitude.)

According to Dylan’s social media, the song was recorded several years ago and released on Friday, March 27. It’s easy to conceive why he released this song when he did.

(Even if my mom didn’t understand — Like OMG mom, do you even get me? — listening to it reminded me that the feelings I’m feeling right now — helplessness, uncertainty and frustration — aren’t new. They have existed across generations, popping up in response to thousands of events throughout history.) 

In his memoir ”Chronicles,“ Dylan references assassinations throughout the sixties as a major reason for him stepping down from music after his motorcycle accident. This fear and hesitation comes through in the lyrics of “Murder Most Foul.” 

The song itself is disappointing. Like many of Dylan’s more recent releases — and some of his older ones — it rambles and lacks a consistent melody. 

(Dylan sounds more and more like my uncle’s impression of him and less and less like the legend he is.)

The truth is, when it comes to memorializing people like Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and John Kennedy, Dylan loses his touch, an ability to sink into poetic connections without losing the need for all things traditionally required of music such as a strong, memorable melody. 

That said, like any Bob Dylan song, it’s lyrically good — great, even. It contains his trademark imagery: redemption, religious allusions, the closeness of mortality, discomfort with being the center of attention, all condensed in his heartbreaking verse. 

(Maybe my mom was onto something when she said Dylan could relate to JFK because both are, in a sense, dead. Bob Dylan will never die musically, so her intended point is already mute, but his music has always contained an eerie closeness to death, as if he might actually be ”knocking on heaven’s door.“)

The first three verses put Kennedy‘s assassination in the context of Dylan’s life alongside an array of tangential events. They constantly reference other musicians’ works, American folk tales and facts about the assassination. These rapid-fire allusions climax in the fourth verse when Dylan starts every line with “play,” phrasing presumably addressed to the legendary radio DJ, Wolfman Jack. The allusory escapade then mutates into a sequence of song references, each holding a unique meaning to Dylan and to the time period. He even dedicates some of the songs to Kennedy’s lovers and one to Lady Macbeth. 

(Honestly, I don‘t have the time or mental aptitude to unpack all the song references and their meanings. Dylan‘s work pulls from songs and lyrics in such diverse genre as 1800 folk songs, 1920s jazz standards and even the Dead Kennedy’s — a quip, I’m sure.) 

Dylan finishes his 17-minute recount by asking Jack to play “Murder Most Foul,” putting his own song into dialogue with the catalog of music on which it‘s built. 

(It seems Dylan released his song with intention. He wants to put “A Murder Most foul” in the middle of a conversation between communication musical tradition and contemporary dynamics. After Kennedy‘s assassination, Dylan felt uncertain and hopeless, so he listened to songs that would make sense of the world around him.) 

My mom was wrong when she derided Dylan for being out of touch. As I obsessively scoured Spotify in search of comfort — a comfort I didn’t find by watching a movie with my parents or enjoying a glass of wine — I found it in a rambling 17-minute song, which forced me to slow down a moment and realize that crisis isn’t new.

(But in the end, it doesn’t matter what I write or think. Bob Dylan does as he pleases.) 

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