music

The Persistent Genius of Bob Dylan: Unravelling Murder Most Foul

April 12, 2020

Will Minack

After an eight-year drought of original material, Bob Dylan, the enigmatic folk icon, returns with a 17-minute cultural odyssey centred on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Late on March 27, the increasingly hermetic Bob Dylan emerged with a short message and a long song. “Greetings to my fans and followers …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”. ‘Murder Most Foul’ is his first original work since 2012’s warmly-received Tempest album, and his longest song to date.

Jackie Kennedy. Pink dress. Scrambling down the back of a Lincoln Continental. Splotched with the brains of the most popular post-war president. It’s an image burned deep into the American conscience. Like a cultural flash-bang grenade, the event was loud, bright, and at the same time completely inscrutable and disorienting. A baby-faced  Bob Dylan had released the seminal Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan six months prior. His sounds were only just beginning to mould the emerging counter-cultural movement. 

President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high / Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die”, Dylan rasps over a mournful bed of piano and violin. The first of five dense, highly referential verses is the most descriptive and grounded. He likens the event to a dog shot down in broad daylight, then later in the verse to the trick of a skilled magician. It’s a Shakespearean paradox; allowing the event to inhabit the space of sheer barbarism and glimmering mysticism at the same time, understood only through its complete and utter un-understandability.

The rest of the song sees Dylan rattle off about 75 works, from jazz obscurities to glam rock anthems, weaving a quilt of cultural comforts gripped onto by a nation in mourning. “The Beatles are comin’/ they’re gonna hold your hand’‘ Dylan narrates with omniscient foresight. He traverses space and time, stopping in at inflection points high and low of a decade marked by tumult. “I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage”, Dylan sing-speaks of the spontaneous gathering and its disastrous west-coast imitation. The lyric captures both the sprouting and shattering of 60s revolutionary utopianism with a one-two punch.

Like all events of this scale and opacity, conspiracy waits in the wings. The ears of those familiar with the theories will prick up as Dylan winks at the grassy knoll, the mysterious three tramps, Lee Harvey Oswald’s protestation of innocence  (“I’m just a patsy, like Patsy Cline”), and so forth. Dylan’s there too, of course, woven into the clutter like the collage art of a certain album cover. The line “Wait a minute boys, you know who I am?” obliquely mirrors a passage from his own ‘Hurricane’. And while his call to “Wake up, little Susie, let’s go for a drive” is derived from an Everly Brothers’ track, Suze was also the name of his album cover-gracing girlfriend at the time.

Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing”. The assassination of John F. Kennedy remains perhaps the most nebulous few seconds of American history. It exists in a constant state of flux; an ink-blot test ripe for political, personal and moral projection. Watching the events unfold on TV, Dylan interpreted the act as a simple dictum: “Don’t even hope to change things”. Just three weeks later he was less sympathetic to the late president, attracting boos in an infamous speech in which he stated seeing “something of himself” in Lee Harvey Oswald. Accused of being obsessed with the event in 1971, he rebuked: “if I was more sensitive about it than anyone else, I would have written a song about it, wouldn’t I?”. Now, looking over his shoulder once more at that fateful Dallas afternoon, he has. The result is a masterfully surreal sketch of the whole thing—mess, noise and all.