“Murder Most Foul”: A Lineage of Salvation

Even amid global pandemonium, artistry never sleeps. 

Last week, Bob Dylan surprised us all with the release of “Murder Most Foul,” a delicate yet empowering epic that sent shivers down spines across the globe. Dylan, 78, accompanied the release of the song with a somber message to fans: “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” These ten words capture the benign solemnity of what “Murder Most Foul” yields to the listener: a haunting and exquisite quest for salvation amid a turbulent reality. 

The 17-minute powerhouse functions, more than anything else, as a bleak yet ultimately hopeful portrait of history — of an era in which hope was the only way out. With just its opening line of “It was a dark day in Dallas, November ‘63,” listeners are immediately immersed into a harsh and precarious world. One in which history is doomed to change forever within a mere few moments.

Dylan goes on to describe the events of this fateful day, on which Kennedy was murdered, in profound and delicate detail. Each sensory picture is painted abruptly and unsparingly. And then, before we know it, or would ever suspect it, the climax of murder is gone and past us. “It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise.” Just as Kennedy’s body was swept from this Earth in the span of a few seconds, so too was his legacy overtaken while death still lingered fresh.

Overtaken by what, exactly? By Beatlemania, by Woodstock, by DJ Wolfman Jack — by  seeds of culture that decided to bloom just as the world felt like it was about to end. Dylan reckons with the end of the ‘60’s with the intrepid fervor of only someone who has endured it and lived to see the other side. What results, for the remainder of the song, is a labyrinth of enchanting allusions and memories winnowed by time. Some serve as sardonic premonitions of an incoming Judgment Day. Others assume that this day has already come and gone, and that only music and tragedy remain. And a straggling few think that this music and tragedy will save them from it. 

All we can do now is play. And listen with open hearts. “Play ‘Cry Me a River’ for the lord of the gods.” “Play ‘Merchant of Venice,’ play ‘Merchant of Death’ / Play ‘Stella by Starlight’ for Lady Macbeth.” “Play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in F-sharp.” “Play ‘Darkness’ and death will come when it comes.” Now the world seems set upon the fringes of collapse. The term “reality” has acquired an almost universally new meaning. Everywhere, the events of quotidian life are not so seamless, but filled with strain and discomfort. Or, in the worst cases, panic and fear.

Back then, in 1963 and the years that followed, there seemed to be really only one way out. To tune out of the despondent present was to tune in — physically tune in — to something else. To grooves that were mellow, grooves that were angry, grooves that sounded like “if carpet were music” — grooves that all knew the same unhinged yearning at heart. People found a new salvation in music and the culture that surrounded it.

Now even if by some magical whim we became so inclined, a Woodstock ‘20 seems out of the picture. As do any large-scale congregations in the foreseeable future, musical or otherwise. Where do we look for comfort then, when it feels like all we have is our cantankerous housemates, uncertainty, and a dearth of toilet paper? 

I don’t claim to have an answer. But I don’t think Dylan did either. He simply saw what brought people together during times of disarray. And right now, that’s different for each of us. But somewhere, it’s still there, and somehow, it’ll get us through.