Dylan's recent release should still interest fans for its musical content but is a rambling collection of references that does the sixties no favours, argues Martin Hall
When Bob Dylan suggested in the sleeve notes for 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that in response to the previous year’s Cuban Missile Crisis he’d taken a selection of first lines of discrete songs and amalgamated them into the monumental ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, it was easy to think that this was another example of the boy wonder’s wit and facetiousness, and not take the comment too seriously. Unfortunately, if he were to make the same comment about ‘Murder Most Foul’, his newly-released 17 minute opus to the 1960s and-a-bunch-of-other-stuff, you might be inclined to believe him.
This is not to say that it’s a ‘bad song’, or not worthy of our attention. It’s just that it’s hard to discern a narrative, or indeed a coherent idea behind it. The imitated often end up imitating their imitators, and here Dylan brings to mind Lou Reed, particularly some parts of Street Hassle, New York and the ode to Warhol he recorded with John Cale, Songs for Drella. Like Reed, he presents an observational tone poem; unlike Reed, it’s not clear what its subject is.
It begins with a description of JFK’s assassination in 1963, with a backdrop predicated upon the idea that the sixties™ are just around the corner: the Beatles; ferrying across the Mersey; letting the good times roll; Woodstock and Altamont all get referenced in the first few minutes. It’s not that there’s anything wrong per se with this list of signifiers of the sixties, but that’s all they are: cultural signifiers whose meaning has been stripped through over-use. In political terms, there is nothing particularly important about Kennedy’s death, but in cultural terms, it marks in the western imagination a particular moment when a dream, no matter how abstruse and unconnected to anything concrete, died. At this moment in the song, the listener may be hoping that the next 13 minutes will bring a coruscating take-down of the over-valorisation and indeed reification of the decade, but that’s not to be.
What is of interest for the Dylanologist is the dates here: we have three references to the early part of the decade and two to its end, with nothing from the middle, when many would suggest Dylan was at his peak (certainly his first peak). This ties in nicely with the lack of narrative, as no path is given from 1963-1969. It’s like the sixties never happened, but just began, then ended. If the rest of the song only commented upon the decade, this could be a nice framing device, but we go from the 1920s to the 1980s and back again.
We then get a reference to the Who’s 1969 rock opera, Tommy, though it’s not clear why. There are many references in the song like this, where it feels like we’re listening to a list, one that even includes seventies soft rockers Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. It may well be that Dylan is connecting the end of the sixties dream to the Californian, cocaine-addled multi-platinum pop rock of the middle of the next decade, where an ersatz version of the previous one lived on in commodified form beyond its natural life span.
Folk, blues and jazz references appear in the second half of the song, as do depression-era gangsters and silent filmmakers, giving the impression that it’s becoming a lament to the American century. The question becomes why he would choose to put JFK’s assassination at the centre of it. I didn’t notice anything regarding Vietnam, Watergate, 1968, civil rights or WW2.
It may well be that repeat listens will allow us to tease out more than I’ve seen here after 34 minutes with the song. And as I intimated earlier, it is worthy of your time. Musically, it has a meandering, elegiac quality, and like almost everything Dylan does, it’s not boring; however, there’s no analysis here. It doesn’t really tell us a great deal about Dylan’s attitude to the sixties, or the American century. Furthermore, like a lot of music from artists of his generation, it doesn’t really add anything to the legend, and it’s hard to imagine putting it on when you’re feeling like a couple of hours with Bob.
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