The Bard to his generation: “You Fucked Up”
Let’s get this one thing straight: Bob Dylan’s beautiful, fascinating, and mesmeric “Murder Most Foul” is not some cutesy recitation of cultural signposts (“Ohhhhhhh LOOK, hunny, he mentioned Stevie Nicks and the Who!”), and it has got absolutely nothing to do with a honking 11th grade-English grotesquerie like “We Didnt Start the Fire.”
Since our bulging, sagging, aging generation was not raised on the quick affirmation of selfies, we simply love to hear songs where we can go, “Hey! I know that! I know that song / place / historical event!” When a rum-breathed word careener like Billy Joel does something like that, it’s the equivalent of some dumbass rock star shouting out the name of your city. But that is NOT what Bob Dylan is doing on “Murder Most Foul.”
So let us get that fucking straight. The real message of “Murder Most Foul” is so obvious it’s right in front of our faces: Bob Dylan (who will be 79 in May) is sadly but firmly stating that his generation were so easily distracted by the shiny objects of pop culture that they ignored a coup.
“Murder Most Foul” is a very powerful statement about the impotence of a generation. The near-17 minute lope of the song ends with a dire warning, and it comes in this not-so-hidden form: Of the 80 (!) songs, films, movie and music stars referenced in “Murder Most Foul”, two of the last four songs referenced (all in the final couplet of the piece) are songs associated with the American Civil War (“Marching Through Georgia” – a Union song – and “The Blood-Stained Banner,” a song linked to the CSA.). This is no fucking accident. It’s a very clear signpost directing us to the “big” meaning of the song. Dylan is saying seriously bad shit is happening, and this time are we going to just forget about it and hum along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” like his generation did?
VIDEO: The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”
The repeated interpolation of pop song titles into the familiar assassination story underlines Dylan’s intent. Even as his generation was confronted by a crime as bloody as a King’s beheading, they resorted to the cool comfort of pop stars and the bright, shiny objects of pop culture. This – not the language of revolution – was the vernacular they were comfortable with. That was the easy way to deal with these things. Manning the barricades would have been too goddamn hard. And we could be doing that again (something Dylan makes clear, by throwing in a few contemporary references and clues).
And no, “Murder Most Foul” is not some long-simmering, long delayed commentary on the JFK assassination. That’s a damn red herring. If that was the case, Dylan has certainly waited a goddamn long time to make this statement. Circa 1963/64, Dylan barely waited weeks to write, perform, and record songs that commented on events that he found fascinating or provocative (roughly a third of his early original canon are commentary on recent or current events); yet, you’re telling me it took him 57 years to get around to writing about 11/22/63? I mean, this is a guy who wrote a story about a cruise up the Hudson being oversold, yet the JFK murder did not merit a song? I also do not believe Dylan has any special knowledge of the assassination (everything cited in the song could be found in a single, not especially attentive reading of a wiki page). If Dylan just wanted to talk about JFK, he could have done it in four or five minutes. Instead, Dylan is using the event as a platform to say this was a gigantic ugly, cruel, deceitful and mean event (in rapid succession, he uses all these words to describe it), but hey LOOK, here come the Beatles, and Woodstock is just around the corner! Yay! Put down that outrage and pick up a tie-dyed shirt!
At some point, the torrent of references becomes so thick as to almost obscure the narrative, but this is confirmation of the meaning: Why attend to this tragedy, this coup, when we have so many great songs to listen to? Let’s note this couplet:
Turn on the radio, don’t touch the dials
Parkland hospital, only six more miles
You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you fill me with lead
That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head
I’m just a Patsy, like Patsy Cline
In journalistic terms, that’s called burying the lede. Oswald-as-Patsy is one of the central factors of assassination lore, trumpeted as evidence of conspiracy, yet here Dylan uses it as a jumping off point for a pun. That’s not Dylan being cute, coy or clever; that’s Dylan saying that we use pop to obfuscate history, as a mask between reality and us.
The musical landscape of “Murder Most Foul” is extraordinary, if nearly invisible (and gorgeously so). A deeply simple, elegiac sigh and wisp of a slow wind through sagging magnolias, it adamantly refuses to alter dynamic, through nearly seventeen prayerful minutes (it is nearly Neu!-like in it’s refusal to rise or fall). It is a scream, whispered.
Musically, the song will make sense to anyone who has followed Dylan even a little for the last three decades. We’ve heard the gentle, simple puffs of melody and the easy luminescent wash of the arrangement before in “Make You Feel My Love,” “Lenny Bruce,” and most notably, “Not Dark Yet” (one of Dylan’s major works of the post-Desire era). However, “Murder Most Foul” takes this text-and-texture technique to an extreme. The hush of the arrangement is virtually ambient, and in fact recalls the attentive minimalism we associate with Durutti Column, Eno, Roedelius, Michael Brook, or the monumental Moondog. At times, the song is so repetitive, so simple, that it nearly vanishes into the air (a short harmonica break about five and half minutes in is so distant as to feel almost imagined). As noted, Dylan has worked with this kind of minimalism and repetition his entire career (if you want exotic bridges, listen to Echo and the Bunnymen). But I think that what we have here is a genuinely new – or at least revised – musical ideation for Dylan: On “Murder Most Foul,” he has taken the engaged, sunset ambience of his work since Time Out of Mind and committed it to the repetitive, unvarying, word-driven template that he applied to the recordings he did between 1962 and ‘64. There is very little that separates the musical landscape on “Murder Most Foul” from the ultra-simple, hamster-wheel shuffling of his earliest commentaries and talking blues songs, except the music is presented in a whisper. Fascinating shit, here.
The listener may also be slightly distracted by the over-familiarity of the gently unfolding chord sequence: It will immediately bring to mind “Imagine,” “Everybody Hurts,” or the quieter parts of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” I suspect any and all of these references – especially “Imagine” – may be intentional. It is very possible Dylan is building an anti-“Imagine” here, a dark, dire warning of what happens when a generation is distracted by Daddy Pop Culture’s Keys. Dylan does not want us to imagine no countries or possessions, he wants us to confront what we refuse to imagine: That the soundtrack of our imagination has caused us to allow horror to happen.
While listening to and considering “Murder Most Foul,” I found myself repeatedly thinking of two other songs. The first is “Crucifixion,” Phil Ochs’ masterpiece about voyeurism and the JFK assassination, released in 1967.
VIDEO: Phil Ochs “Crucifixion”
The message of “Crucifixion” was relatively simple: America must kill its’ idols, and Americans demand to drool over pictures of the killing. Although both songs are significantly different in intent, there is a core idea that “Crucifixion” and “Murder Most Foul” share: Americans are uniquely bred to miss the point. Ochs says that our fascination with the details of the crime caused us to obscure the greater meaning of the crime and the harm it did a generation; and Dylan says that we used the superficial noise of pop culture to distract ourselves from the coup that took place right in front of our eyes.
The other song I relate closely to “Murder Most Foul” is “Memphis, Egypt,” released in 1989 by The Mekons. They sing:
Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late.
The battles we fought were long and hard
Just not to be consumed by rock n’ roll.
Capitalisms favorite boy child, we must apologise…
We know the devil and we have shaken him by the hand,
Embraced him and thought his foul breath was fine perfume
Just like rock n’ roll
In fact, the entire album that features “Memphis Egypt” (The Mekons Rock’n’Roll) is a concept album dealing with the attraction and ultimate impotency of the cultural spectacle that has consumed our lives. And I am quite damn sure THAT is the message of “Murder Most Foul”: When the forces of darkness are not just amassing on the horizon but actually streaming out of your computer screen and TV set, don’t just distract yourself with seemingly meaningful pop songs or cultural events, as his generation did. Dylan and his generation witnessed a Presidential murder/coup, a long and pointless war, and Watergate; they responded with Woodstock and Rumours, as opposed to general strikes.
Anyone who listens to “Murder Most Foul,” if they are not distracted by the game Dylan is playing with our affection for hearing references to familiar cultural signposts will realize he is talking about the failure of his generation, and urging younger people not to make the same mistake.
AUDIO: Bob Dylan “Murder Most Foul”