CONTEMPORARY CULTURE

More Thoughts on Murder Most Foul: Most Foul Indeed

If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, …the world would be a little better place in which to live. — JFK

Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. 22 November 1963. Public domain.

Zürich. I shall never forget, President Kennedy was assassinated, the pain we felt for America and the bewilderment and disillusionment experienced by the many former soldiers in World War II and former inmates in Soviet camps in prison. The failure of the US judicial authorities to uncover the real assassins of Kennedy was all the worse because of the inability or the lack of desire by the American judicial authorities to uncover the assassins and clear up the crime..

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Creative Commons.

We had the feeling that powerful, openhanded and generous America, so boundlessly partial to freedom, had been smeared in the face with dirt, and the feeling persisted. Something more than respect was shaken — it was our faith.
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

So begins an essay on Henry Kissinger in a book of Solzhenitsyn’s selected writings titled World Communism: A Critical Review. That’s quite a quote when you consider the Nobel laureate who said it.

How interesting that I stumbled upon this passage (above) while listening to Dylan’s latest album Rough And Rowdy Ways, which culminates in the explosive epic 17-minute lament “Murder Most Foul.”

It takes but a glance to see what this song is about. The photo of JFK fills the back panel of RARW, with the Old English lettering Murder Most Foul beneath. The lyrics begin with a matter-of-fact alliteration: “It was a dark day in Dallas, November 1963”

So much has been written about the assassination that you’d think it difficult to add anything, yet Dylan adds much, and in the manner only Dylan can. I’m serious. Assemble a thousand songwriters with a thousand typewriters for a thousand days and how many would have come up with something like “Murder Most Foul”?

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
(I automatically hear in my mind, “Wait a minute boys, this one’s not dead” from “Hurricane”.)
“Of course we do, we know who you are”
Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car

EdNote: Now here’s an interesting aside. While editing this I have been listening to Murder Most Foul on YouTube and as YouTube usually does, they follow up with related videos. After two or three cuts from Rough And Rowdy Ways the next song in the playlist is Hurricane. What are the odds that this is a coincidence?

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The Cleveland headlines that weekend. Photo by the author.

Earlier this week I read Eyolf Østrem’s “Murder Most Foul (2020) — An American Litany” at Expecting Rain and was wholly into it, an excellent breakdown on this song. Østrem first breaks down the song’s structure, provides a musical analysis of the verses in order to set up the discussion of the lyrics.

In the first “great verse” Dylan sets down the historical framework, the storyteller holding the microphone, like a news commentator.

In the second verse, writes Østrem, “The narrator has put on a different hat: it is no longer the storyteller speaking, but the tutor, the ‘wise old owl’ who observes the events cooly and communicates to us children what he sees, in short sentences, clichés, commands.”

Hard to believe that it’s already nearly four months’s since the song went viral on Twitter in late March. That Friday morning I listened to it three times before doing anything else that day and it was the second verse that said “listen up” from the very first time I listened. The middle of this verse hit me with graphic force on a couple levels. First the visual, which all who have seen the Zapruder film will agree was disturbing enough. Second, the comparison to a great magic trick.

This is where the Solzhenitsyn quote comes to mind. I still remember the first magic show I attended. “How did he do that?” It made me eager to be a magician, to learn the secrets. Solzhenitsyn rightfully raises the question, “Why this lack of desire, lack of curiosity to know how they did it?”

The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done

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Houdini poster. Photo by the author.

I’ve mentioned it before that Dylan was a great fan of magic, especially the masterful magician and showman Harry Houdini. When Dylan was asked what historical moment he’d like to go back and see he replied that he’d like to have been there when Houdini was shackled, chained, trussed, nailed into a box and thrown into the East River off Governor’s Island.

The song is so dense that one can easily miss many of its features, but Østrem places a spotlight on this unique aspect of the Dylan account of the assassination.

“The third ‘great verse’ is mindblowing, both metaphorically and literally,” Østrem writes. “We are inside the head of the President while it is being blown to pieces — a unique insider perspective from a dying man, and we witness his surprised hallucinations while he observes his own death, partly as a very close observer (‘Ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife, … leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap’), partly as a detached soul, hovering over the scene, following the events depicted in the Zapruder film closely, before leaving it at 2:38 when the president’s dead and Johnson is sworn in.”

There are songs and movies in which the impact is strong at first, but diminishes after time. I think that is the difference between good and great. Dylan’s Nobel Prize was no fluke. The more you listen to this incredible reminiscence, the deeper it penetrates the deep spaces in your soul.

Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen
I’m riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
Ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife
Headed straight on in to the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap
Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street, from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and they took out his brain

This song is no joke, even when he says rub-a-dub-dub. Just as the album begins with “I Contain Multitudes” so does this song contain an incredible multitude of references that will reverberate beyond whatever you think you understand. Just as a garden of perennials continues to produce riches year after year, so will this song as does the rest of the Dylan catalogue.

If I manage to get you to listen more attentively to “Murder Most Foul” and read Eyolf Østrem’s Murder Most Foul (2020) — An American Litany , then I’ve accomplished my purpose. You can find my first reactions to Dylan’s song here: Dylan Dishes Up A New Meal with a Feast of References: Murder Most Foul .

Dylan’s brilliance has never been simply the writing, but the entire experience, the evocative manner in which we encounter him through his delivery and the supporting musical accompaniment.

For what it’s worth, if you are Dylan fan and don’t own Rough and Rowdy Ways, what are you waiting for? I’m serious. Like nearly every Dylan album I’ve every owned the more you listen, the more you appreciate everything you find here.

You can find the complete lyrics for this song at www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder-most-foul/

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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