“It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63…” – Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul”
I always look forward to Fridays for all the usual reasons, mostly bourbon. But beyond the end of the workweek and the free time the weekend brings, I look forward to Friday because that’s when all the new music gets released. In the old days albums came out on Tuesdays in an attempt to game the charts. Charts came out on Mondays so labels wanted the max amount of time for an album to rack up sales before that next chart ranking came out. Last night I went to bed like I do on every other Thursday night, looking forward to whatever new music was going to be released today. Actually last night, I was specifically thinking about Pearl Jam and their new album Gigaton. Leave it to Bob Dylan to completely derail my listening…
Much to my surprise, Bob Dylan has released a new single today, “Murder Most Foul.” I had heard rumors that Dylan might be putting out a new album this year and if this song is a hint, I hope that’s true. On his website and several social media platforms Dylan released the following message: “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. Bob Dylan”
Might find interesting? Hell, yes!
I’ve been a Dylan fan since I began listening to rock and roll. My rock and roll awakening took place in the late 70s, so I was a little late to the game, but the first Dylan album I bought was the first of his Christian trilogy Slow Train Coming, and I’m not religious. From there I went to his iconic, first Greatest Hits with the photo of him shot closeup from the side, playing the harmonica. Slow Train was full of apocalyptic, wrath of God like songs (the title track, “Change My Way of Thinking”) and I’ve always considered its a good introduction to Bob’s darker visions of the world. In college I found myself purchasing all of his great, great, classic records: Blonde On Blonde, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Desire. Hell I even have Knocked Out Loaded on vinyl…I’ve stayed with Dylan up through his last studio album of original material, 2012’s Tempest. Since then, he’s been doing albums of Sinatra tunes as done by a border town bar band. I am thrilled to see a new Dylan original.
After I got over my first shock at seeing the Dylan release, I was equally surprised when I saw the song was just shy of seventeen minutes at 16:55. There are very few tracks in my collection that last that long. Well, studio tracks. Sure the Allman Brothers clocked in at over thirty minutes on “Mountain Jam.” Neil Young has “Driftin’ Back” at over twenty-seven minutes or “Ordinary People” over eighteen minutes. Those longer songs tend to be jam-oriented tracks. This is not that. Although Dylan is no stranger to longer epics. Time Out of Mind had a track “Highlands” that lasted over 16 minutes. And that last album of originals, Tempest had the title track that clocked in at almost fourteen minutes. All I know is the Rock Chick is not going to like this one…
The track itself is mesmerizing. I can’t stop listening to this and have been doing so since I got up. The music is hushed. It’s a piano being quietly played over (very) muted percussion. Doug Herron’s violin plays along as a beautiful accent. There’s no jam or big guitar solo that tears up 10 minutes like CCR playing “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The focus is all on Dylan’s voice – which sounds much less gravelly here than he’s sounded on his latter day albums. He’s singing in a less fierce, more melancholy way so maybe that’s why it isn’t so scratchy. He’s not whispering but it’s like a secret being murmured. The music is almost ethereal. It reminds me, like it will many, of something from Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, or “Listen To the Lion.” There’s an almost spiritual or holy vibe.
The focus on Dylan’s vocals are key because the lyrics of this song are mind blowing. The theme, on the surface at least, is the assassination of JFK in November of ’63. Leave it to Bob Dylan to write a song about one of the darkest chapters of America’s history during the current dark period of America’s history. This will fill up at least a few days of quarantine for me, analyzing these lyrics. They’re like an onion… so many layers. Its poetry set to music… it feels like I’m hearing ‘The Iliad’ recited in the original Greek by a campfire on Crete while my flock lays down for the night. The title, “Murder Most Foul” is from Shakespeare, no stranger to telling epic historical tragedies. One thread is a surreal, fever-dream imagining of JFK’s thoughts/conversation after he’s shot. There are mentions of the “grassy knoll,” the “three tramps” and to Governor Connally’s wife saying “Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President” right before he was shot. I got goose bumps, man.
But the lyrics seem to point to a bigger story than just JFK’s assassination. When he sings “The day they killed him someone said to me, “The Age of the Antichrist has just only begun,” we get the feeling there’s more to this song. The song plays more like a travelogue through the last fifty years of culture… It’s more a commentary of how things were never quite right in America after JFK was killed… “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” Heavy!!
As Dylan sings, in what seems to be a stream-of-consciousness way, he makes so many cultural references. From movies “Nightmare on Elm St” (believe it or not!) to “Play Misty For Me.” Every line has a reference to some other cultural touchpoint. “Gower Street” seems to point to Warren Zevon. He mentions many songs by their titles or artists’ by name including Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Billy Joel and Lindsey and Stevie Nicks. Is this a darker, better written “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” Not hardly. I’m guessing there are already playlists on Spotify generated simply from the list of tracks in this song. You could almost suggest that Dylan is painting a picture here that JFK wasn’t the only one who died on that grim November day in Dallas.
This one is a stone-cold classic. I know a lot of people use Dylan’s vocal decline as an excuse to dismiss his music, but this is a reason to continue to listen to the man. It’s wonderful when rock and roll transcends the format and becomes art. Dylan’s music has always had the power to move me. This song is no exception.