Over the last year I've read the three-thousand page, four volume set of Robert Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson." In the final volume, Caro does an in depth profile of John F. Kennedy. I came away from this profile not only with more knowledge and understanding of Kennedy, but also extremely impressed with the man. Last year when Bob Dylan released "Murder Most Foul," which chronicles the assassination of Kennedy I wrote an essay without fully understanding what was lost that November 1963 day in Dallas. So today, May 24th 2021, on the 80th birthday of America's greatest artist, Bob Dylan, I thought I'd repost that essay.
On April 4, 1968 at 6pm, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down by an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee. I was a six-year old white kid, in an all white neighborhood and only had a vaguest notion of him. I knew he was an important man, but didn’t understand the words associated with him. Words like civil rights, non-violence and others. So, I asked my dad: “Who is this Martin Luther King guy? After a moment’s hesitation he said, “He’s like the President of the blacks.” Though I certainly wasn’t aware of the struggle of marginalized black and brown people at the time I did know there was a division between the races. In 1968, even a six-year old could discern the divisions in our troubled country. So, this explanation made sense to me.
Nearly two-months later to the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Nobody had to tell me who he was. Not only did I hear my older siblings and their friends talk with great excitement about RFK becoming the next President, I knew he was the brother of the slain 35th President, John F. Kennedy.
Like the Kennedys, my family was culturally Irish-Catholic and the Buffalo neighborhood where I grew up on the south side of the city fancied itself as the 26th county of Ireland. The Irish-Catholic roots were such that the entrance ways to many of my friends' houses had pictures of Pope Paul and JFK hanging side by side. Pope Paul was the keeper of the faith and JFK was the sainted martyr taken from us before his promise was realized—in a most foul way.
On that November morning when JFK was murdered Bob Dylan was twenty-two years old. The previous May he had released his second album, The Freewheelin Bob Dylan to much acclaim and good sales. It contained some of his most enduring compositions: “Blowin In The Wind,” “North Country Girl,” “Masters of War,” among others. In thinking about the release of Dylan’s seventeen minute epic, “Murder Most Foul,” which brutally chronicles the assassination of JFK, that was one of the things that struck me—Dylan was just twenty-two years old on the day of the murder.
At the time Dylan said he didn’t necessarily feel the assassination more than anyone else. But what everyone was feeling was utter devastation. This was the first death of a sitting president in the television age. From the day of the assassination to the memorial three days later all programming and commercials on the three existing networks were cancelled. The average American home consumed almost eight hours of coverage per day from the assassination on Friday to the memorial on Monday. It was a single rapt audience not seen again until maybe the tragedy of 09/11. At twenty-two Bob Dylan wasn't quite the Dylan we shortly would come to know, but he was an American, and all of America was shocked and devastated.
Dylan’s personal situation was that of a twenty-two year old kid living with his activist, art school girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who is pictured with him on the cover of Freewheelin. Rotolo’s parents were members of the Communist Party and had strong left wing commitments which Dylan embraced. In addition to identifying with the political views of Rotolo and her family it’s reasonable to believe, like other young people, Dylan was swept up in the promise of JFK. Kennedy was a progressive in the tradition of the New Deal and had a beautiful wife and family. He cultivated a dazzling image and communicated a message of hope and progress with soaring inclusive rhetoric.
Arriving in New York from Minnesota on the cusp of JFK’s inauguration, Dylan’s talent and ambition quickly made him a national figure. With the release of Freewheelin, the aspirations JFK spoke of with such towering elegance and power were all coming true for Bob Dylan. And then the President was assassinated.
Revelations of marital infidelities, drug dependencies and hidden health issues tarnished JFK’s image in the years following his presidency. These lapses were unknown to the public while he was in office and like the rest of the country JFK’s assassination probably hurt Dylan very badly. Yes, I know he’s made statements to the contrary. But given the epic proportions of “Murder Most Foul,” I find it hard to believe he didn’t feel this tragedy deeply, even if it didn’t find expression in a song like other events during that period. And, yes, I know it’s never wise to make statements about what Bob Dylan is thinking or feeling. Misdirection has been and remains an arrow in his quiver, but I’d rather leave the sideshow questions to others and instead try to hear and feel the songs.
And what I hear in “Murder Most Foul,” is a grievously injured twenty-two year old Bob Dylan, in the same way millions of African-Americans would have been injured if Barack Obama had been gunned down in the street like a dog. Like Obama, JFK was a man of great skill and intellect, but more than that he was a symbol of our best selves and what we could be. He was a transformational figure, a precursor to Obama’s idea of “hope and change,” which would see all of us rise. Of course, on both accounts that’s not how it played out. But, judging from the language of “Murder Most Foul,” not only was Dylan grievously injured by the assassination he’s still pissed at what was taken from us on that November morning in 1963.
Musically, “Murder Most Foul,” is a brooding minimalistic chant. The recurring piano lines, meager percussion and mournful strings vibe like a setting sun. Dylan distills the details of the assassination more as a narrator than singer. And while the couplets maybe don’t have the grace and style befitting a Nobel Laureate they are clear headed in their despair and anger. “Murder Most Foul,” as described by the writer Tim Sommer, “. . . is a scream, whispered.”
The details of the murder come to us in words like slaughter, mutilated and killed while Dylan bitterly tells us “the King” was shot like a dog with no respect. There are grotesque images that would be appropriate in any Quentin Tarantino film—blown out brains, blood in the eye and ear and the exploded head of the President.
The crime is laid out in the opening part of the song and is followed by a series of pop culture allusions. Dylan mentions the Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont, even the horror movie Nightmare On Elm Street. At first, it’s a little disorienting trying to see what the game is and I get how some want to go to the “American Pie” pop angle—seventy-four songs are named checked in “Murder Most Foul” according to NPR. But as Dylan continues to detail the crime with mentions of Zapruder's film, Oswald and Ruby along with references to songs by The Grateful Dead and The Who, at about the ten minute mark after citing “What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones and “What’d I Say,” by Ray Charles he tells us what he’s thinking:
What’s new pussycat, what’d I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s 36 hours past judgment day . . .
He hinted at it earlier in the Delany Plaza passage, where faith and hope and charity died. With the promise of JFK we had a moment to turn the page on our troubled, unsettled past but it died there in that nightmare on Elm Street, our American soul torn away, leading to a slow decay. Yes, there would be some short term civil and voting rights victories, but MLK and RFK, the ascendant movement figures who would lead us from this darkness were gunned down as well. And with their deaths any chance for faith and hope and charity were gone.
We ignored these coups and instead filled our heads with the pop of Stevie Nicks and Billy Joel. We fell prey to the deceptions of Johnson and Nixon. And while they were deceiving us Wolfman Jack played us “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” by The Fifth Dimension. Then, as our confidence sagged we were told “It’s Morning in America Again.” With this new beginning came a philosophy that would subtly dismantle New Deal policies and the government institutions that helped people, but we were content to listen to the Eagles take us to the limit. A “Contract With America,” came next, formed out of emotionally charged, focus group language meant to divide. A cable network saw money in this division, played fast and loose with facts and assassinated the character of anyone who disagreed with them, while we listened to John Lee Hooker and Dickey Betts. Out of the rubble of 9/11 attacks we were again duped into another fake war and there was a Wall Street crash while we got down with Elvis and Bob Willis. A transformational figure came next speaking of hope and change, but the roots of decay and division were so entrenched he was thwarted, nullified and disrespected as we continued on our perilous journey bopping along to Monk and Charlie Parker. And here we stand, in the middle of a pandemic and with hundreds of thousands dying we’re told America is being made great again while Wolfman Jack plays the old Civil War song about Union Army’s complete destruction of the south, “Marching Through Georgia. ” And he’s also playing “Murder Most Foul.”
That is what Dylan is telling us. We turned away and filled our heads with pop ditties while our country decayed from within. News commentators and pundits opine how we’ll rise up and come back from this pandemic because we’re America and that’s what we do. But the America I see is a country bitterly divided against itself. We don’t read or think critically. We ignore science and don’t trust facts. We are deceived by those who profit from our resentments. And as we retreat to our separate corners we fail to understand that none of us are free until all of us are free.
You can listen to “Murder Most Foul” as an anguished work of art; as a Shakespearean allegory; as a tresure trove of James Joyce like allusions; as a retelling of troubled American history; or as an anchor in the Dylan catalog. It exists on multiple levels. But, however you process it, one thing is clear, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss, “Murder Most Foul,” is an indictment of present day America and the hope and promise we let slip through our fingers while we were otherwise occupied.
Nearly six-decades have gone by since people were clamoring for Bob Dylan’s response to the assassination of JFK. In 1963 the twenty-two year old phenom had none to offer. Grief is a fickle thing that burns red hot for a time and then simmers and cools in the recesses of our being, but never really goes away. Now, through the prism of time and tragedy, Bob Dylan has finally found a way to express that grief and it’s a murder most foul.