As if there weren’t enough weird stuff going on in the world, Bob Dylan dropped a new song Friday. It’s his first new music in eight years. It’s also the longest song he’s ever released.
And it’s about the JFK assassination.
Wait, what? After six decades in the spotlight, we’re used to mysterious Zimmy career moves, but this seems even more inscruta-Bob than usual. The nation and the world are convulsed by a viral pandemic, our government’s a clown show, people are losing jobs and livelihoods by the millions, and Dylan wants to talk about Dallas?
It’s said that we respond to and relate to large civic traumas by measuring them against those we experienced earlier. For today’s college students, that’s 9/11. For people who came of age in the 1980s, the Challenger explosion is burned onto their inner TV screen. I was 6 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and one of my first memories — certainly the first awareness I had of a world outside my childhood — was my mother’s gasp of shock as our milk-and-cookies afterschool TV time was interrupted by a news bulletin.
It may be thus here, Dylan at 78 standing the new unknowable against the old and seeing where they interlock. “Murder Most Foul” appeared out of nowhere — all 16 minutes and 55 seconds of it — on a variety of Internet music outposts at 12 a.m. Friday (you can hear it for free on YouTube). An older generation of fans and news media immediately set to work deciphering its meanings; ironically, most younger listeners were too preoccupied with British pop singer Dua Lipa’s new album, “Future Nostalgia,” which dropped at the same time, to listen to some legendary old goat.
Fine, their loss. “Murder Most Foul,” which Dylan calls “an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting,” is a slow, ruminative ballad that plays out at length, like one of the singer’s long-ago classics (think “Desolation Row”) but with a weary, seen-it-all vibe. The lyrics talk of that “dark day in Dallas” and hint at sinister forces behind the scenes: “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb/He said, ‘Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?’/’Of course we do, we know who you are!’/Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car.”
From there, the song leaps across the years and decades and playlists that followed, occasionally circling back to survey the blood on Dealey Plaza and to shiver in terror at what’s coming: “Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?/Tell them, ‘We’re waiting, we’re coming,’ we’ll get them as well.”
As has been his style, Dylan stockpiles “Murder Most Foul” with pop milestones. He references the arrival of the Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont, “Tommy,” Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, Tom Dooley, Oscar Peterson, Freddie Mercury, “Blue Sky” — moving backwards and forwards in cultural history to visit the blues and Beethoven, Houdini and Buster Keaton, Lady Macbeth and Stevie Nicks. The names come vomiting up from his memory, Dylan begging the listener to “Play ‘Misty’ for me and ‘That Old Devil Moon’/Play ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Memphis in June’/. . . ”Play Jelly Roll Morton, play ‘Lucille’/Play ‘Deep in a Dream’ and play ‘Driving Wheel.’ ”
He’s using music the way many of us do, to blot out the horror, to tune out the fear. But he understands the futility of the gesture. He knows that with JFK’s killing, “the Age of the Antichrist has just only begun.”
Which means we’re standing hip-deep in it now. Makes sense.
If I personally have a quibble with “Murder Most Foul,” it’s with the song’s arrangement. Dirge-like and sorrowful doesn’t square with these lyrics, or with the memory of the young Dylan howling with the enigmatic fury of an Old Testament prophet. I want this song to rocket and rage; I want Mike Bloomfield’s guitar and Al Kooper’s Hammond organ to surge it forward on waves of outraged, ear-bleeding disbelief. “Play [expletive] loud,” Dylan reportedly said after a fan yelled out “Judas” at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, and that’s what “Murder Most Foul” needs. How else are they going to hear it in the White House?
Well, fine, the man is 78. I don’t know if you’ve looked in the mirror lately, but you’re probably a little the worse for wear, too. (That said, I bet a cover version by Neil Young and what’s left of Crazy Horse would peel the paint off the walls.) Bob Dylan’s greatest songs have always trafficked in apocalypse — even the love songs — and “Murder Most Foul” brings the Baby Boom generation’s primal calamity right back home to 2020. The song’s a reminder that dread is a constant; dread lasts. It applies to assassinations, it applies to contagion, and it applies to the people in the shadows who control our destinies and whose names we never learn.
You can try to drown that out with music, whether it’s Jelly Roll Morton or Dua Lipa, but it doesn’t go away. Dylan’s gift, now as then, is to remind us of that.