Bob Dylan in a surprise move released his first song in 8 years, the epic length “Murder Most Foul”, an “American Pie”/”Imagine”/”Ball of Confusion”-esque song that couldn’t be timed better in its release. It’s historic for Bob Dylan too, being his first number one. In a music scene full of fun pop, hip hop and electronic music, it’s a quiet piano and violin driven folk song with distinct vocals that took the top spot… albeit in rock digital song sales.
As of writing this in late April, the Coronavirus has taken over 200,000 irreplaceable lives and there have been over 3 million cases recorded. Not only that, but politically, America isn’t doing well, to say the least. Some say it’s a repeat of 2016, but in my opinion it’s nearly worse this time. On one side you have the incumbent Donald Trump: a corrupt, sexist, racist, billionaire who used fake populism to get to the most powerful office in the world, and opposing him, we have former Vice President Joe Biden, whose brain isn’t what it once was, has been accused of sexual assault, has an iffy history with race relations, and has no solid policy ideas besides “I’m not Trump! Return to normalcy!” On top of all of this, our planet is in danger because of our consumption habits causing permanent damage to our home.
Bob Dylan isn’t afraid to get political in his music and he’s warning us all in this song chock full of pop culture and historical references. Welcome to history class, your teacher is Bob Dylan. If you want to read more about political classic rock songs, you can read these blog posts where I talk about the meanings behind these songs and highlight key lyrics. There’s a lot that you can learn from “Murder Most Foul” and Dylan’s approach to history, politics, and current events.
With us on the blog is a friend and fan of the blog, writer Jim Curtis, author of Decoding Dylan. He’s here to share his insights on the song, because naturally as a Bob Dylan fan, he’s got something to say and eagerly contacted me to talk about the song. If you want to learn more about his insights, keep on reading!
Angie Moon: What was your first impression of “Murder Most Foul”?
Jim Curtis: This may seem odd, but if you’ve read my book on Dylan, you’ll know why I say this. It was written in couplets. He reverted to the simple style of the very early stuff, in fact going back to the 50s that made a point of saying that what made the great period of Dylan’s work with Blonde on Blonde is that he made these very complicated stanza forms, lots of complicated rhymes.
But with “Murder Most Foul”, right back to the very simplest stuff. I think there’s a reason for that.
Angie: Were you surprised when he released his first song in eight years?
Jim: Yes, I was. I didn’t know what to make of it. It’s a lot to take in.
Angie: What did you think of the timing of the release of the song?
Jim: I didn’t know what to make of it. I was surprised. It just came out of the blue and that’s part of the point. Let me mention to you that, as you may know, I was at the first Bob Dylan conference in Tulsa and the rumour going around there was that he was having problems with arthritis and might not be able to play the guitar anymore and that may be why the sound on “Murder Most Foul” is only piano and violin. There’s no guitar at all. He doesn’t play guitar and nobody else plays guitar. That may have had something to do with it.
Angie: Were there any other Bob Dylan songs that are like this where they don’t use any guitar?
Jim: No. This is unusual. You know what it reminds me of, it reminds me of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which is only piano, no guitars, no nothing. And there’s a certain similar quality about it. The fact that both songs make these big, bold statements; they go on and on, but they don’t come to a climax. They leave you hanging and wanting more.
Angie: Do you think it’s a song that will be remembered in years to come?
Jim: Yes, yes I do. And to anticipate something, I want to give you what I think is the big picture. What I think is this is Dylan’s apocalyptic vision of America. He’s announcing to the world that the apocalypse is coming. That’s the big picture of it. I can talk a little bit more in detail about it, but that’s why it’s so startling and so important.
Angie: Can you go into more detail about the apocalypse in America?
Jim: Well, there’s some key lines. Dylan doesn’t use these big words at random. He doesn’t do anything at random, as a matter of fact. But I think the key line in the whole song is this: “The age of the antichrist has just begun”. That’s about halfway through the song and I think that he opens up to what it is.
Let me back up a minute and say if you want to understand the song, then you have to go back to a couple of things. The first one is this, an incident that not a lot of people may know about. In January of 1964, Dylan was at a social gathering and in ’64 of course everybody was still shocked by the assassination of President Kennedy. And Dylan said something that really upset people and got him a lot of bad press. He said I empathise with Lee Harvey Oswald. Lee Harvey Oswald was the most despised person in the world then and here’s Dylan saying I empathise with him.
What that means is that he was still a kid, still not used to fame. What he was doing was expressing integrated sensibility. Dylan’s not like you and me, besides the fact that he’s a genius and we aren’t. But Dylan doesn’t think in categories. Everything fits together for him. The whole world is a single piece of things. So he doesn’t divide the world into good guys and bad guys.
Over and over again in his great songs, what he does is speak out of compassion. It’s even in “The Girl from the North Country”. “Please make sure she has a coat so warm”, it’s the impetus, it’s not loving her, it’s making sure she’s warm and comfortable. She’s reaching out for compassion is something what everybody is and part of his larger spirituality.
But the other thing is that he was there in New York when it happened and he wants to tell us the connection between then and now. Because like I said, it’s all part of the same piece for Dylan, the past and present are together.
Let me tell you another thing that most people don’t know about that he did and you wouldn’t expect. You know what his reaction to the Civil Rights movement was in the 60s? People know “Blowing in the Wind”, they know that Dylan went to Mississippi and sang for the Freedom Riders and so forth, but what most people don’t know is that in the 60s, Dylan says in Chronicles, what he did was go to the New York Public Library and read newspapers written during the Civil War. That was the Civil Rights Movement for him because what he says in Chronicles, it’s all in Chronicles, he says it’s all the same for me: the 1860s and the 1960s were all the same. It is all part of this mystic vision of the world that he has.
And so that, I think, really helps us understand “Murder Most Foul”. Because the assassination of President Kennedy was in 1963, here we are in 2020, all part of the same package. That’s all part of the same flow of history for Dylan. That’s why he goes back to the assassination of President Kennedy in 2020.
Angie: That’s a lot to take in.
Jim: Well. yeah that’s a lot to take in. Something else about the song, it’s like his classic works of the 60s – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” for example, in that the song doesn’t have a chorus. It has a beginning and an end, but it doesn’t have a progression. It doesn’t have a chorus. It doesn’t build up to anything. It just goes on and on and on and finally it stops.
What I think it ultimately says is this: ‘This is how things are, what are you going to do about it?” Because if there were a chorus that summed it up, that gave something like answers, it wouldn’t be Dylan. Remember the chorus of “Blowing in the Wind” – ‘The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind’. What I’ve always believed about it, what I say in my book on Dylan is that what he’s saying there is that the answer is not the Civil Rights movement, what people thought at the time of the song the. What he means is ultimately the answers in history are unknowable, you can’t see them, like you can’t see the wind. It’s there, but you can’t see it. It’s a mystery of life and that’s what he’s doing.
Angie: Talking about this personally, what were your memories of that time back in the 60s when JFK was assassinated?
Jim: Well, my memories of the 60s had to do with with two things: I was in New York in graduate school at the time. I was going to class. I was walking down the street and, you probably don’t remember transistor radios, but back then people had transistor radios and I was standing on the street corner listening on transistor radios and I said to somebody ‘What’s the matter’ and I’ll never forget this, somebody said, ‘Somebody is sick’. Well, it wasn’t exactly sick so I went in to a dorm where there was a TV set and I saw Walter Cronkite – that unforgettable moment when he took off his glasses and said ‘The President is dead’. That tape, by the way, is repeated over and over again at the JFK Memorial Library in Boston. That’s exactly the tape that they play. There’s a whole section on the assassination, of course and it’s that piece of videotape that they play.
Angie: The song went #1 on the Billboard Charts, making it his first #1 ever. Is this surprising to you?
Jim: Yeah. It is. It’s surprising in a sense that it’s his first number one song, but there’s really nothing else like this anywhere. Nobody is doing anything like this. We live in the age of the great women singers: Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, all these great women singers and Dylan is the only man who made this big statement. I suspect that Bruce Springsteen at some time or other will come out with something that will be comparable, maybe inspired by what Dylan’s done, but nobody else is even remotely recording anything that speaks to the times like this. I think that’s why it’s #1.
Angie: Yeah, I definitely notice that because in music, I notice any older musicians who do release new stuff don’t get nearly the [same] press or the attention that Bob Dylan did with this song.
Jim: Let me mention something else that people may not catch. Like I said, Dylan has an integrated sensibility of the world as a whole thing for him. He doesn’t make distinctions. There’s a couple of really important movies that help you understand “Murder Most Foul”. One is mentioned, one isn’t. The one that’s not mentioned is a Kevin Costner movie called JFK. Anyhow, JFK is a movie that came out in 1994 [correction: 1991]. It starts Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, who is the district attorney of New Orleans. At the time in the 70s, he was known because he was obsessed with conspiracy theories about JFK and he’s the one who says in the movie, President Kennedy was the victim of a plot. He was lured into the killing zone and here’s how it happened. And I was convinced as anything that that’s the movie that gave Dylan the immediate impetus for writing this song. That’s one part of it.
But the other part of it, and this is why I emphasise the fact that Dylan has an integrated sensibility. There’s a movie called A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is the movie that introduced Freddy Krueger to the world, right? Well, I didn’t know this, but a friend of mine who teaches at SMU and lives in Dallas mentioned this. What I did not realise is that on that fateful day, when President Kennedy’s limousine made a left turn that’s referenced in this song, the street he turns onto is Elm Street in Dallas. And so Dylan being Dylan says ‘This is A Nightmare on Elm Street”. That is the classic example in the song of the way he brings together the two things that really matter to him: popular culture on one hand, history on the other. And they come together and this was a real life Nightmare on Elm Street.
And then, when you think about that, you also start thinking about the fact that fortunately, I guess, virtually none of us alive now actually saw the assassination. We know the assassination because we saw it played on TV over and over again. And you know what’s the most frequently used word in song is? Play. The word, ‘play’ must occur a couple of dozen times. Over and over again, ‘play it’, ‘play it’, ‘play it’. What he’s doing is impressing on you that our understanding of the world isn’t just history, it’s always history mixed with popular culture. They’re really part of the same thing. And if you think they’re separate, you’re deceived.
So that’s a really important way of understanding what he’s doing. He does what he does in “Desolation Row”. “Desolation Row” I guess is the Dylan song that is the closest precedent to “Murder Most Foul” because he brings in all these celebrities. In “Desolation Row”, he referred to celebrities as different as Bette Davis and Albert Einstein. And there must be close to 50 different celebrities, performers, artists, and singers that are mentioned in “Murder Most Foul”. And he does that because he wants to replay for us that time and make it real and make it immediate. Because like I said, it’s no different from 1963 and 2020. It’s the same.
Angie: Yeah, what we see of these events is all filtered through the news and there’s biases. What do you make of political songs in rock and roll, do you think they impact the world?
Jim: That’s a big one. I have thought a lot about that and I’m not sure. I’m inclined to think that it’s not political songs that make so much difference. I think it’s rather songs that tell us more about our understanding of the world like “Jumping Jack Flash”, it’s not a political song by any stretch of the imagination, but it gives you a sense for the drive and intensity of the 60s and then there’s various things by the Rolling Stones that do that. “Let me introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” [from “Sympathy For The Devil”]. The greatest rock and rollers give us an intensity of feeling, not necessarily answers to the world. That’s the best I can do at the moment.
Angie: What do you think people can take away from “Murder Most Foul”?
Jim: A sense of urgency. I keep thinking about this line, ‘It’s 36 hours past Judgement Day’. Dylan doesn’t say things like that lightly. If he did, he wouldn’t be Dylan. That we have a situation in which there are two murders that are lined up. You know I said JFK is the movie that gave Dylan the impetus for the song. But the song that gave Dylan the impetus is “American Pie”. This is an updated version of “American Pie”. For example, they both have all these references to songs and performers in them that illuminate the times in one way or another.
People don’t realise how competitive Dylan is. I think he’s wanted to reply to “American Pie” for a long time. I think this is his reply. Think about it like this. What’s the refrain in “American Pie”? It’s ‘the day the music died’. November 22, 1963 was the day the President died. What I think Dylan is doing in “Murder Most Foul” is upping the ante. This time it’s not the music, it’s not even the president, it may be democracy itself. And that’s why I think these grandiose lines, ‘it’s 36 hours past Judgement Day’, ‘the age of the antichrist has [only just] begun’. If that’s not serious stuff, I don’t know what is.
Angie: It sounds like it could be referencing a bunch of things. What do you think Judgement Day is referencing particularly?
Jim: Well, you have all these things coming together, there’s the political dissension in the country, there’s the coronavirus, and you put the two things together and it really does seem like we live in apocalyptic times.
Angie: Definitely feels like it for sure, it’s like we’re living in an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror.
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