By John Kendall Hawkins
First of all, let me say that I love Bob Dylan. Love him.
As I wrote here in an overwrought piece last year, I have, like a latter day Prufock, measured out my life with Dylan tunes. I wrote a concert review piece for the Melbourne Age back in 1997 (Time Out of Mind period) that swooned toward the momentum for seeing him eventually being awarded the Nobel prize. The fuckin’ guy’s a legitmo genius. Nat Geo has a series called Genius, that so far has profiled Picasso and Einstein (with Aretha Franklin and her Pink Cadillac up next), and I could easily see Dylan in the cue: Cubism, Relativity, Soul, and that Harmony-in-One-Breath he self-references in “Precious Angel.”
But Dylan’s new song, “Murder Most Foul,” sucks. It sucks historically. It sucks so bad, I felt an obligation to nominate the song for the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature. And so passionate was my plea for recognizing this song for what it’s worth that I got an email back from the editor of Improbable magazine, sponsors of the Ig Nobel, a simple, “Uh, thanks, John.” I wrote, in part:
It’s horrible. In an historic way. Bad lyrics, bad arrangement, Dylan’s voice channeling — of all people — Wolfman Jack. It’s the worst Dylan music since the whole of Self Portrait, on which, ironically, were the first Dylan tunes I really liked — “Wigwam” — where he just hums and hums while the Band stuffs behind him, and “Quinn, the Eskimo,” where everyone’s waiting, like for Godot, to jump for joy, but with Quinn it’s because he’s bringing hothouse igloo ganja. Everybody knows Godot, if he arrives, will be bringing re-fried Sartre,
“Murder Most Foul” is like an acid trip within an acid trip, where the inner one went really wrong, and the outer trip couldn’t pick up the slack. One of Dylan’s greatest abilities as a songwriter over the years has been his magical talent at turning cliches and truisms into lyrical gold. Just a fucking master at it. With “Murder Most Foul,” he’s turned into the Alchemist of Shit. I mean it. It’s even bad conspiracy theory. There are professional theorists out there who will now have to go through strange and mysterious changes as a result of this song. I like to think that when Dylan wrote “Ring Them Bells” for all of us who are Left, he had someone like me in mind. But now I’m thinking Quasimodo, ringing dem bells, and pouring some hot liquid down on the mob (former fans, I understand) below.
It’s like he can’t handle his legacy going the way of Marley, his One Love turned into muzak delivered from Trump Tower-like elevators on which you are always in fear someone might fart just as you’re singing the lyrics in your mind, your index fingers automatically doing that parallel index finger dance thing,like windshield wipers : Let’s get together and feel alright. Pfffft. If Dylan is a genius to me, then Marley was once like a god. But not a stinking god of Muzak. How could the CIA not be behind this post-mortem humiliation? I’m thinking.
The lyrics of “Murder Most Foul,” the title derived from an Agatha Christie novel, border on inchoate. Some really crazy shit going on here, even by Dylan’s loose associative poetic license standards. Dig it: Dylan sings, from JFK’s POV, “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb / He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” Aside from the blatherscheissen this rhetorical question represents, “Wait a minute, boys” sounds all too familiar: A cop from “Hurricane,” another conspiracy-enticing song about the wrongful conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carrter, said the same thing: “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead.”
Then he WolfmanJacks, “You got unpaid debts, we’ve come to collect.” So, with “we’ve,” Dylan is now officially a conspiracy theorist. Kennedy died because he over-owed someone, it seems. Gee, who could you owe who would take you out if you didn’t pay, without caring about the consequences for the nation or democracy? Verse 4, with all its play this, play that, depressed me to the point of suicidal ideation. “And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day / Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues.” That’s factually impossible, if you do the math, but also a truly horrific image. The pagan wolfman speaking in tongues: come again?.
In these days of locusts, no end in sight, Dylan might have written about something relevant. He could have written “I Dreamed I Saw Covid-19 Land.” To be current and all scared-up, like the rest of us are supposed to be. Or, he could have written “The Climes They Are A Changin’”. Nuff said on that front. Or he could have reprised the implicit threat included in his song “Precious Angel” (“Men will beg God to kill them / but they won’t be able to die”) by icing a precious angel, no-prisoners-taken Revelations style. But such dross instead!
Well, we’ve been down this road before with Dylan. When he wrote “Titanic” for his album Tempest, now, he purportedly was at home on the couch watching Leo and Cate go upstairs/downstairs on TV and went to town on some paper and produced what had been his worst song before “Murder Most Foul.” (Playing at the edges of conspiracy theory, he released that album on 9/11.)
You can well imagine Dylan couch-potatoing on the same sofa, years later, not once in his career having brought up JFK before, suddenly, digging into the popcorn, while watching The Irishman, the Netflix film about Jimmy Hoffa directed by Martin Scorsese and starring De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, and having sold the viewer early on the notion that the Mob took out Kennedy for reneging on his promise to lay off if he delivered Illinois’s electoral votes to Kennedy, he reached the Joey Gallo murder scene in the movie, and wondered to himself if Scorsese was true to Dylan’s depiction in his song “Joey,” where Dylan says of Joey, eating dinner in a clam bar in New York, “He could see it coming as it he lifted up his fork.”
Dylan’s depiction of Dallas, November 22, 1963 is awful. But he’s been criticized for making shit up before. But he was also taken to task for his portrayal of the facts surrounding the Hurricane Carter murdercase. His song, “Hurricane,” off Desire, the same album as Joey, was made fun of by National Lampoon magazine in a send-up piece titled, “Ex-Singer Held In New Jersey Slaying,” which implicates Dylan and The Boss. More serious criticism followed, with one sleuth calling Dylan out, line for line, for the alleged factual inaccuracies of his song.
It’s difficult not to think that Dylan, despite garnering every prize and plaudit imaginable for his contribution to American culture, and civilization in general, as evidenced by his Nobel prize in literature a few years back, still worries, as Shakespeare never did, whether his legacy is safe. But nobody really gives a shit about JFK any more, what with Trump in the White House (and what that implies about the nation), and Climate Change, and Covid-19 breathing down our necks. So the choice of this song, its quality, and release timing are very suspect.
It’s hard to not think of Dylan as akin to Hemingway’s fading fisherman, Santiago, the Cuban hero of The Old Man and the Sea, not long after which Papa won the Nobel prize for literature. In that novella, old man Santiago goes fishing, one last time, for marlin in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. After many hours and much struggle, he lands a biggie and hauls it, along the boat, and heads for port. But sharks come and, despite Santiago’s best efforts to ward off destruction, they end up eating all the meat off the marlin, so that Santiago ends up arriving home with a skeleton.
Sharks have been circling Dylan for years, and maybe the realest cruelty of “Murder Most Foul” is its exposure of a genius with nothing left. On Time Out of Mind, there are two great vintage Dylan songs on the album — one is “Trying To Get To Heaven” and the other is “Highlands.” The former has mind-blowing lyrics like, “When you think that you’ve lost everything / You find out you can always lose a little more” and “I’ll close my eyes and I wonder / If everything is as hollow as it seems.”
But the scatalogical character in “Highlands” could sum up Dylan, in the context of our times:
The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away
If there were gods still who had pity, you’d want them to lead Dylan gently away and fade, to the Highlands where he belongs, before he feels the blow of what he must already know, that, like the worn-out character Dylan wills through Time Out of Mind, he is himself a ghost who must let go.
There are no more marlin for him left.