Thursday, April 09, 2020

Murder Most Foul

Murder Most Foul by Bob Dylan

When a major talent turns in work which is disappointing or substandard or just plain ridiculous, some people respond with undisguised glee. The false idol has shown is true colours. The admired writing was a con trick: we now see him for what he truly is.

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, more than one person murmured “wiggle wiggle like a bowl of soup” and stroked their beards, as if they had successfully spotted what everyone else had missed. But no-one sensible expects an artist to always write in the same idiom, or at the same artistic pitch. Take You Riding In My Car, Car does not refute This Land Is My Land. It is not especially funny that a man who is very good at writing tunes should write the kinds of tunes he has been asked to write: the Frog Chorus this week and Liverpool Oratorio the next.

But it does hurts when a man does the very thing you love him for and does it badly.

Bob Dylan moved on from protest songs and folk music somewhere around 1968. If you are still sad about that, then by all means find a dark corner somewhere and shout “Judas” to yourself. His subsequent career has been full of stream of consciousness and free association. There are songs which are long sequences of disconnected imagery; songs which play with language; songs where the sounds of the words take over completely from any possible meaning.

I read an interesting discussion recently by some admirers of Mark Rothko [check this]: one of the abstract artists who covered canvasses with blocks of colour. They spoke of going to art galleries and spending hours staring at a single painting; of wishing they had the thousands of pounds it would cost to have an original on their own wall so they could look at it all day. I understood, for the first time that this kind of art works differently from other kinds of abstract and non representative art. You don’t look at it and admire it. You stare at it and get lost in it.

This is very much what I was describing when I said that Visions of Johanna contained everything that there is to know about everything. Of course I can’t tell you where the museum was or why infinity was being put on trial there. But the song triggers a psycho-spiritual response.

Of course, Dylan can be silly. A song called Angelina describes a woman who dances to the music of a concertina, and who the singer will seek out in either Jerusalem or Argentina. By the time she is been observed in an arena while a judge is issuing a subpoena, you start to think that maybe Bob is slightly taking the piss. But perhaps this is just how he writes; this doodling with sound and meaning. The goddess with the body of a woman well endowed and the body of a hyena comes from the same place as the woman with the cowboy mouth and the warehouse eyes. The sublime and the ridiculous are never that far apart.

Dylan was once asked what his songs were about, and he replied that some of them were about three minutes, some of them were about five minutes, and that he was working on some which were about eight or nine minutes. Murder Most Foul is about twenty minutes. Dylan clearly regards length and repetition as a sign of high seriousness. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall is a list of mythological images: a room full of men with their hammers a bleeding; a young woman who gave him a rainbow. They don’t have anything to do with each other; but they sum up Dylan’s apocalyptic frame of mind in October 1962. The great Desolation Row does the same kind of thing: it’s a sequence of vivid images of fairy tale and legendary characters, mixed up and in the wrong context. They don’t interact or connect in any way; but cumulatively they create a powerful sense of hopelessness and, well, desolation. The late, remarkable Highlands doesn’t even get as far as surrealism: it’s a stream of consciousness, an account of trivia set to a washed out rhythm. The game seems to be to see how long it is possible to stretch nothing out for:

I’m in Boston town in some restaurant
I got no idea what I want
Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure
Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her
Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around
She studies me closely as I sit down
She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs

Murder Most Foul is ingeniously long. It is full of surreal dream imagery and playful use of language. It hovers on the border between the silly and serious. It cumulatively builds up a mood. And it is clearly about a subject — the murder of John F. Kennedy — which had a profound effect on everyone of Dylan’s generation. So why does it fall so very flat as a song?

It has no structure; no narrative; no sense that the imagery is building towards a climax or indeed a point. It doesn’t tell the story of November 22 1963 and its aftermath. Kennedy is shot in the first stanza. We are told several more times that he was shot. There are a series of increasingly vague and cryptic declarations about the event.

They day they shot him someone said to me, Son
the age of the anti-Christ has only just begun

The second half of the song is a list of 50 song titles, with no obvious connection to the matter at hand.

play Another One Bites the dust
play The Old Rugged Cross and In God we trust

As Bob spends the last eight minutes running through a dream play list for Theme Time Radio Hour, even the most devoted fans must be crying “please, please, make it stop.”

Seven months before the death of J.F.K Bob Dylan famously delivered a beat-style eulogy to a still-living American icon. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie is delivered very quickly, in a naive sounding monotone, as if Young Bob is blurting out someone else’s text. You have scarcely heard one breathless image before he goes on to the next one.

and your sky cries water and your drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin'
And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin'...

If Murder Most Foul had been delivered at this pace, it might have been an altogether less agonising experience. Read quickly off the page, some of the stanzas have a compelling, hallucinogenic weirdness. But Bob has chosen to chant it, slowly, in a kind of plainsong, with a piano, a drum, and sometimes a fiddle providing a mournful but melody free background. This isn’t a young man saying “I wrote a poem? Will you indulge me while I read it?” It is an old man presenting a song which, after nearly twenty minutes, doesn’t seem to have got started. And we have plenty of time to attend to each painfully slow couplet; each obvious comment; each irrelevant image.

Dylan’s singing has always tended towards the whiney; and for the last 25 years his live act has involved bizarre vocal and melodic reinventions of famous songs. Audiences are several lines into “howwwwww manyroadsmusta MAN. walkdown” before they spot what he’s singing. The tendency to deliver the lines of Murder Most Foul as a drawl give the impression (unintentional, I am sure) that he is not taking the song quite seriously. “Murder most foul (as in the best it is)” is a quote from Hamlet, but its such a cliche that it seems to trivialise the material — as if it were the title of a penny dreadful or whodunnit. Particularly when it is drawn out as “murreder moooooooooost fow-el.”

There is some merit in describing a horrible event in brutal, frank terms. But this song fetishises Kennedy’s body, with a particular emphasis on head wounds, while at the same time drifting into trivial language. We recoil, not from what was done, but from the callous way it is being described.

“they blew off his head while he was still in the car”

“the day they blew out the brains of the king”

“they mutilated his body they took out his brain”

Oh for that writer who 50 years ago wrote (of the murder of Emmet Tell) “they tortured him and did some things too evil to repeat.”

A poem built on strong AA BB end rhymes always risks turning into doggerel. We expect the rhyme; we predict the rhyme; and if the rhyming words resonate with different pitches of emotion, the effect is often unintentionally comic. Goodness gracious don’t you know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo.

Ride the Pink Horse down that Long, Lonesome Road
Stand there and wait for his head to explode

It is supposed to be shocking, but there is something childish, almost Pythonesque about the use of the word “explode” in that context. Too often, we feel that the rhyme is driving the sense: that the second part of a couplet is pure nonsense to get us to the rhyme word.

Wolfman oh wolfman oh wolfman howl,
Rub a dub dub this is murder most foul.

The wolfman has come from nowhere to set up the fowl/howl rhyme: the nursery jingle is there because Bob has four syllables to get rid of. Surely if you want to get the word “howl” into a poem about JFK you should be looking at Alan Ginsberg or King Lear?

Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that’s got no master.

The dog that’s got no master has nothing to do with the case. It’s hard not to think of William McGonogal; or more specifically with those deeply felt obituaries you get in local papers. (“how you died was really rotten / but you will never be forgotten”)

The poem is driven by these aural and semantic associations, not by any kind of logic. Lee Harvey Oswald famously claimed to be “a patsy” — a scapegoat, someone who has been forced to take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit. And Patsy Kline was a famous country singer who died six months before Kennedy. But the line:

I’m just a patsy like Patsy Kline
I never shot anyone from in front or behind

literally has no meaning. An arbitrary association between two words has occurred to the writer, and he has dropped it into the song without doing anything with it.

Poetry is allowed to make connections between different words. That’s one of the things poems do. But either the reader has to say “I never saw that connection before, but now I do” or else the writer has to say “let me cleverly show you how thistles are like Vikings or how frost is like an invading army.” “Have you ever noticed that the slang term for victim is also a girl’s name?” hardly qualifies as an idea.

Something could possibly have been done with the fact that the road the motorcade was on when the shot was fired was called “Elm Street”. (I didn’t know that. Did you know that?) But presented as the punch line of a forced rhyming couplet, it simply evokes a groan:

In the red light district like a cop on the beat
Living through a Nightmare on Elm Street.

Alan Moore quotes Dylan extensively in Watchmen; Dylan songs are used to open and close the movie adaptation of the graphic novel. Alan Moore believes that writing and ritual magic are about forging connections: and that once a writer has said that two things are connected, they are — and this may change the meaning of both of them. Watchmen is, of course, driven by endless segues — where a small object or word or colour in scene A is also present in scene B. Perhaps Dylan thinks he is performing an incantation of that kind.

Bob Dylan is neither writing factually about President Kennedy, as he was about Joey Gallo or Rubin Carter. But neither does he transform him into symbolic figure, as he arguably does with John Lennon. We hear that he was shot, and that he was shot in a car; and we hear a huge swirl of bitter emotional imagery, suggesting that on the one hand his death was fated and preordained, but that on the other, it was the result of some kind of miscarriage of justice or betrayal. The historical Kennedy was killed by an individual assassin: Dylan keeps talking about a non-specific “they” who did the deed. There is already a fair body of exegesis by Dylanologists who are keen to claim that Bob support the Kennedy conspiracy theory of their choice.

On his last album, Dylan presented the sinking of the Titanic as a metaphor about the end of the world: the ship is somehow a microcosm of the apocalypse. Good or bad, that is an idea. Murder Most Foul seems to contain no idea. Kennedy was killed by non specific dark forces; everyone was sad; and every pop record before or since was in some respect mourning him. Desolation Row and Hard Rain give shape to a mood. Murder Most Foul conveys nothing but burned out ennui.

I know, of course, what the response to this piece will be. A few people will say that until I have a Nobel Prize For Literature I have no right to sit in judgement over the great Robert Zimmerman. And others will point out that there are lines in Dylan’s more highly regarded works that are guilty of the same sins as the lines I quote here.

So I should restate my thesis. I hate this song because I love Bob Dylan. It is painful to listen to because the very same devices and techniques which Dylan has used elsewhere to great effect fall flat and misfire. Murder Most Foul is not merely a bad song by Bob Dylan: it is a bad Bob Dylan song.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.

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postodave said...

Rolling Stone suggested his was recorded for the Tempest sessions and was one of those cases like Blind Willy McTell where Dylan left the best song off the album. That made me wonder if I was missing something. I think, if it did come from those sessions, it was a brave experiment that fell short of working. The comparison with Angelina is telling because that comes in the same category. If he did not do these things he would not hit the mark as he mostly does because the mark for Dylan is always beyond what we know and trembling on the brink of absurdity.

postodave said...

The Guardian just did a list of the 50 best Dylan songs and put this at number 33 ahead of Love Minus Zero, The Times They are a Changing, One Too Many Mornings and Blowin' in the Wind. And it has gone to number one. Mind you Chuck Berry had a number one in hos old age with My ding-a-ling so that proves nothing.

Mike Taylor said...

On the whole I am not convinced this song would be my cup of tea.

Andrew Rilstone said...

@ Mike: You are doing this wrong. What you needed to say was "I don't generally get Bob Dylan, but this song which all his fans hate is the one I think is really great!"

Mike Taylor said...

Much more amusing, my dear Andrew, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like my actual opinion.

Anonymous said...

I love Dylan's earlier work, where the words may not make 'sense' but instead convey images that everyone can interpret as they wish. That is why 'Murder Most Foul' is such a disappointment. I realize people change and can't write the same thing over and over - but this song: 1. has a monotonous tune, 2. has cliched lyrics, and 3. is way too long.

I wonder if he wrote it as a joke.

Andrew Rilstone said...

You mean Dylan's later early work. His early early work were straightforward protest songs which made a good deal of sense. Then there was his early late work, which was all about Jesus and....

I doubt that he wrote it as a joke. He probably meant it to be more of a poem than a song, which makes the tune forgivably. But his has always had a bit of an issue with quality control...