At midnight on 27 March 2020, Bob Dylan (or his office) used Twitter to announce the release of a song called ‘Murder Most Foul’ on You Tube. It was a bold step in several ways – his longest-ever song, his first new composition in almost a decade, in an unfamiliar musical register – and it was rewarded with generous media attention and the artist’s first #1 ranking on the Billboard Charts in 60 years. It was also the first time he’d released a new song through social media, into the wild, as it were. At 78 years old, Dylan has not lost his capacity for reinvention, not his sense of timing. With half the world in lockdown and all of it in confusion, he offered a song of apocalyptic vision, at once sad and consoling.
‘Murder Most Foul’ declares its subject before a note is played. The video shows only a black and white photograph of John F. Kennedy, the American president notoriously assassinated in Dallas (TX) on 22 November 1963. And the song – mostly spoken rather than sung, over a hushed soundscape of piano, violin, bass and drums – tells that story in seemingly bald terms, bordering on cliché, before widening its focus to embrace the musical and cultural landscape of the 1950s and 1960s. So far, so obvious, and that is how most journalists have heard the song. Seeing Dylan as a Sixties icon, they interpret ‘Murder Most Foul’ as a lament for another Sixties icon. It is that, of course, but it’s much more too. Bob Dylan does not look back, even when his musical palette is composed of old sounds and forms. He is also a master of misdirection. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, Dylan actually sings of two murders:
They killed him once, they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”Bob Dylan, Murder Most Foul, (2020)
One way to make sense of these lines is to distinguish the man from the presidency. A man was murdered in November 1963, and with him an idea of the American presidency was buried too. Listening to the song in that light, it seems to connect the 1960s with today, the murder of a man with the murder of an institution. The first couplet below is an accurate description of Kennedy’s assassination. The second, which follows but is separated by an unexplained break in its published version, would be a much better description of the 2016 presidential election.
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 doneBob Dylan, Murder Most Foul, (2020)
And who does this sound like?
We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your placeBob Dylan, Murder Most Foul, (2020)
It’s not my intention to offer a detailed exegesis of Bob Dylan’s art, but my gratitude for this unexpected gift that has given me so much pleasure in the past weeks and whose music seemed, as so often in the past, to be presciently in tune with the moment. It isn’t, of course, except in the sense that we’re alive at the same time, and therefore subject to similar circumstances. Artists aren’t prophets, as Dylan keeps saying (his latest song is ‘False Prophet‘).
If art feels in tune with us, it’s because we bring ourselves to it, we find there what we need. We ignore the art that cannot speak to us, perhaps not even noticing it (if you’re not interested in Dylan, or belong to the lost tribe who think he’s a bad singer, you won’t have heard ‘Murder Most Foul’ and probably read this far). Artists offer the possibility of conversation – mediated through images, sounds, stories, films, language etc. – that help others make sense of themselves and their experience. That offer is limitless and all-inclusive, as diverse as humanity itself. I’ve spent these lockdown weeks talking not just with Bob Dylan but with Natalia Ginzburg, Gabriel Fielding, Cristóvam, Dag Hammarskjöld, the cast of The Good Place and Manu Larcenet among others. Their companionship has made these months of solitude not just bearable but meaningful.
And that’s a good test of art: can it survive losing the context of its creation? Can it escape its creator and give itself to all those who open their hearts to it, changing each time in response to their unforeseeable needs? It’s true that I find in ‘Murder Most Foul’ what I’m looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Philip Pullman has written:
I try to explain something about the democratic nature of reading. I say that whatever my intention might have been when I wrote the book, the meaning doesn’t consist only of my intention. The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers’ own minds as they read them.Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling (2017).
My gratitude to artists knows no bounds, especially to those, like Bob Dylan, Philip Pullman and so many others, who respect their audiences by not telling them what to think.