By Matt Hanson
Bob Dylan’s new song not only articulates the madness that undermines the American experience, but supplies a certain kind of corrective, a tonic, for that kind of insanity.
Like the legend that he is, Dylan is a part of our musical culture whether he’s publicly involved or not. His brooding mug would no doubt appear on the Mount Rushmore of American popular music, alongside people like Elvis and Johnny Cash. A few years ago Dylan was bestowed the official sanction of a Nobel Prize, and I guess that is a good thing for those who put musicians and writers on the same shelf. But it really wasn’t all that necessary. Dylan’s songwriting brilliance has been established; there are plenty of unacknowledged writers all over the world who really could have used the signal boost a major award would bring.
There isn’t a better time than now for Dylan to release a new song, his first in eight years, given that the coronavirus has everyone stuck at home, with a lot more leisure time on their hands than usual. “Murder Most Foul” also happens to be the longest song Dylan’s ever recorded, and that is significant, coming from an artist who has recorded such epic songs as “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” It’s not entirely clear when the song was recorded. Dylan’s terse announcement suggests that it was done “a while ago.” Yet, even though it takes the Kennedy assassination as its central subject, the song speaks to the current national mood both directly and indirectly.
Speaking as a New England kid who once carried around a young adult biography of JFK as a sort of talisman (it didn’t make recess any more fun), it slightly pains me to point out that Baby Boomer mythology has tended to vastly overrate the Kennedy mythology. The Kennedys had plenty of nice qualities, but JFK’s political record — on things like civil rights, Cuba, Cold War saber-rattling, for a start — is decidedly mixed. Maybe you just had to be there. Looking at the Kennedys, as beacons of progressive hope, Camelot and New Frontier and all that, doesn’t warrant the generational mourning that has followed in their wake. And let’s all stop referring to JFK’s assassination as having anything to do with “America’s loss of innocence.” Consult a history book: that had happened many times — and long before — that fateful day in Dallas.
Still, the moment has a historical resonance. Greil Marcus has explored the meaning of the assassination by seeing it through the prism of film noir, pointing out how murky and ill-defined forces in American society suddenly took center stage, filling America’s mainstream TV screens with dread and fear. Conspiracy theories are the hallmark of the pseudo-intellectual but, to be honest, our not exactly knowing the who, what, how, and why of the President’s murder is unsettling in a way that can’t be easily shaken off. The gallows humor in Dylan’s song touches on the chaos at the core of the crime: “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’/ Shot down like a dog in broad daylight/ Was a matter of timing and the timing was right.”
It’s dark stuff, to be sure, and the title’s Hamlet reference is scarily apt. It doesn’t seem likely that the conspiratorial language that pops up in the song refers to Dylan’s opinion about what “really” happened that day. The paranoid sentiments are an acknowledgment of how anarchistic things become the deeper one scratches the American grain. There’s a stark and cavernous difference between the preening narratives America tells itself and reality as it exists from day to day. Watching White House press conferences during a time of deep existential anxiety for the nation displays this contrast in all its unnerving contradiction.
The story of American life is often told through its most gifted and perceptive artists. It’s one of the great ironies of our culture that the very parts of it that tend to be neglected, censored, and shoved aside by the powers that be end up dominating in the end. Think of jazz, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, and so on. And that may be one reason “Murder Most Foul”’s litany of auspicious names, songs, and films resonates so hauntingly. Dylan seems to be interested in resuscitating a culture that’s on the blink; he swerves from making dark jokes about the Kennedy assassination to name-checking such well-known artists as Patsy Cline, The Beatles, The Who, Don Henley, and Charlie Parker, as well as calling out more esoteric types such as Guitar Slim, Art Pepper, and Bud Powell. Then we’re taken on a tour of some of the unofficial entries in the Great American Songbook: “Play another one and ‘Another One Bites the Dust’/ Play ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘In God We Trust.'”
The cumulative effect is that the song not only articulates the madness that undermines the American experience but supplies a certain kind of corrective, a tonic, for that kind of insanity. Instead of throwing in the proverbial towel when confronting the lie that lurks at the heart of the American dream, “Murder Most Foul” taps into our music and art to sing about what makes this country truly great. And that is not the fool’s gold America tries to sell itself and the rest of the world. You could fill up the rest of your time in quarantine tracking down the main streets and back alleys of all the people the song references, and you’d have a good time doing it. And along the way you might just acquire a deeper, truer, sense of what this country’s really about once you’re done. Critic Harold Rosenberg once wrote that “American life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.” Dylan’s latest song offers a useful and timely tour of what is happening in that nameless, weedy place behind the billboard.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.