Why Bob Dylan’s first 2020 release was also amongst his greatest songs
In the early hours of March 27, 2020, the Youtube channel entitled “Bob Dylan” saw a quiet addition, with an unprecedented personal message from him. It said — “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.”
The 78-year-old colossus had released the longest song of his career, his first original since winning the Nobel, with more sense of wonder in it than any of his near-600 original songs. This was a room differently lit from all other Bob Dylan songs, with a unique kind of warmth and elegance. And so, despite providing no new angle to approach him, you do see him in a new light. A light in synch with the light outside — which is why that abrupt release.
It wasn’t just the longest song of his career, but also one of his very greatest, arranged differently from all others. It is very likely the finest post-retirement-age song written by anyone till date, awe-inspiring for such ambition to even be comprehended by someone of this vintage, let alone the energy to realise it. Going by human history, it is also likely to be the last true masterpiece of his career (though, given his superhuman contributions, you can never be sure of this).
Ostensibly a “murder ballad” about John F Kennedy’s assassination, the song broadened its scope to include a big picture that was breathtaking in its scope, a hypnotic spell that fell gently and deeply. Besides describing the assassination, the words dealt with everything around it — the evil machinations (he pretty much implies a coup), the decline of a culture and the sadness of watching it fall and crash in slow motion. But then…exhorting a radio DJ to play songs to assuage the gloom — a catalogue of artists and song titles from that same space and time (and later), great music, mostly American. Some film titles and cultural markers thrown in too, a bittersweet lifting of spirits with a distinctly mysterious healing property.
The song’s real magic actually lies in those eleven minutes of seemingly random name-checking that Dylan does — of musicians, song titles and lines that are cultural markers, all swirling in slow motion to construct the Great Beauty, as if to assuage the political, cultural and moral decay that the passing of so much time since November 1963 only confirms. The Shakespearean dread in the title itself, and the song’s theme, invoking the ghost in “Hamlet” still out to square the unfinished business of the most significant unsolved murder in American history.
This well-constructed video (below), that represents the lyrics literally, perhaps suggests a structure that resembles JFK about to pass away, having a flash of what he holds dear passing in front of him before it all blacks out. Then, as the past and future conflate, it really becomes about America and the world, and it is suddenly about Bob Dylan himself perhaps (and what he holds dear). The dirge-like vibe suddenly makes complete sense. (Then, there is this innovative treatment of the song that combines its essence with that of another song at the opposite end of the hope spectrum, the irony of both being interchangeable rather interesting).
The mysterious healing property of that stream-of-consciousness recitation in 3 notes — much like a chant, hymn or prayer, is the very essence of Dylan’s magic, even when it has a rock and roll backbeat. And the familiar lilt of that lived-in, seen-it-all voice, with that absolutely unique and instantly recognisable charge. Those who focus on the words will think of “American Pie” or “We Didn’t Start The Fire” while comprehending a catalogue of names, but Dylan could really be singing out names out of a telephone directory here, with just this cascading piano, aching cello, wistful violin and light percussion accompanying him on this march through a mighty emotional charge, using words as navigation, with literal meaning not really the point. Which might be the most misunderstood aspect of his genius.
More than any other song in his career, this one is perhaps the perfect archetype to understand where Dylan’s greatest magic has laid all these years. When the Nobel committee in its citation to Dylan’s Literature Prize referred to “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, they were not referring to words on a page. It is considered blasphemous to say this but many of Dylan’s famous lines in his songs might have been interchanged with something else, without altering the essential power of that song. Just like any of the names/lines/ song-titles in those 11 magical minutes could have been interchanged with something else.
Though Dylan didn’t reveal when the song was created, the Shakespearian song title (from “Hamlet”) echoed his last album of original songs from 2012 (“Tempest”). Further, Dylan had been unable to play guitar from end-2012 (for almost five years) and this was ostensibly a piano composition. So, that placed it in 2013, as did the manner in which it seems to affectionately evoke Lou Reed’s prose-speech songs, one of which is arguably still the greatest song about Kennedy’s assassination (because this one is not really about that); Reed died on a Sunday morning in end-October 2013. And since the song also mentions 50 years since Kennedy’s assassination, that means November 2013. So, this would place the song in end-2013, which fits the shape of Dylan’s vocals here.
“Murder Most Foul” as a meditation on grief, decay and great beauty, is also an elegy about national trauma in 1963, and universal anguish in 2020, its timing of release no coincidence. With the power to survive and healing built in.
When the world’s greatest living artist meditates aloud about death, scheming, foreboding, decay and great, great beauty, the last perhaps making up for all else, you mustn’t interrupt, not for seventeen minutes.
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 let’s 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 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 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 on 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’ve 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 that 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 that place Tom Dooley was hung
Play “St. James Infirmary” and the Court of King James
If you wanna 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 of 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”
Some of the references explained online
1. “Living in a nightmare on Elm Street”
Elm Street is the actual road in Dallas where Kennedy was assassinated.
21 years later, Wes Craven’s horror classic Nightmare on Elm Street, about a deranged psychopath who slaughters children in their dreams, hit movie theaters. The connection to JFK’s death is most likely not a complete coincidence, though Craven never commented on the matter.
2. “Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn”
This comes straight from the mouth of Clark Gable’s character of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. In the original Margaret Mitchell book, Butler says, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” This was changed to, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the movie. In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan puts yet another tiny spin on it.
3. “Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen”
These are two lines from the Who’s 1969 rock opera, Tommy, about a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard. The Acid Queen is a woman hired by his family who tries to restore his senses, either by dosing him with LSD or having sex with him. The song isn’t quite clear.
4. “Wake up, little Susie; let’s go for a drive”
“Wake Up Little Susie” is a 1957 hit by the Everly Brothers, written by Felice Bryant and Boudleaux Bryant. After the assassination of Kennedy, it seemed like a relic from a distant, innocent past.
5. “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline”
Lee Harvey Oswald told the press he was “just a patsy” after he was apprehended. Patsy Cline is a country legend who also died tragically young in 1963.
6. “What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?”
“What’s New Pussycat” is a 1965 Tom Jones hit written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. “What’d I Say” is a 1959 Ray Charles R&B classic. Their only real connection is that their titles both pose a question.
7. “Wolfman Jack, speaking in tongues”
Wolfman Jack was a raspy-voiced radio DJ whose popularity peaked in the early Sixties. In 1973, he portrayed himself in the George Lucas film American Graffiti as the cultural embodiment of the era in which the film took place.
8. “Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung”
Tom Dula was a Confederate war veteran who was convicted of murdering a woman named Laura Foster. He was hanged in 1868, but questions linger to this day about his guilt. He was the inspiration for the folk song “Tom Dooley,” which was covered by the Kingston Trio in 1958. Dylan’s rise in the early Sixties made groups like them seem hopelessly passé.
9. “Play ‘Please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ “
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a 1964 Nina Simone song that the Animals turned into a rock hit the following year. Animals keyboardist Alan Price left the group shortly after it was recorded. He appears alongside Bob Dylan throughout the documentary Don’t Look Back.
10. “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey/Take it to the limit and let it go by”
Don Henley and Glenn Frey are the main songwriting team in the Eagles, and sang most of their hits. “Take It to the Limit,” however, features Eagles bassist Randy Meisner on lead vocals. He left the band in 1977, and the only time he’s performed with them since then was at their 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
11. “Play it for Carl Wilson, too/Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue”
Carl Wilson was one of the founding members of the Beach Boys. In 1976, he sang background vocals on the Warren Zevon song “Desperados Under the Eaves,” which contains the line, “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away.” Dylan is a longtime fan of Zevon. In 2002, shortly before Zevon’s death, he played many of his songs in concert.
12. “Play Etta James, too. Play ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ “
Blues singer Etta James had a big hit with “I’d Rather Go Blind” in 1968, which she wrote with Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster.
13. “Play ‘Blue Sky’; play Dickey Betts”
“Blue Sky” is a 1972 Allman Brothers Band song from their album Eat a Peach. It’s one of the last songs that Duane Allman worked on before his death. But as Dylan notes, it was written by Dickey Betts.
14. “Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz”
The Birdman of Alcatraz is a 1962 Burt Lancaster film about a real-life convicted murderer, Robert Stroud, who became fixated on birds after his arrest. Dylan may reference him in the song because he died one day before JFK. C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day as Kennedy, though their deaths receive almost no attention.
15. “Play ‘Down In The Boondocks’ for Terry Malloy”
Terry Malloy is the dockworker who Marlon Brando portrayed in the 1954 classic On the Waterfront. “Down in the Boondocks” is a 1965 Billie Joe Royal song written by Joe South, who plays guitar on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
16. “Play ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Memphis in June’ “
“Anything Goes” is the title song from a 1934 Broadway musical, with lyrics by Cole Porter. “Memphis in June” is a 1945 Hoagy Carmichael song. Dylan previously referenced it in his 1985 track “Tight Connection to My Heart.’”
17. Play ‘Lonely at the Top’ and ‘Lonely Are the Brave’”
“Lonely at the Top” has been used as a title for songs by Randy Newman, Bon Jovi, Mick Jagger, and even Chamillionaire. The Randy Newman title is, by far, the most famous, and probably the one Dylan is referencing here. Lonely Are the Brave is a 1962 Kirk Douglas Western based on Edward Abbey’s novel The Brave Cowboy.
18. “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell”
Bud Powell was a wildly innovative jazz pianist of the Fifties and Sixties who died of tuberculosis in 1966, when he was just 41. “Love Me or Leave Me” is a 1928 Walter Davidson/Gus Kahn song from the Broadway play Whoopee! It was covered by everyone from Ruth Etting to Nina Simone to Ella Fitzgerald. It’s unclear, however, if there’s a version by Bud Powell. He certainly didn’t write it.
19 . “Play ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ “
“Marching Through Georgia” is a Civil War-era song about William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, a brutal and destructive military campaign that crippled the Confederacy near the end of the war. “Dumbarton’s Drums” is a Scottish song dating back to the 18th century.
20. “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner,’ play ‘Murder Most Foul’ “
“The Blood-Stained Banner” is a nickname given to the third and final official flag of the Confederacy. It was unveiled just weeks before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War. “Murder Most Foul” is the title of this new Dylan song that is so long and epic, it wraps up with a reference to itself.