David Byrne: “The most untoward murder”, 2020
My first exposure to a Bob Dylan song was probably the Byrds version of “Mr. Tambourine Man. I heard it on a crappy transistor radio in my room in Arbutus, a suburb of Baltimore. It blew my mind away. The words were, to me at the time, impenetrable. They were talking about another world – a place both bizarre and magical, a bohemian land with ties to the Beat poets, with whom I was a little familiar. Late nights snuggled up in cafes chatting about what had to be incredibly interesting ideas. Here is a missive from this world. I’m not sure I know Dylan wrote the song.
The music was revolutionary for me too – the sounding 12-string guitar sounded like a Balinese gamelan orchestra. I had heard recordings of those in my local public library. God bless the public libraries. The voice too, with its dreamlike sweet harmonies, was familiar – folk groups often sang in harmonies like this – but in this very different context it involved a sort of trippy reverie. So not just the words but the sound itself was a message from another world, far from this small suburban town. Somehow I had to know more.
Much ink has been spilled on Dylan’s songs and their impact over the years. I learned to take it with a grain of salt. He’s written his fair share of throwaways and clunkers. But what encourages me is that every once in a while he can break the mold again and surprise us. The last song to do this for me was “Murder Most Foul,” one of his epic songs – a form he took from old folk ballads with their many verses, but then he added a genetic mutation to the form. – surrealist images and metaphors rather than the traditional narratives of old ballads.
In most of these, he sets up an idea – an impending apocalypse in “A-Gonna Fall from A Hard Rain” and the world as a twisted corrupt place in “Desolation Row” – and then it’s mostly about to fill in the gaps. It’s like a song from Cole Porter’s list, in a way. Each verse is one more example of the guiding idea, and maybe there will be a meta verse at the end to tie things together. As long as one can think of examples, it can go on for a long time. I tried something similar with the song “Life in the War” – imagine an urban guerrilla war – then just fill in the details in each verse.
“Murder Most Foul” begins as one of those songs, but without the propelling beat. It seems at first to be a conspiratorial exegesis on the Kennedy assassination… with a lot of basic humor.
“To be led to slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?” “
‘Of course we do, we know who you are’
Then they blew his head off while he was still in the car.
The rhyme scheme is simple, like a children’s song or a poem by Alice in Wonderland, which makes it even funnier. I laughed at “the sacrificial lamb” and “know who I am?” Dylan of course does his well-established voice and “Dylan” character throughout – which helps him pull out the rhymes and hilarious references.
Then gradually the song begins to veer and become something else – a meditation on times, using assassination as a starting point. The verses are littered with quotes and references to Blown away by the wind, The Beatles, Gerry and Pacemakers, Altamont, Woodstock – over and over again. It all doesn’t make sense, but the amount of clever comedy and awesome humor makes me smile. Soon it goes from third person – the story of the assassination plot – to first person. “I was led into some kind of trap”, “I hate to tell you sir that only the dead are free”, “I’m just a whore like Patsy Cline” – the songwriter, and by implication we are all also the victims of this diabolical plot.
We’re in Dylan’s head now – the songs he’s heard over the years make the world in there. “Only The Good Die Young,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Don Henley and Glenn Frey – they’re all clicking in there. And the rest of the song, like one of those songs from the previous list, is a long list of artists and songs that he asks Wolfman Jack to play on the radio – songs that paint a picture of this. which is in Bob’s mind but also throughout the twentieth century. , evoked through his popular songs. The Old Weird America, in the expression coined by Greil Marcus. It’s a hilarious mishmash from a list – jazz, gospel, pop, soul, rock – it could go on forever, and it almost does. The awkwardness of the rhymes keeps it from getting pretentious and boring – it’s deep and dark, but there is also joy and joke.
Music is the key. It goes up and down but never establishes a clearly demarcated groove. I suspect if it did it would gain some temporary energy, but soon it would become repetitive and we would lose interest.
So this song inspired me – not as overwhelming as “Mr. Tambourine Man “was for a little boy, but important in a different way. I hear Dylan find, at this point in his career, a new way to approach these epic songs. He hasn’t finished exploring yet. It’s an inspiration to me for sure. Not that I want to do a song like this – he’s done it before – but the idea that around the turn I might find something new that I’ve never done before keeps me going and hope.