Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’
A combination of chopped-up newsreel and fever dream, “Murder Most Foul” is Bob Dylan’s most striking piece of work in years. This is the author of “Desolation Row” populating a 17-minute song with a lifetime of remembered cultural fragments, zooming out and panning back and forth from the single pivotal event of the Kennedy assassination, plucking references out of the heavy air.
The voice is sombre, the mood subdued, occasionally lit by flashes of the absurd. Images like frames from the Zapruder film — date, time, location, automobile, wound, wife — are gradually eased aside to make room for mordant couplets: “Hush little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand”, “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage”, “Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen / I’m riding in long black Lincoln limousine”, “What is the truth, where did it go? / Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.”
A mosaic of references emerges. “Wake up, Little Susie”. Ride the Pink Horse. Terry Malloy. Patsy Cline. It Happened One Night. Dealey Plaza. “Lucille”. Deep Ellum. Nightmare on Elm Street. “Take It To the Limit”. “Goin’ Down Slow”. Air Force One and Love Field. What’s New, Pussycat?.
Eventually Dylan calls on Wolfman Jack, the great radio DJ of the Sixties, to play one record after another: John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back”, Dicky Betts, Stevie Nicks, even “Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and all that junk / All of that junk and all of that jazz / Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.” “Play ‘Misty’ for me and ‘That Old Devil Moon’ / Play ‘Anything Goes’, and ‘Memphis in June’. ” “Play me that ‘Only the Good Die Young’ / Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung.” “Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor / Play it for the dog that’s got no master.”
Its template is “‘Cross the Green Mountain”, the eight-minute song Dylan wrote for the soundtrack of the 2003 movie Gods and Generals, in which he put himself inside the mind of a dying Confederate soldier. In turn, that song followed the pattern of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, verse succeeding verse like gentle waves seemingly without end. “Murder Most Foul” is a tempo-less ballad: its instrumental accompaniment — I’m guessing viola, acoustic piano, semi-submerged harmonium and bowed double bass — follows the cadences of Dylan’s speech, a slow rubato weave and ripple of sound almost imperceptibly shifting in intensity, joined after two minutes by a drummer playing freely with great subtlety.
Here’s how it ends: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell / Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’, play ‘Murder Most Foul’.” Well.