On Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul”

The Bard to his generation: “You Fucked Up”

Bob Dylan “Murder Most Foul” (Remix: Ron Hart)

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”

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

17 thoughts on “On Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul”

  • March 31, 2020 at 1:39 am
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    Poignant, challenging analysis of this significant message in a masterpiece. Thank you for searching for the deeper meaning…

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  • March 31, 2020 at 12:26 pm
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    This is an interesting piece from Dylan. either from the ‘triplicate’ or ‘tempest’ sessions. It feels more like a work in progress and an effort to offset the loses from the cancelled tour of Japan.

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  • March 31, 2020 at 11:32 pm
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    Brilliantly written. Really enjoyed the piece. But I disagree with the premise. I think I think Dylan is trying to state that even in the darkest episodes, like then , and now, art can sustain us. Not all of the references in MMF are the Beatles and “Ferry ‘Cross the Mercy”.
    Thelonius Monk and Macbeth are not pop culture.
    But, thank for an interesting piece.

    Reply
  • April 1, 2020 at 12:32 am
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    “We Didn‘t Start the Fire” is certainly not one of Billy Joel’s better songs, I’ll agree with that, but fuck you anyway.

    “Grotesquerie”? Who’s the one trying to show off his 11th grade English prowess here?

    Not sure what connection you’re even seeing between that and Dylan’s new song, apart from both songs listing a bunch of cultural touchstones. Other than that, not much else in common.

    Billy’s written many great songs — one of which Bob cites in his new song. “Fire” really isn’t one of great songs no, but what’s your point? Billy wrote it as a short history lesson for a kid (A friend of Sean Lennon’s, in fact) who told him his generation had it easier because (Not a precise quote) “Nothing happened when you were a kid, in the fifties.”

    Dumb kid, and maybe a dumb song too, but Billy made his point (Things were never easy, so don’t wallow in it). And he scored a hit along the way. Regardless, it wasn’t meant to be some grand statement. “Grotesquerie” seems a bit much, although Billy agrees that it’s not much musically (He’s called it “A horrendous drone”).

    Any artist who’s lasted as long as Billy, or Dylan, has had some duds along the way. Shit, let’s talk about Dylan’s “Bible Bob” period, or almost all of his ‘80s, and early ‘90s output. Once you’ve heard “Wiggle Wiggle,” you’ll be happy to hear “We Didn’t Start the Fire Again.”

    Bob must like something about Billy. He not only named “Only the Good Die Young” in his new song, but he actually gave Billy “Make You Feel My Love” to record before Bob himself did. A number of years ago Dylan apparently dropped by Billy’s house, unexpectedly, with his daughter because she wanted to meet Billy. If Bob Dylan pays you a visit, you’ve done something right with your life. Something beyond being a “rum-breathed word careener,” whatever the fuck that means (SO-ooo edgy you are!).

    Oh, yeah… “Murder Most Foul.” It’s pretty cool. I kind of miss the trippy, tricky word play of Bob’s more vintage stuff, but I like it. I came away with a similar take of how mistakes were made, our culture has decayed, and how we need the younger generations to put an end to it, and perhaps save us from our own stupidity (Although voting out Trump, along with his lapdogs in the Senate, and holding our “journalists” to a higher standard would also help).

    But then, I’m not sure how laying blame at the feet of, say, The Beatles, who went on to reshape the musical and cultural landscape, or John Lennon challenging us to “Imagine,” makes much sense. Seems like oversimplification. Or just wrong-headed, given how Dylan was as influenced by The Beatles as they were by him (And Dylan absolutely dug “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” though he mistook the line “I can’t hide” for “I get high”).

    I mean, if you’re going to bag on the distractions of “Daddy’s Pop Culture Keys,” look no further than the mirror: You worked for MTV and VH-1. Talk about a “vast wasteland,” as another writer once put it. Who are you to criticize anyone else? Keep biting that hand that’s fed you.

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  • April 1, 2020 at 2:14 pm
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    Shaun — some very good points, and you did point out, correctly, some of the adolescent snarkiness that probably diminishes my thesis. In any event, I do appreciate how deeply you read this, and that it inspired such a detailed response. Half the reason I do this is to elicit that kind of response, to make people think and consider what they listen to and maybe take for granted. And again, your points are well taken.

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  • April 1, 2020 at 5:15 pm
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    “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. ”

    maybe if you’ve never heard any of those artists. there’s a vast difference between minimalism and mere simplicity.

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    • April 2, 2020 at 3:06 pm
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      Dubkitty — Good point, and I may have been a little over-eager in my comparison. I’m actually very familiar with those artists (I have, bizarrely, a background in avant-garde/avant-pop music and I have worked with both Brook and Eno, and I was signed as an artist to Eno’s label), and because of my affection for those artists and that type of music, my comparison may have been hasty or even just pretentious. I don’t mind at all that you pointed it out, and you were probably right.

      Reply
  • April 1, 2020 at 9:06 pm
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    In the 1960’s young men of our generation were coming home from Viet Nam in boxes. Young people black and white were matching in the streets for civil rights. Oh yes, our generation includes African Americans and the rise of the civil rights movement. That wasn’t even mentioned in your article. More than one Kennedy was shot down like a dog, and Martin Luther King was blown away right in front of our eyes. We were not twisting and shouting when students were murdered at Kent State. Rage and frustration fueled the music scene, art scene, and the backbone of our generation. Of course there was a coup. We knew it at the time, and short of the violent overthrow of the government, what were we to do? The gang of perpetrators responsible for the assassination of JFK are well known, the individuals are not. Listen to farewell address of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The warning is succinct and spoken in plain english. Bob Dylan, Murder Most Foul. Ok, sure, why not? As usual Dylan creates more questions than answers. Dylan has created a powerful musical observation and tapestry that attempts to wrap its’ arms around an entire generation, and apparently we came up short. We threw the bums a dime in our prime. I looked you up on Wikipedia. Apparently we have you to thank for “discovering” Hootie & the Blowfish. Keep up the good work!

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  • April 2, 2020 at 11:28 am
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    Wow you responded to that person really well, you hardly see folks do that these days—-debates about art needn’t be heated arguments! People deserve to disagree in peace, thank you for fostering that and thank you both for thoughtfully and thoroughly voicing your opinions, I loved reading both! Oh yeah, and Bob and Billy both rock—yes, in quite different ways, but even so…!

    Reply
    • April 2, 2020 at 3:08 pm
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      I think the whole point of this stuff is to have intelligent discussion, and to provoke thought and opinion. Unless someone is purely cruel (and none of these comments have been!), I am really happy to see that people are engaged, and really happy to listen to and consider differing opinions.

      Reply
  • May 3, 2020 at 6:14 pm
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    Obviously I am late to this (thank Pamela Thurschwell in LA Review of Books), but first, thanks: a complex and interesting take. Second, something that I think is (at least psychologically) relevant: Dylan caught a huge amount of shit from the old folks who breathed the air around Tom Paine for the impromptu speech he gave on December 13, 1963, especially for the line: “I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him.” Which was taken very drastically out of context, near the end of — and causing the end of — a speech his audience clearly could not comprehend. His non-apology a week later is also interesting. Both are at:
    https://web.archive.org/web/20140911091238/http://www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm
    MMF seems to me like the closing of a circle, or maybe just another twist of the spiral.

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  • May 9, 2020 at 8:37 am
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    I concur with a number of previous commenters above, including you, that there’s a snarkiness to your take. However, I commend you for getting one thing very right that a lot of previous analyzers of Dylan’s latest epic song have gotten wrong, viz. that it’s “about” the JFK assination.

    Dylan’s simply illustrated, in a very artful way, that we see individual acts and events in history, but we don’t, maybe even can’t realize how they impact the world until it’s too late. Even people who can see what’s happening right in front of their eyes, who maybe understand what’s going on better than others, are for all practical purposes, “only a pawn in the(ir) game.”

    I think you’re definitely onto something about the way this happens, particularly with what Shaun above called “Daddy’s pop culture keys,” but I was sorta thinking the same thing myself as I read your take; “you gotta lotta nerve, fella.”

    Overall, you successfully avoid the tendency of Bobcats to get hung up on the details of MMF, what you’ve called, “the game Dylan is playing with our affection for hearing references,” but I wonder if Bob is actually calling us to do anything. He’s never claimed to be a prophet, after all.

    Reply
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  • May 11, 2020 at 6:54 pm
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    Thanks. Terrific depth. For those who take your thesis seriously, that Pop “bread and circuses” for my fellow boomers debilitated our civic sensibility in the context of a coup that featured that horrific snuff, a look at “Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream” by Dave McGowan will close the loop around the hardly incidental success of the operations. However, it is also that case that in this piece of Dylan’s one might also see that the literary and musical arts can also revive the ghost of that responsibility, and that songs accompany most the marches.

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  • July 28, 2020 at 2:26 am
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    In response to some of your commentary:

    //sadly but firmly stating that his generation were so easily distracted by the shiny objects of pop culture that they ignored a coup. …a very powerful statement about the impotence of a generation.//
    I don’t think the text supports your interpretation.

    //If that was the case, Dylan has certainly waited a goddamn long time to make this statement. //
    Dylan by expressing his own beliefs or by the literary device of a narrator is examining conspiracy culture. While previously this was a topic that would be dismissed out of hand, in this age with claims about the Deep State and QAnon coming directly from the mouth of the President of the USA its release is commentary on current events.

    //everything cited in the song could be found in a single, not especially attentive reading of a wiki page//
    The song makes reference to obscure works of JFK assassination conspiracies such as James Shelby Downard’s “King-Kill/33°: Masonic Symbolism in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” and Stanley J. Marks’ “Murder Most Foul! The conspiracy that murdered President Kennedy; 975 questions & answers.” These are not found on the Wikipedia page that speaks about the conspiracies theories. This is not something a plagiarizing highschooler could easily have come up with.

    I think that we can not tell if Dylan believes the JFK conspiracies laid out in the song as he invents a narrator who fictionally says and then travels in accord with the lines “I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age – Then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage”.

    I hold that the narrator is the soul of JFK which can not be found by those looking for it, and is an analogy for the lost innocence, trust, and security of the Baby Boom generation. “But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at – For the last fiffty years they’ve been searchin for that…The soul of a nation been torn away – And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay”.

    The dark forces behind the conspiracy are held to include organized crime who put human life beneath monetary gain. He goes on to show that this dark mentality is widespread in the U.S. “Living a nightmare on Elm Street…put your money in your shoe…Don’t ask what your country can do for you – Cash on the Barrelhead, money to burn…Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul”. The ascendancy of these forces are held to have risen to a metaphysical level and Dylan either as himself or as a voice distinct from the narrator says “The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son the age of the Antichrist has just only begun”.

    Here is where I think your take that Dylan is blasting the Boomers for being distracted by music is in direct contradiction with the text of the song. For the Spirit of JFK, the lost spirit of optimism that the Boomers have been searching for – has found itself in “the age of the Antichrist” but it doesn’t give condemnation but encouragement “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”. In an age of Antichrist, the spirit beckons people to listen for the words of a prophet “Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues..
    Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack- Play it for me in my long Cadillac”. Then the Spirit in his ghostly Cadillac, always traveling never arriving, calls for song after song, mentions film after film. This isn’t a list of distractions that fools fell for, this is not an artist bemoaning the existence of his art and setting fire to all that influenced him. It is the raising of the banner of art against an age where profits are put ahead of people.

    Released at time when a pestilence ravaged the land and those running the country demanded that at some point human lives must be sacrificed for the economy. Invoking in the halls of power, in the very Oval office of the president, the idea of human sacrifice in the name of cash – a theme this previously unreleased song examined.

    Dylan’s use of a narrator gives him the distance to be able to invoke conspiracy but it doesn’t harangue people to agree with it or not. Just as he doesn’t take to the media to support or denounce all the conspiracy theories we see swirling about us now.

    The full innocence can not be regained – one can never return to the security one felt before that which hid the forces of antichrist/an inhuman lust for wealth and power was torn away by murder. But Dylan raises the banner of art against all that, a ghost-like dirge with a wise spirit proclaiming that it is art that can soothe, art that can sustain, and art that can save.

    The antichrist is not a force humans can overcome, only divinity can – and for Dylan art is a means of approaching divinity. We are scarred by experiance and we have seen that even the great are fated to die, but art remains, and so faith and hope remains if we engage with that art – “Play ‘Darkness’ and death will come when it comes”.

    This is not a screed against art, but the balm of art. In an age of illness of the body – pestilance, illness of the mind – rage and conspiracy, and to Dylan – illness of the soul – loss of vision and hope. Released while we are in the throws of “the age of antichrist” where corruption seems to be spreading like the virus unchecked outside your door. Dylan does not call on you to forget the darkness – merely to remember the light. Or as his Christianity, much invoked in the song, says “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Do not despair, but play on in the face of the darkness, play on. In the face of darkness children play.

    TLDR: How is this about Dylan blasting people for being distracted by music and art when on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” show he told people to listen to many of these very songs. How is this blasting Boomers and an outreach to the Millennials when it’s in a tempo they don’t listen to, at a length they rarely have the time for, and has no one who is seen as a voice of their generation (unlike Paul McCartney’s outreach of “FourtyFiveSeconds” featuring Kanye West and Rihanna)?

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  • October 14, 2020 at 11:03 am
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    I admire the author’s attempt at in-depth analysis and deconstruction here; but in the end, the idea that Dylan’s stunning new masterpiece (“Murder Most Foul”) is somehow meant to be a rebuke specifically to the Baby Boomer generation, for supposedly ignoring a coup in plain sight, is at best extremely doubtful. I consider myself a more or less typical boomer; and I was TWELVE YEARS OLD when JFK was assassinated—still in Grade School for crying out loud!! Does the author expect that YOUNG CHILDREN should have somehow had the wherewithal to unravel a master coup (if that’s what it was)?? If the baby boomer generation somehow failed to respond diligently enough to JFK’s assassination, then it’s fair to say that all the other then-extant older generations failed equally or more so.

    Moreover, both as a youngster at the time in 1963 (and all through my adult life afterwards) I have greatly admired JFK; was heartbroken by his death; and have for decades remained deeply frustrated by the seeming inability of investigators to nail down for certain who if anyone (other than Lee Harvey Oswald) was behind what happened that awful day on November 22, 1963. And it has always been my general impression that we baby boomers, PERHAPS MORE THAN ANY OTHER GENERATION THAT CAME BEFORE OR AFTER US, were the ones who felt most crushed by JFK’s killing.

    No; I’m sorry; but I simply see no merit at all to the silly notion that we boomers were somehow at fault for (supposedly) not sufficiently responding to the JFK assassination simply because around the time of that horrible event, as well as for years after in its wake, we also just so happened to like great pop/rock music by the likes of The Beatles—or, for that matter, a young Bob Dylan , who at the time of JFK’s assassination was HIMSELF already a renowned and quite popular singer-songwriter with baby boomers.

    Baby Boomers in many ways quite possibly were the most pampered and fawned-over generation in American history; and to be sure we definitely have our faults—but our feelings about and reaction to the JFK assassination is not one of them.

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