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.
A title spoken by the Ghost in Hamlet: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural” and also a Kennedy assassination conspiracy reference as Scott Warmuth noted:
Also the title of a Miss Marple movie starring Margaret Rutherford, of course. But I don’t imagine that’s a reference Dylan was going for! 😉
Beautiful. I can’t imagine how happy this will make Christopher Ricks.
‘See if you can shoot the invisible man.’ And nary an imperfect rhyme. Genius.
First class cultural journalism, Richard.
I thought Dylan had lost it with “Tempest” but this song, which sounds as if. It comes from the same period, disproves that. How was it kept hidden? How many more great tracks may there be?
” I thought Dylan had lost it with “Tempest”
Thats the kind of comment I’d expect to see in your ” Guardian ” [ see Phil Shaw’s comment ] … not here
Suffice it to say ” Tempest ” was pure genius … albeit perhaps a bit over some folks heads
Richard – thanks. Fabulous…
Thanks for the great review, Richard, beautifully written as always.
The interaction of the JFK killing with the musical references is very striking. Who would have expected Dylan to name drop The Who’s Tommy for example, amongst jazz luminaries as Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson in such a serious work. Always a man of hugely wide musical interests. This must be the first ever Dickie Betts reference one a song!
He is now hardly singing, but his phrasing and timing remain flawless. There remains much I do not really understand in the song but, as usual, several pennies will drop after repeated listening. A new song in the Sinatra albums mode. Great stuff!
Perhaps more soon or is this sent as a one off gift to “lift “ our spirits in such difficult times?
It certainly lifted my spirits. I’m intrigued by the cultural references — there’s even a nod to Warren Zevon’s great Desperados Under the Eaves (no, I know you don’t get him, Richard), and I assume the use of ‘bannister’ and ‘ferry’ in close proximity relates to the right-wing nut-jobs and JFK haters Guy Bannister and David Ferrie, who had links with Lee Harvey Oswald.
I made the mistake of looking at the ‘below the line’ readers’ comments after the Guardian’s piece. How depressing to find that people think it’s worth going on the thread to say ‘I can’t stand Bob Dylan’, ‘He can’t sing’ or ‘he should be working for Clinton’s cards with rhymes like that’. Worse still, the divisive sneers about ‘boomers’ as opposed to millennials. Truly pathetic.
He also mentions ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ which will please one Gerry Marsden.
Not easy to rhyme with Getz reckon Betts just got the nod over Don Letts
Desolation Row it ain’t but he wrote that too, and it still sets a higher bar. Name checks surpassing Don McLean and in a far more stream-of-consciousness narrative with multiple overlapping arcs, or, as Steve Swallow would say, wheels within wheels. Historical and breathtaking at once. Musically it brings to mind those wonderful recordings Peter Ruhmkorf made of his poetry with Michael Naura, Wolfgang Schluter and Eberhard Weber backing his readings creatively enough for the music to stand on its own. The poetic vibe brings to mind Allen Ginsberg, which I hope Nobelist Dylan would take as the great compliment it is meant to be.
No it’s not Desolation Row and it probably doesn’t rank among my Dylan favourites, which would come from the early albums plus Blonde On Blonde and Blood On the Tracks. Bt in the current circumstances it has landed like manna from heaven here on Isolation Row.
Christmas day in the morning . This aint the 60’s and Dylan aint in his twenty’s anymore ( nor are we )
So can we move on … evolve as listeners .. and allow our musicians to evolve as well !!!
I hate it when people whinge about this or that musical not doing what he/she did decades ago …. or even worse .. try to make comparisons to a pst long gone .
Simply stated … this is Today .. deal with it …
Perhaps the best thing the Cosmic Chameleon ( Bob Dylan ) has done in years ; Fantastic lyrics . Keeping the music well within his current limits – Showing off the best of Dylan rather than straining what he has left vocal wise – And a beautiful piece of arranging to boot .
And … dare I say it … an all too relevant revisiting of the past in light of the 350 lb orangutan we’re currently saddled with in this time of crisis
Rock On – Remain Calm – and do Carry On … regardless
At 17 minutes a pop, definitely not to be taken lightly.
But try to listen with the lyric lined up on a screen (https://genius.com/Bob-dylan-murder-most-foul-lyrics) – my god, the assortment of references is simply astonishing!
A seminal work, especially for those of us over 60 (when did anyone last hear a mention of Tom Dooley?).
All complemented perfectly by this review – which without taking anything for granted, we’ve come to expect.
Merci, Bob and Richard….bravo to you both
Great ‘trigger’ piece, Richard, setting the ball rolling – or loads of balls, being Dylan… I wonder if Dylan has watched Scorsese’s The Irishman, given that the film in part it re-assesses JFK and and the Assassination? Is ‘Murder Most Foul’ also like the film a kind of confession? Not that Dylan has actually committed a murder though you do make the point that he did compare himself to Oswald…
When I hear “It is what it is” I’m in the land of The Irishman.
Apologies, Richard – you pack a lot into your piece but you did not mention Dylan identifying with Oswald! My mistake – I read that elsewhere today…
Merger most foul.
Great piece. Great song.
I felt like drowning sailors are supposed to feel … as if their life is flashing in front of their eyes.
Many thanks for another excellent piece Richard. I must confess that the mastery of Bob Dylan has largely passed me by (though his Chronicles book. Whoah!). But ‘Murder Most Foul’ is magnificent. And it’s because its atypical of what I think Bob Dylan sounds like, that I like it so much. Musically it reminds me very much of the floating mournful quality of Gavin Bryars’ superb ‘The Sinking of The Titanic’. And its almost time-less monologue has similarities to Lou Reed’s dry and wonderful ‘Last Great American Whale’. Both those comparisons seem very apt in their individual ways. Well, indeed.
Wow. Wow. Not since Black Star!
Inter alia, here Dylan is become a veritable Bede for the post-war age.
Cocooned, via reading the words while listening, I found myself irreversibly taken back.
[a pleasure, I might add, during the dark days of lockdown, I do not care to easily forgo].
As for viewing, let alone ranking, MMF, as simply another piece of music..ok it’s each to his own.
Even though hindsight will likely reveal it as amounting to so much more.
An extraordinary song for extraordinary times. Thank you for the illuminating read Richard. May I just add that “Blood Stained Banners” (Jimmie Strothers) later morphed via Jorma Kaukonen’s arrangement into “Good Shepherd” for Jefferson Airplane (“Volunteers”).
” No Depression’s “Anne Margaret Daniel has taken the time to transcribe the lyrics ( after her comments )
And the rumors of a new Dylan album are rampant across the industry and the net . If this is any example … here’s hoping
Duly noted for future reference — I look forward to listening to it when I feel somewhat better than I do today.. I just wanted to say that, of all the albums I’ve listened to while I’ve been self-isolating, it is Dylan’s Modern Times that has provided the most pleasure.
Thanks for the article Richard. I agree it may well be his most arresting piece of work in years. I’m the producer of the Gideon Coe show on BBC 6 Music and next Thursday, 09/04. we’ll be using this multi-referential number as the basis for a themed show. It’ll be Murder Most Foul in full followed by as many of the artists and records the lyric lists as three hours allows. Hope that’s of some interest to you and anyone reading this.
Sounds very promising, Henry!
Having listened to ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ by Gavin Bryars I can see what Paul Kelly is getting at by comparing it to the new Dylan… Coincidentally, when Bryars had a period of collaboration with the artist Bruce McLean in the 1970s, they planned a show around Johnny Ray. It never happened but if it had the Kennedy assassination might have featured heavily. This is because Ray became a very close friend of the journalist and society wit Dorothy Kilgallen (they met doing TV when they both appeared on What’s My Line?). Kilgallen was one of the first journalists to challenge the Warren Commission’s findings, particularly as they pertained to Jack Ruby who she interviewed in prison. Kilgallen died in 1965 under circumstances which have never been satisfactorily explained (like her friend Marilyn Monroe). Ray was devastated. Murder most foul?
While I am on connections some of you might find a little tenuous, Robbie Robertson remembers playing in one of Jack Ruby’s clubs when he was in The Hawks!