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Unreliable Narrator on the Run

Bob Dylan's Dystopian Dirge


So, what else is new? Last week, at the stroke of midnight, Bob Dylan released a previously unreleased song, “Murder Most Foul,’’ along with a cryptic commentary:


“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.”

Set against the backdrop of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 – a head shot of JFK is the stark illustration of the online release - at nearly 17 minutes, it’s his longest tune yet. And, as usual, it’s a Rorschach test for admirers, detractors and just plain listeners.

Since his youth, Dylan has studiously avoided directly addressing the cultural moment; there’s a memorable scene in Martin Scorsese’s documentary in which Joan Baez recalls his expression of love minus zero, no interest, in her efforts to keep supporting The Cause, in songs, benefits or appearances, to a likeminded echo chamber.

And when he has let down his guard with more literal efforts – “George Jackson,’’ “Lenny Bruce’’ or even “Roll On, John,’’ his tribute to the late Mr. Lennon – the tunes feel forced; you can almost visibly see him trying to shrug off the jacket of earthbound reality. This boy’s boot heels need to be rambling, always.

Those who see “Murder Most Foul’’ as a straight-up endorsement of the conspiracy theories about JFK’s death –we know you’re out there – are mistaken. Yes, there are random hints to that effect scattered in the tune – references to Jack Ruby, Oswald and the Zapruder tape, along with a possible criminal succession plot: “We’ve already got someone here to take your place.’’

But the “murder most foul’’ alluded to here, taking its cue from “Hamlet,’” has more to do with the consequences, than the circumstances, of this long-ago event.

This is an ode to the “old, weird America,’’ forged on the anvil of slavery, long before the fall from grace symbolized, and embodied, with JFK’s killing –let alone the psychic damage done to a country of television watchers mainlining the event.

...the “murder most foul’’ alluded to here, taking its cue from “Macbeth,’” has more to do with the consequences, than the circumstances, of this long-ago event.

It’s pointless to dissect the lyrics – as usual, there are moments of great lyricism matched by silly, surreal word play. One of Dylan’s running arguments with Allen Ginsberg was over the importance of rhymes in poetry, at least in musical poetry, and he’s always taken a schoolboy’s delight in playing with close connections, and stanzas that sound like nursery rhymes.

There have been other songs “about’’ this topic. Phil Ochs used to introduce his tribute, “That Was The President,’’ with the mordant observation: “My Marxist friends don’t understand why I wrote this song….that’s why I’m not a Marxist.’’ Former Plimsouls frontman Peter David Case has a moving elegy, “I Shook His Hand.’’ My favorite is “Mr. Dream,’’ by undeservedly obscure folkie Ed Askew, which I first heard in New Haven, where Ed was living at the time, in the early ‘70s.

My circumstances were the opposite of ideal – it had been a difficult decade – but the haunting words and ukulele accompaniment got me: “And the weatherman in the afternoon murdered the dream/And the sound of the shot stopped the world at one o’clock.”

Ed will never be as famous as Dylan, but the resonance of the tune went beyond the pain of the event, to deeper sorrows, worse wounds.

Bob has walked a different road, with a different destiny.

Of course, releasing the tune at this particular moment is a metaphor, just as “Highway 61 Revisited’’ offered a fair warning about the carnie barkers, promoters and disaster artists waiting in the wings of our future. Turn on the news if you dare.

His conclusion is fitting:

“Play “Love Me Or Leave Me’’ by the great Bud Powell

Play “The Blood-Stained Banner,’’ play “Murder Most Foul.’’


The banner referenced here, of course, is the Confederate flag. This is the broken soul of our nation, a sickness unto death that a song –let alone a vaccine – will never fix. But give Dylan credit for the diagnosis.

The cure, if there is one, is another matter.

Paul Wilner is a poet, journalist and critic. ​