Thoughts Stirred By a ‘Murder Most Foul’

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,

‘Brothers No More’

For fans of The Band, the recently released movie, Once Were Brothers, is more than just a fun romp through the group’s catalog and mythology. It’s also first-person testimony in the long-running debate over whether or not The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson is an asshole. 

That charge was made in round terms over the years by his late band mates Levon Helm and Rick Danko, most pointedly in Levon’s 1993 biography, This Wheel’s on Fire. Money was a central issue. As the writer of most of The Band’s original songs, Robbie gets most of the songwriting royalties from a catalog that includes cultural touchstones like “The Weight.” Levon claimed the songs were collaborations, so he should get royalties, too—a claim that became especially poignant when he went into bankruptcy after a tragic house fire. 

How would this movie color my view of the feud? I admit I came in with my guard up. Brothers is a Robbie-driven narrative, and I wasn’t a fan of his contributions to The Band’s acclaimed 1978 movie, The Last Waltz. Too many woe-is-me stories about “The Road.” Too many glamour shots of the maestro passionately coaxing magic from his Fender. Still, I bought the DVD, thinking the musical segments would be worth it. But even the music sometimes comes up short, literally, as verses were edited out of several of their songs—not what I expect from a concert film.  

At any rate, I’m relieved to report that in Brothers, Robbie was more likable. Rather than complain about the road, he spoke of his upbringing and the joy he found in the music he heard during visits to the Native American reservation where his mother was raised. And how he found inspiration for writing “The Weight” by reading the manufacturing sticker inside his Martin guitar, “made in Nazareth, Pa.,” hence the opening line, “I pulled into Nazareth.” Like how George Harrison’s “Handle Me With Care” was inspired by a packing carton. (Note to myself: Read more labels!)

A Lot To Like

Mixing such anecdotes with strong musical performances and vintage footage and photos, this film has a lot to like. And I gained new sympathy for Robbie. He was the most ambitious Band member, the one who kept pushing them, the one who was first to marry and have kids, the one who behaved most responsibly. When some members got lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, I empathized with Robbie’s frustration. 

And yet, the movie still plays like Robbie’s attempt at controlling The Band’s narrative. His discussion of The Last Waltz seems revisionist, for example. Other Band members have claimed the film was Robbie’s project, and they went along with only partial awareness of its scope. But in this movie Robbie calls it a group effort and claims his intent was that The Band could still get back together. I checked though, and in the Last Waltz he was definitive that this was their last show, that he was done touring. 

My introduction to the feud Band members had with Robbie Robertson came when I interviewed Rick Danko for a newspaper review I wrote of a performance he did with Levon Helm in 1983. I asked why they were performing again. Didn’t they say in The Last Waltz that they were done? He jammed his finger into his chest and his face into mine and said with full diaphragm support, “I never said that. You never heard ME say that!” Years later, in 1998, my band, Watkins and the Rapiers, opened for him, and I took an opportunity in the green room to show him how he had answered my question 15 years earlier, above. “Yeah, that sounds like how I used to be,” he said with what appeared to be (and I hope actually was) real amusement. 

Robbie also makes the preposterous claim in Brothers that it would have been impossible for The Band to get back together. News flash: the other four did reform in 1983, continued after Richard Manual’s death in 1986 and stayed together until Rick Danko’s death in 1999. That’s a 16-year stretch—as long as the original group was together as The Band, The Hawks and the other names they concocted. Robbie was the only one who didn’t participate in this second life. Brothers makes no mention of the post-Robbie Band, nor that one of the brothers, Richard Manual, hung himself while touring with that outfit, a rather glaring omission. 

Who Wrote the Songs?

The movie briefly addresses the songwriting controversy as part of its passing mention of Levon’s later-life contempt for Robbie—and it was pretty much dismissed as a “Get-off-my-lawn!” argument.

I’ve always sympathized with Levon and his big-hearted approach to the music, and I initially supported his songwriting claim. But as I looked more closely, I found myself on Robbie’s side. No one disputes that he brought the songs in. If others then contributed to the bones of the song—the lyrics, the melody, the hooks—then they are co-writers. But nothing I’ve heard from Levon rises up to that level. His descriptions are more about arranging, not co-writing. 

Robbie has defended himself by pointing out that Levon rarely has songwriting credits even in his solo recordings. Of course, if Levon were here, he might point out that Robbie’s only hit songs are the ones Levon and his Band mates sing. Touché! 

And that’s where this controversy has settled. The mechanisms for paying the group’s members didn’t match the influence each had. And rather than find an innovative way to achieve equitable pay, Robbie hid in his technical correctness, while Levon made songwriting-credit claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny. 

One or the Other

Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a dysfunctional family mess, as Robbie did. Of course, you like to think that a real hero, a real brother, would find a way to help a brother in need. Robbie apparently never stepped up, nor did he appear to reconcile with Levon. In Brothers, Robbie says that when he got word of Levon’s impending death, he visited, but arrived too late. Levon was in a coma and didn’t reawaken. So Robbie prayed for him. Evidently that was as close as they came to reconciliation.

Ruminating on the movie after getting home, I stumbled upon an earlier brotherly reference from the Stage Fright album they were working on when the drug issues surfaced. Richard sings this Robbie-written lyric in “The Shape I’m In:” “Save your neck, or save your brother. Looks like it’s one or the other.” 

How personal—and prescient—those lines now seem. 

Photo at the top of the page © David Gahr.

The Public Sink of the Future

Of course!

That was my reaction when I first saw a sink that grouped the three hand washing enablers inches apart in proper deployment order: soap dispenser, faucet and hand drier. A one-stop washing experience made especially convenient by motion-activators. Soap dispensed with a swipe of the hand. Water ready when you are. Then the coup de grace: the hand drier. No more hands dripping walks to nearest paper towel dispenser—or worse, waiting in line for one. It’s like the automated car wash for hands. What more could you ask for?

Well, actually, the coronavirus gives us a glimpse of a new frontier. 

Proper washing requires 20 seconds of scrubbing, healthcare professionals remind us as we attempt to stop the spread of the virus. So how do you time it? With a timepiece? Your watch is on your wrist, which is involved in hand washing, so it’s not ideal. Your phone probably has a stopwatch, but then you are pressing and swiping, which isn’t convenient, and you’re doing it in a watery environment, which may damage your phone. Timing it in your head isn’t reliable. Some suggest singing a 20-second song like “Happy Birthday,” but that gets old after say, your 10,654th washing.

Then there’s the boredom factor. Twenty seconds is a long time to invest in a repetitive act that offers no distractions from TV or social media. 

What to do? In the future, I believe we’ll have sinks with voice-activated timers that play 20-second songs to signal the proper length of a hand-washing session, thereby addressing both the timing and the boredom factors. Sink users could select a song they know or ask “Siri de Bain” to select one for them. 

Standard selections might remind washers why it’s important to give their hands the full 20-second treatment. See “20 Seconds” and “Let’s Talk About Your Hands.”

20 Seconds
Let’s Talk About Your Hands

No doubt some will offer tongue-in-cheek observations, as in “I’m Washing My Hands.”

I’m Washing My Hands.

And some experimental artists will forgo hand washing altogether to provide more of a 20-second experience. Give a listen to “No Time For Fooling Around.” 

No Time For Fooling Around

With multiple sinks in the public restroom, this could result in cacophony, so the enabling technology will need to provide a methodology for precisely controlling sound waves to be audible within tightly prescribed areas. Something like the Get Smart TV series’ “Cone of Silence,” but invisible. 

So there’s the vision. Technologists: make it a reality.