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On December 13 1963, just three weeks after President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Bob Dylan – who had watched the coverage on television and was depressed by the death of the optimistic Kennedy era – attended a fund-raising dinner in New York for the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.

On the basis of his songs like Blowin' in the Wind (which Peter Paul and Mary had sung at Martin Luther King's March on Washington DC), Masters of War, live favourites such as The Death of Emmitt Till and others, Dylan was being acknowledged as a significant voice with the prestigious Tom Paine Award.

Always a nervous public speaker, Dylan drank too much at the reception and when honoured gave a rambling speech in which he made inane comments about old and bald people and then struck out on a tangent about Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting Kennedy: “I don't know where . . .what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too . . . I saw some of myself in him”.

AP_6311220187After some further comment to explain himself (“I don't think it could have gone that far”) he quit the stage amidst boos and catcalls.

Later he would try to further explain himself and, as he had done with Only a Pawn in Their Game which he sang at the march on Washington but largely went unheard, Dylan was talking about the often unaddressed darkness in us all.

Not that anyone got that at the time.

Just as the Kennedy assassination deflected attention from Newsweek's revelation about Dylan's real background behind the myths that he had created around himself, so Beatlemania in February '64 – just two months later – rejuvenated spirits, especially of the young.

It is fair to say that Kennedy's assassination shook Dylan and his generation (he was 22 at the time) because here was a handsome young leader ushering in a new decade in which the times were a-changin'. Kennedy was a beacon of warmth in the Cold War, his wife was beautiful, sophisticated and spoke French, they brought artists such as cellist Pablo Casals into the White House and then . . .

As recently as 2013, Steve Earle – one of Dylan's acolytes in many ways – spoke to Elsewhere about the Kennedy assassination in the context of that era and what was lost by his death.

“I think the world might have been a better place if Jack Kennedy had lived because I think he would have stopped the Vietnam war even though he kind of started it and amped it up. But he was getting ready to pull the plug. There are people who believe that's why he was killed.”

AP_17353567412336He was also adamant that he didn't believe Oswald had killed Kennedy.

“And I promise you no one made those shots from that window [in the Texas Book Depository Building in Dallas]. I've been there and looked out and I've killed deer with a similar rifle and I'm tellin' you it didn't fuckin' happen. That's the deal.”

And why are we talking about Kennedy/Oswald at this time?

Because Bob Dylan has released Murder Most Foul, his first original recording since 2012 and a 17 minute rambling epic which pivots around the death of Kennedy.

As British writer pointed out about Dylan's epic Brownsville Girl, any Dylan song over five minutes is automatically called a masterpiece.

Murder Most Foul certainly isn't a masterpiece but it, just being by Bob Dylan perhaps, is a fascinating piece of work because – like Brownsville Girl – it uses an outside event or circumstance (in Brownsville co-written with Sam Sheppard Dylan uses the Gregory Peck film The Gunfighter) to circle out from and back to as its emotional centre.

At its best Murder Most Foul has Dylan denying the explanations given for the killing: “Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing, it happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise, right there in front of everyone's eyes. Greatest magic trick ever under the sun”. *

But then in what seems like a crafted stream-of-consciousness he trucks on through specific Baby Boomer moments which includes the Beatles ( “Hush, little children, you'll understand, The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand”), Gerry and the Pacemakers, three bums in rags ** (Crosby Stills and Nash? Woody, himself, Ramblin' Jack?), Woodstock and Altamont, then back to Kennedy.

And so the song goes, played out over minimal piano, a drone and string backing. It serves to remind you that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for LIterature, not Music.

At times – as in Brownsville Girl where he becomes part of the film – Dylan becomes Kennedy. Such perspective shifts began as far back as Blood on the Tracks.

Dylan says he wrote it some time back and it does sound more like his voice of a decade or more ago, but with a more certain clarity.

Some have been quick to note Don McLean's American Pie as a reference point for what Dylan is doing . . . but this is way more sophisticated and shaggy dog, full of misdirection, literary and less literal than that.

It also isn't as clunking as Billy Joel's litany of Boomer moments on We Didn't Start the Fire (which was based on Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues).

Near the end Dylan is throwing in seemingly random references for rhyme or sleight-of-hand: “Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack, play it for me in my long Cadillac. Play me that Only the Good Die Young [Billy Joel!], take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung”.

At that point we remember Jokerman which seemed to say more than it actually did.

And towards the end it seems he is reciting favourite songs and artists (most of them dead) before circling back to the Kennedy killing, although more obliquely. At that point it brings to mind Van Morrison's On Hyndford Street, a similar series of memories (albeit much more pleasant).

Perhaps more a poem than a song, Murder Most Foul -- which takes its title from a line by the ghost in Hamlet, "Murder most foul, as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.” -- is reflective, and maybe even ruminates on the ineffectiveness of art in the face of human venality?

As with most wordy songs by Dylan, the scholars will now have their say.

Bob Dylan has had his, and don't expect him to explain it.


* It's worth noting that many attribute scepticism about the findings of the Warren Commission into the Kennedy and Oswald murders for the rise of conspiracy culture in the US, from the "faked" Moon landing to the current climate of "fake news".

** Since writing this it has been pointed out that the Zapruder film shows three bums in rags.

You can hear Murder Most Foul on Spotify here

Murder Most Foul lyrics

It was a dark day in Dallas, November '63

A day that will live on in infamy
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
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
Was a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts, we've come to collect
We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We'll mock you and shock you and we'll put it in your face
We've already got someone here to take your place
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone's eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman, howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul

Hush, little children, you'll understand
The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry 'cross the Mersey and go for the throat
There's three bums comin' all dressed in rags
Pick up the pieces and lower the flags
I'm goin' to Woodstock, it's the Aquarian Age
Then I'll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage
Put your head out the window, let the good times roll
There's a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
Stack up the bricks, pour the cement
Don't say Dallas don't love you, Mr. President
Put your foot in the tank and then step on the gas
Try to make it to the triple underpass
Blackface singer, whiteface clown
Better not show your faces after the sun goes down
Up in the red light district, they've got cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street
When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe
Don't ask what your country can do for you
Cash on the barrelhead, money to burn
Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn
I'm going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
The place where faith, hope, and charity died
Shoot him while he runs, boy, shoot him while you can
See if you can shoot the invisible man
Goodbye, Charlie! Goodbye, Uncle Sam!
Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don't give a damn
What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know
"Shut your mouth," said a wise old owl
Business is business, and it's a murder most foul

Tommy, can you hear me? I'm the Acid Queen
I'm riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
Ridin' in the back seat next to my wife
Headed straight on in to the afterlife
I'm leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap
Hold on, I've been led into some kind of a trap
Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give
We're right down the street, from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and they took out his brain
What more could they do? They piled on the pain
But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at
For the last fifty years they've been searchin' for that
Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me
I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free
Send me some lovin', then tell me no lie
Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by
Wake up, little Susie, let's go for a drive
Cross the Trinity River, let's keep hope alive
Turn the radio on, don't touch the dials
Parkland Hospital, only six more miles
You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head
I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline
Never shot anyone from in front or behind
I've blood in my eye, got blood in my ear
I'm never gonna make it to the new frontier
Zapruder's film I seen night before
Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more
It's vile and deceitful, it's cruel and it's mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen
They killed him once and they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, "Son
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun"
Air Force One comin' in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at 2:38
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is, and it's murder most foul

What's new, pussycat? What'd I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it's beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it's thirty-six hours past Judgment Day
Wolfman Jack, he's speaking in tongues
He's going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play me that "Only the Good Die Young"
Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung
Play "St. James Infirmary" and the Court of King James
If you want to remember, you better write down the names
Play Etta James, too, play "I'd Rather Go Blind"
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind
Play John Lee Hooker, play "Scratch My Back"
Play it for that strip club owner named Jack
Guitar Slim going down slow
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe

Play "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"
Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling any good
Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey
Take it to the limit and let it go by
Play it for Carl Wilson, too
Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue
Play tragedy, play "Twilight Time"
Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime
Play another one and "Another One Bites the Dust"
Play "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In God We Trust"
Ride the pink horse down that long, lonesome road
Stand there and wait for his head to explode
Play "Mystery Train" for Mr. Mystery
The man who fell down dead like a rootless tree
Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor
Play it for the dog that got no master
Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz
Play "Blue Sky," play Dickey Betts
Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and "All That Jazz"
Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz
Play Buster Keaton, play Harold Lloyd
Play Bugsy Siegel, play Pretty Boy Floyd
Play the numbers, play the odds
Play "Cry Me a River" for the Lord of the gods
Play Number nine, play Number six
Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks
Play Nat King Cole, play "Nature Boy"
Play "Down in the Boondocks" for Terry Malloy
Play "It Happened One Night" and "One Night of Sin"
There's twelve million souls that are listening in
Play "Merchant of Venice", play "Merchants of Death"
Play "Stella by Starlight" for Lady Macbeth
Don't worry, Mr. President, help's on the way
Your brothers are comin', there'll be hell to pay
Brothers? What brothers? What's this about hell?
Tell them, "We're waiting, keep coming," we'll get them as well
Love Field is where his plane touched down
But it never did get back up off the ground
Was a hard act to follow, second to none
They killed him on the altar of the rising sun
Play "Misty" for me and "That Old Devil Moon"
Play "Anything Goes" and "Memphis in June"
Play "Lonely at the Top" and "Lonely Are the Brave"
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton, play "Lucille"
Play "Deep in a Dream", and play "Driving Wheel"
Play "Moonlight Sonata" in F-sharp
And "A Key to the Highway" for the king on the harp
Play "Marching Through Georgia" and "Dumbarton's Drums"
Play darkness and death will come when it comes
Play "Love Me or Leave Me" by the great Bud Powell
Play "The Blood-Stained Banner", play "Murder Most Foul"

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Your Comments

Lisa - Mar 30, 2020

Hi Mr. Reid, I heard it on RNZ a couple of days back now, though I may have lost track of time.. It's 16+ minutes of my listening life I'll not recoup. It sounded like a historical round-up of a life on the wane, with nothing fresh to add. :( Sometimes it's okay to just stop, if you have nothing further to say. Some unkind people have suggested he could maybe do a duet with Bono? GRAHAM REPLIES: a duet with bono would be unkind! As i said i don’t think it’s a masterpiece and it reminds us he got the Nobel Prize for Literature, not Music! I think the first half is fascinating but when he gets to that litany of names of songs and artists it is rhyme and reflection for the sake of it. it’s kinda clever how he is the observer and then Kennedy (alive and dead) when he circles back to it (just as he did in Brownsville Girl decades ago). But each to their own, most people can’t listen to a 16 minute “song”, especially one without a chorus!

(My students are quite gripped by the early Dylan songs we are listening to and then are surprised when I point of the lack of a chorus in them)
righto, thanks for the comment, all views accepted and acceptable!

GlimmerTwin - Apr 3, 2020

Believe the "three bums in rags" relates to another conspiracy theory , (ie they were in on it). Re is this any good? - well we have no right to expect anything from someone who turns 80 in May. No one else writes like this , there is a circular , seemingly disconnected stream of consciousness yet very line is significant in it's own way and he ties it all back. I can't dismiss - this especially the timing . He didn't get a Nobel prize for nothing...also intrigued as to how everyone who plays on this keeps in time and the production - Jack Frost no doubt..

Adrian - Apr 19, 2020

Nick Cave's "Red Hand Files" blog alerted me to this song. Graham, I always turn to your reviews but in this instance I found Cave's take on Murder Most Foul more in-tune with my own. I think it is a masterpiece and I think it is significant that it has been released now. I agree with Glimmer Twin above: he ties it all back. You point out the circular nature of the journey Dylan takes us on in the song. The list of songs and other (pop) cultural touchstones isn't random: they weave together and 'work on so many levels' (a hackneyed phrase that is, nonetheless, true). I haven't listened to a lot of Dylan, but to me, the song sounds like a meditation and an offering or a 'thank you' for music that has impacted on the world or Bob or both. In the context of a global crisis (death of a President/global pandemic) which generates numerous conspiracy theories, it feels important. There is already a playlist on Spotify of all the references in the song, bookended by the track itself. A playlist of songs that carry messages, hidden or otherwise. And the songs themselves are the message - the power of music to "save" lives or at least comfort us in the face of death.

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