“Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind,” the New York Times reported on June 12. That’s for sure. In late March, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down America, the 79 year old singer-songwriter released “Murder Most Foul,” an epic, 17-minute song-poem about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Since “Who killed JFK?” is one of the central questions of American history, you might think that the Times interviewer, historian Douglas Brinkley would ask the Nobel laureate about how he came to compose his dark and brooding take on November 22, 1963. You might think Brinkley, a CNN commentator, would ask Dylan why he decided to release the song as the country and the world reeled from a plague.
You might think wrong.
Brinkley asked Dylan four questions about “Murder Most Foul,” none of which concerned Dylan’s thinking about how and why the liberal president was shot dead in broad daylight, and no one was ever brought to justice for the crime.
In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan could not have been more explicit in his rejection of the dubious official story which holds Kennedy was killed by one man for no reason. Over a rippling guitar and piano accompaniment, Dylan growls out his biting dissent from the conventional wisdom about Dallas.
The day they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching; no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul
In a telling display of the intellectual denial that usually dumbs down media discussion of JFK’s assassination, Brinkley did his best to evade the challenge of Dylan’s deeply political art. Brinkley (or perhaps his editors) did not care to mention the dread word of “conspiracy,” even though Dylan’s belief that JFK was killed by powerful enemies propels his stream of consciousness song from beginning to end.
Questions Dumb and Dumber
Dylan, well-versed in the case of the murdered president, makes his point obvious with cutting couplets. About the official story, he snarls I’m just a patsy/like Patsy Cline/Didn’t shoot nobody/from in front or behind.
Brinkley, adept at missing the point, asked “Was ‘Murder Most Foul’ written as a nostalgic eulogy for a long-lost time?”
That’s a weird description of an unsentimental song about the awful impact of a bloody deed. Dylan punted the question politely.
“To me it’s not nostalgic. I don’t think of ‘Murder Most Foul’ as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment. It always did, especially when I was writing the lyrics out.”
“Somebody auctioned off a sheaf of unpublished transcripts in the 1990s that you wrote about J.F.K.’s murder,” Brinkey went on. “Were those prose notes for an essay or were you hoping to write a song like “Murder Most Foul” for a long time?”
“I’m not aware of ever wanting to write a song about J.F.K.” he replied, reminding his Brinkley that ‘Murder Most Foul’ is about a crime, not a politician. (Dylan added, “A lot of those auctioned-off documents have been forged. The forgeries are easy to spot because somebody always signs my name on the bottom.”)
Brinkley danced around the subject of JFK’s murder in favor of two themes, technology and hyper-industrialization, that appear exactly nowhere in Dylan’s song.
“There is a lot of apocalyptic sentiment in ‘Murder Most Foul,’ Brinkley said. “Are you worried that in 2020 we’re past the point of no return? That technology and hyper-industrialization are going to work against human life on Earth?
Dylan chided Brinkley for his solipsism.
“Sure, there’s a lot of reasons to be apprehensive about that,” he said, “There’s definitely a lot more anxiety and nervousness around now than there used to be. But that only applies to people of a certain age like me and you, Doug. We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything.”
A competent interviewer might have followed up by asking Dylan why he still cares about JFK’s death or what young people should believe about it. Instead, Brinkley closed by asking a question so lame as to be ludicrous
“Your mention of Don Henley and Glenn Frey on ‘Murder Most Foul’ came off as a bit of a surprise to me,” Brinkley said. “What Eagles songs do you enjoy the most?”
Huh? The greatest poet of his generation writes a complex saga about the most important assassination of the 20th century and releases it amid the biggest catastrophe of the 21st century–and this tenured historian inquires about the man’s taste in 1970’s soft rock. Now that is denial.
Never patient with clueless interviewers, Dylan replied facetiously.
“‘New Kid in Town,’ ‘Life in the Fast Lane,’ ‘Pretty Maids All in a Row.’ That could be one of the best songs ever,” he deadpanned. Brinkley probably thought he was serious.
When it comes to JFK”s assassination, Bob Dylan has a lot on his mind but the New York Times doesn’t dare talk about it.