Dusting off an impeccable ability to read the moment that has been mothballed for decades, Bob Dylan on March 26 released his first original song in eight years. Apparently he’d been sitting on his recording of “Murder Most Foul” for some time and decided to release it now for “my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” he wrote in a tweet.
And all 17 minutes of are is free to stream. No doubt, his generosity was in part a response to this strange time in which we now live, with huge swathes of our economy shut down as people isolate themselves to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Everyday people are hoarding toilet paper. The New York Times runs photos of empty Manhattan streets looking like a Twilight Zone revival. And the president asks the states’ governors to show their appreciation to him before he responds to their pandemic needs.
I’m among those who have been taking advantage of the bonus self-isolation time now on my hands to delve into long-shelved projects. This is a time to write that book, to organize those family photos, to devote time to the longer forms that are so easy to set aside in favor of tweets and TV. So if there was ever a time to release the longest song in a catalog that includes such marathon performances as “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Desolation Row,” this is it. (I’m a little disappointed that at 16:56, it is just short of the 17:05 album version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—couldn’t you have stretched for 10 more seconds Bob?)
On my first listen, it took me a while to adjust to the song’s sonic landscape: bowed bass and strings, piano, occasional drums and that gravelly old Bob Dylan voice, not exactly singing, but not exactly talking either. It comes off a bit like a moodier “If Dogs Run Free,” somewhat reminiscent of the hypnotic sonic washes created on non-coronavirus Wednesday nights in Rochester’s Little Theatre Café by the Margaret Explosion. Floating in that are the sometimes vivid, sometimes pedestrian images of Dylan’s lyrics, lulling you to sleep, then slapping you in the face, then tapping you on the shoulder. They mix clinical details of the Kennedy assassination with endless cultural references in ramblings too fresh to follow precise meter, but always confirmed with rhymes. And just when you think the song is going off into some kind of 1960s Aquarian romp, the Kennedy references return, echoing across the song as they did across the era, as if they shaped everything that came after, as if the counterculture and the movements it spawned were responses to that moment, to that Murder Most Foul.
And what of the title? I remember an entire college literature class period being devoted to the three-word opening line of Moby Dick. This title feels like it could elicit a similar discussion. Its use of an archaic form begs the question, is the observer out of touch or perhaps seeking to express the long view of history? It uses words not typically associated with the Kennedy assassination. “Murder” makes it less regal, more familiar and immediate. “Foul” is a gentlemanly way to say, “out of bounds,” or more accusingly, that “It’s grossly offensive” or more bluntly, that “It stinks!” And this one isn’t just foul. It’s the most foul. And so on.
When looking through old things, I sometimes reflect on how different the world might have been had some people lived: the Kennedy brothers and perhaps Martin Luther King and Sam Cooke, too. This song stirs all that up. It makes you think, this is how we got here. Via a murder most foul, engineered, I suspect, by someone whose request for a favor wasn’t honored.
Photo of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez by Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149559