Swamp Rabbit wanted to know what was the big deal about “Murder Most Foul,” the Bob Dylan song about the John F. Kennedy assassination that he wrote years ago but didn’t release until now, when the country’s mood is arguably darker than at any time since 1963, when Kennedy got whacked.
“The big deal is that it’s about an event that probably changed the course of Dylan’s music,” I said, “not to mention the course of history.”
“Okay, Odd Man, but do you think the song’s any good? Seventeen minutes long, the same chords over and over, and it ain’t got no chorus. It’s like he’s telling a story, not singing a song.”
“It might grow on you, rabbit. At first it seems like a general account of the murder, like a news story. Then Dylan throws in all the mysterious details. They’re still mysterious. I couldn’t help but laugh.”
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”
I told Swamp Rabbit to listen to where Dylan gets in a groove and starts dropping names and free-associating. Stan Getz and Dickey Betts. Harold Lloyd and Pretty Boy Floyd.
You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzie
You fill me with lead
That magic bullet of yours
Has gone to my head.
It’s a loosely stitched tapestry, as much about the wildness of American pop culture as about JFK’s murder. Dylan jams in so many pop references that Rolling Stone felt compelled to issue an annotated version of the lyrics.
“It’s history, rabbit. Never heard of the magic bullet theory? Look it up.”
Thelonious Monk checks in. Etta James and Patsy Cline. Marilyn Monroe, of course. A critic in Vanity Fair wrote that the song reminds him of that scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen starts naming artists who make him feel life is worth living. Maybe, but I doubt that was Dylan’s intent.
What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day
Will “Murder Most Foul” resonate with most of those who aren’t old enough to remember the assassination? Probably not. The world today is caught up in a crisis even bigger than the JFK catastrophe. Everybody’s out of work, hiding in their houses. Maybe there’s an end up ahead for the pandemic, but no one can see it yet.
“Decades from now somebody’s gonna write a song about what the virus done to this country,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Somebody in the music business who’s the voice of his generation, so called.”
“That’s assuming there will still be a music business and more generations,” I replied. “Never assume, rabbit.”