There have, of course, been previous moments of global shock and fear. That Bob Dylan has chosen this moment to release the 17-minute lament over the assassination of John F Kennedy – and the decades of psychological and cultural aftershocks – is perhaps testament to the sudden swerve in the tracks of history we’re experiencing today. Especially when you consider that he’s been hoarding the song since, he’s said, “a while back”.
Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.
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.
— bobdylan.com (@bobdylan) March 27, 2020
While America’s folk prophet joins the cavalcade of writers and artists who have dissected the impact of JFK’s death (Don DeLillo, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Oliver Stone – erm – Billy Joel) it’s appearance seems intended to alert us to unrecognisable times ahead, and how selfishness, complacency and security are fragile follies indeed.
Dylan has written about Kennedy before – he produced poems about the events in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and it’s said that 1964’s ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ is about the assassination (although Bob has denied this, the enigmatic minx). With 40-odd year’s perspective, though, he uses the events of Dealey Plaza on November 22 1963 as the frame for an epic impressionist poem.
‘Murder Most Foul’ is a Wasteland of political and cultural history set to a brooding viola drone, meandering piano and plaintive violins. It’s a backing that fits Dylan’s dolorous delivery like a narcotic smoking jacket – he sounds equal parts Nick Cave, John Cale and Tom Waits, and maybe a quarter actual Dylan – but clashes movingly with his brutal imagery. “Shot down like a dog in daylight,” he growls. “They blew out the brains of the king/Thousands were watching, no-one saw a thing”.
From this unflinching opening shot – hinting at a Government set-up in lines such as “we’ve already got someone here to take your place”, “greatest magic trick ever under the sun” and “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline / I never shot anybody from front or behind” – Dylan follows Kennedy’s route to Parkland hospital autopsy table in gory, flickering flashback.
Meanwhile, his lens scans the wider cultural landscape, from the jazz and blues legends, silent screen stars and figures of golden age Americana to the cultural revolution which sprang up in its wake: The Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Queen. Giving that he spends 17 minutes largely listing songs, it’s rather disappointing that Gay Dad and Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs don’t get a shout out.
It’s a far gentler, more reflective take on Presidential murder plots than fans of angry-young-street-preacher Dylan might have hoped, but it suits our quiet, tremulous times. You can blast off the head of progressive culture, Dylan is saying, but you can never cut out its heart or stamp out its soul. Because that – as we should all remember in these trying months – is in our music, and neither gunshot or shutdown will silence it.