Murder Most Foul

Dylan releases a stunning new masterpiece


After years of silence Nobel laureate Bob Dylan dropped a sprawling, 17-minute, blood-soaked elegy about the brutal assassination of President John F. Kennedy, re-inventing the song form with an incredibly moving, totally original, and seemingly free-associated (but not) revisitation of one of the greatest political crimes of the 20th century. Its grim beauty and stark, somber tone is strangely appropriate to the mood of many people today.

Using only a piano, a string trio and some sparse percussion, Dylan intones darkly over the minimalistic structure in a spoken-sung Sprechstimme vocal style, evoking the deep sense of loss the nation suffered and the zeitgeist of the 1960s with his masterful lyric writing and blunt imagery, perfectly underscored by a spooky chamber-type musical arrangement. The same rhymes could no doubt be spun over a rap beat easily enough, and probably soon will be by some enterprising young rapper, but the work would suffer greatly in the translation.

In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan sings ominously, “The day they killed him, someone said to me, son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun, the soul of a nation’s been torn away, and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay … It’s 36 hours past judgment day.”

Mixing graphic images of the President’s grisly death scene in Dallas with acerbic asides and respectful nods to a panoply of American culture, at times the piece is reminiscent of a James Ellroy novel while other moments are hauntingly hymn-like, interspersed with flights of wild, beat-like poetry: “Play Art Pepper, play Thelonius Monk, play Charlie Parker and all that junk; play all that junk and all that jazz, play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.”

Dylan’s awareness of his influences and peers is clear in many of the lyrics. He sings,“the Beatles are coming, they’re gonna hold your hand,” and he makes references to numerous others, including the great DJ Wolfman Jack, the notorious gangster Bugsy Siegel, and Kennedy’s alleged mistress, the movie star Marilyn Monroe. He closes the brooding, 17-minute long ode by exhorting the Wolfman to “play “Love Me or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell; play the “Bloodstained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul.””

Releasing his first new work in eight years, Dylan wrote on Twitter, “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you. Bob Dylan

Dylan, indisputably one of America’s greatest and most influential songwriters singing one of his most unique, profound, and powerful songs, “Murder Most Foul” can be heard here:

Update: ”Murder Most Foul” climbed to #1 on Billboard, the first time for one of Dylan’s songs.

A. Heimer can be reached [email protected]