Some thoughts on Dylan's "Murder Most Foul"
Originally posted on the Expecting Rain forum:
Some thoughts on "Murder Most Foul", after over a year:
- It works on me. I'm in the "it's a masterpiece" camp. I can tell you a story about why I think it is, but I'm not certain that would be the real story. ("Key West" on the other hand, does not bind me with its spell--somehow that one I look at from the outside, rather than get pulled in.)
- I think the central conflict in the song is between overwhelming cynicism and evil, represented by the killing of Kennedy, and the power of music to heal wounds and offer solace in the face of despair. I think Dylan has music "win" the battle, but it's not obvious. But at the end, "Murder Most Foul" no longer refers to the assassination so hideously depicted earlier in the song: it now refers to the song itself, and it is the last shot fired in Dylan's barrage of DJ Wolfman Jack invocations against hopelessness. This is a great bit of sleight-of-hand as well as a bit of braggadocio, but who's gonna argue that Dylan can't put himself in that cavalcade? Not me.
- In the first group of lines ("Twas a dark day in Dallas" through "Rub-a-dub-dub...", the assassination dominates, and the Wolfman (who often began his show with a howl) is invoked for the first time, but does not get any requests.
- In the second group of lines ("Hush lil children..." to "business is business"), the theme of music being a balm or comfort is invoked, but it doesn't seem fully up to the task. The Beatles holding your hand can't possibly console us for this death, the optimism of Woodstock segues quickly to Altamont and its notorious killings. The Wolfman doesn't show up here, but the song invocations are beginning to slip in. But the Kennedy assassination imagery still dominates.
- In the third group of lines ("Tommy can you hear me..." through "It is what it is...") the dark imagery dominates as we enter in and out of Kennedy's point of view. We do manage to get the radio on, but that's about it. There are a lot of song allusions, but they are in the service of the depiction of the grisly events; they don't offer solace.
- In the fourth and final group of lines ("What's New Pussycat?..." through the end), the battle is really joined. After the first line, we get three lines of bleakness: I said the soul of a nation been torn away /It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay / And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day. In response, the Wolfman reappears, "speaking in tongues", perhaps infused with divine power. At last, the invocation is made explicit: "Play me song, Mr. Wolfman Jack..." Now the musical invocations begin to dominate. They don't dispel the pain or drive it off: many of the selections are clearly infused with the grief and violence of the situation. And the lurid, grotesque imagery still interjects itself, e.g. "Stand there and wait for his head to explode". The personification of the assassins get in one more couplet: "Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell? /Tell ‘em we’re waitin’- keep coming - we’ll get ‘em as well". But after a few more lines about the aftermath of the killing it's almost all song requests, and the overall balance of the final section is very tilted towards the musical invocations. The tone of the background instrumentation shifts as well, sounding more hopeful. The musicians get the last word, even if that last word is a reference to the heinous act that we've been trying to console ourselves about.
- Was Dylan thinking, "Hmm...the first original song I release after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Better be a good one!" I'd be really nervous if it were me.
- I think the narrator of the song is clearly immersed in Kennedy assassination conspiracy lore, and seems to believe sinister forces were behind the act. Whether or not Dylan believes it, I don't know. Dylan is a great channeler of the American spirit: he could be just representing that angle because that's what the despair and bleakness of the act requires for the song: it's too big and catastrophic an act not to be part of something scripted by a powerful "they" (into whom the point of view sometimes steps, becoming "we"), think it's always tricky how much to identify Dylan with the narrators in his songs. But if I had to guess, it does seem that Dylan gives credence to the idea of a wider conspiracy.