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Monday, 30 March 2020 23:56

The Dylan/Kennedy Sensation

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Jim DiEugenio analyzes the surprising new song released by Bob Dylan about the JFK assassination, Murder Most Foul, and interprets it as a poem for those with familiarity with the case.


As everyone who reads this site must know by now, Bob Dylan’s newly released song Murder Most Foul has created nothing less than a cultural and popular mini earthquake. (Click here) As of this writing, the song, his first in about 8 years, has registered 2.4 million views on You Tube. Over two million in 96 hours! The song is themed around the murder of President Kennedy, but I hesitate to call Murder Most Foul a song. Because, as most people understand, Dylan is one of the finest lyricists in the modern history of music. At his best—in classics like Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone—he does not really write song lyrics, not in the normal sense. He writes poems. And to anyone who knows anything about the Kennedy assassination, this song is really a poem. It is an intricately designed, multi-leveled, cleverly-referenced poem about both the Kennedy assassination and what happened to America after that cataclysmic event. (Click here for a written lyric version of the song)

For people who have studied the Kennedy case, Dylan has centered the lyrics around a conspiracy to kill JFK in Dallas. Consider these three lines: “We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect/We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face/We’ve already got someone here to take your place”. (Click here for the official lyrics themselves) But, then, this theme gets hammered home a few lines later:

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

Many writers on the JFK case, including our own Milicent Cranor, have referred to the murder of JFK as a “magic trick”. One that was planned and designed in advance. Dylan captures this by saying that although the event took place right in front of all the spectator’s eyes, no one saw how it was really done due to the intricate trickery involved.

The writer then shows how well he knows the literature on the Kennedy case. And beyond that, how well he has hidden his references and mixed them in with the historical period. He writes: “Slide down the banister, go get your coat/Ferry cross the Mersey and go for the throat/There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags/Pick up the pieces and lower the flags.” Vince Palamara had to point out to me and others that Dylan is likely referencing in the first line, Guy Banister, and in the second, David Ferrie. He then posits in more scenery from the assassination with the Three Tramps. He has covered this in a movement referencing the British rock invasion and a song by Gerry and the Pacemakers from 1965, Ferry Across the Mersey. This reference is intermixed with one to “The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand.” The Beatles first big hit in the USA, as opposed to England, occurred in December of 1963. It was the single, I Want to Hold Your Hand. This sub-theme of escape into music is accentuated with “Pick up the pieces and lower the flags/I’m goin’to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age/Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage.” Altamont was a free music festival held in California four months after Woodstock, featuring The Rolling Stones. Altamont was marked by the heavy usage of drugs and alcohol, which resulted in numerous fistfights. Four people died during the event, and one of them was killed near the stage. (See the documentary film Gimme Shelter)

This is where the elegiac part of the poem begins to assert itself. Dylan tops off the Altamont reference and links it to the JFK murder adroitly and pungently. Right after the mention of Altamont, he writes “Put your head out the window, let the good times roll/There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll.” Does it get much better than this kind of historical allusion per cause and effect? America was escaping into the drugs and hard rock music exemplified by Woodstock and Altamont. This is not Taylor Swift.

II

The entire 17-minute song is chock full of these kinds of references, including to the late disc jockey Wolfman Jack. The Wolfman became famous in movie history through his appearance in George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. That picture had an elegiac tone to it. In fact, its ad campaign featured the question, “Where were you in’62?” That bubbly film about Camelot America, the early sixties, ended with a punch in the gut. At the end of the picture, it tracked its male protagonists past 1962: with one of them dying in Vietnam and another living in exile in Canada to escape the draft. As one critic described it, the film’s lighthearted tone was extinguished by a ten-foot wave showing an Ozzie and Harriet like American youth being thrown headlong into disaster. That awful fate was amplified even more by the 1991 film JFK and its accompanying book: John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam. Bob Dylan gets it.

The title Murder Most Foul is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Act One of that play, during the famous ghost scene, an apparition of his father tells Prince Hamlet that he, the former king, was murdered. The ghost then refers to his killing as, “Murder Most Foul”. He tells his son that he was done away with by the new king: his brother Claudius. His brother then married his widow to become Hamlet’s stepfather. This surreal revelation is what sets the action of the play in motion: a drama of crime detection and ultimate revenge. It all becomes a tragedy when, at the end, the stage is littered with the corpses of not just Claudius, but also Hamlet, his mother Gertrude, and the son of Polonius, Laertes. But beyond that, and cut from most film versions of the play, these deaths make possible the entry of an army from nearby Norway, led by the character Fortinbras. As Dylan notes: “We’ve already got someone here to take your place.”

Front cover of Murder Most Foul by Stanley Marks

But Kennedys and King contributor Rob Couteau has alerted us that the title may go even further than that. For there is a little-known book with that same Shakespearean title in the Kennedy canon. In 1967, writer Stanley J. Marks wrote a short volume on the case. He entitled it Murder Most Foul. From its appearance—Couteau actually has a copy of the book—it did not appear to be printer typeset. The volume looks like it might be self-published and, therefore, did not get much distribution. If so, that is understandable. The contents of the book and its political views on the assassination, especially those at the end, are far ahead of the intellectual arguments in classic texts like Accessories After the Fact and Six Seconds in Dallas, both published in 1967.

The approach to the case taken by Stanley Marks is that of a magisterial judge out of the British system. During the course of the book, this judge (Marks) relentlessly asks question after question of the prosecution. By the book’s finish, the question count tallies to 975. Quite accurately, through his questioning, Marks concludes that the Commission suppressed important evidence and neglected to question certain important witnesses. His penultimate chapter is called “The Rape of the American Conscience”. There, one of his first conclusions is that the Warren Commission, contrary to what it wrote, discovered a conspiracy. Marks is utterly disdainful of both the efforts of the Commission and its aides. In that penultimate chapter, he accuses them of abusing legal procedure and the rights of witnesses. He calls the performance by the Commission both negligent and slothful. He says that the report deserves all the criticism it has gotten, for it could not even withstand exposure by the noon day sun.

Marks then sounds a note that no other critic of that time voiced, but which is appropriate to Dylan. He says that because of the disbelief in the Warren Report, a cynicism has gathered in the public and this bodes ill for the future of the nation. For a nation whose moral fiber has been torn and shattered cannot long live.

Marks expounds on this idea by writing on page 139 that the Constitution contains the American Creed in the preamble. The Warren Report violated that creed. Because the United States, “…was not born on the idea that its president could be shot like a dog on the street and his murderers be shielded from that day on, because it would be ‘against the national interests’.” He concludes his penultimate chapter with what could be called an ode: “How long O how long, Americans, will we permit our silence to perpetuate the evil in the Warren Report?” This condemnation is a far cry from say Josiah Thompson who, at the end of his book, said he was not really sure that the evidence he adduced justified a conspiracy. (Six Seconds in Dallas, p. 246)

In his final chapter, Marks again does something that neither Meagher nor Thompson did—quite the contrary. He praises and appreciates the efforts of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison. He compares Garrison’s ordeal against the media to St. George galloping forth to duel with the dragon. He also says something quite prescient for the time: he accuses some of Garrison’s attackers of being in bed with the CIA. Which, we now know, is an accurate assessment. Again, if Bob Dylan knew about this obscure book, even more praise to him.

The poem never lets up on the impact of November 22, 1963. It mentions the Zapruder film and also the deeply flawed autopsy—“They mutilated his body and they took out his brain”—and even the magic bullet and Oswald’s pronouncement that he was just a patsy. Dylan even seems to reference some of the work done by authors like myself on the attempt to smear Kennedy’s reputation posthumously. This is suggested when he writes in verse 3, “They killed him once and they killed him twice.”

The elegiac part really picks up at the end of verse 3 when, right after mentioning “they killed him twice”, Dylan writes:

The day they killed him, someone said to me, “Son

The age of the Antichrist has just only begun”

Air Force One comin’ in through the gate

Johnson sworn in at 2:38

Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel

It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul

I really don’t see how the lines about the Antichrist, Johnson, and throwing in the towel could be any clearer in their meaning.

As they should, with the mention of the Antichrist, in verse four, the elegiac tones become more pronounced. Dylan begins that verse with a reference to the forgettable 1965 film written by Woody Allen, What’s New Pussycat? He then juxtaposes the frivolity of that piece of ephemera with the following lines: “I said the soul of a nation has been torn away/And its beginning to go into a slow decay”. He then lists some songs Wolfman Jack could turn, pointedly including Only the Good Die Young and saying Wolfman should also play a song “for that strip club owner named Jack.”

In the last verse, verse five, the author asks the Wolfman to play a song for Jackie Kennedy, since she “aint’t feeling very good”. He then lists a whole slew of songs, some with suggestive titles like In God We Trust and Another One Bites the Dust. He then begins to turn to his main theme when he writes:

Don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way

Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay

Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?

Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming” we’ll get them as well

Love Field is where his plane touched down

But it never did get back up off the ground

Was a hard act to follow, second to none

As we know, they did get JFK’s brother, Bobby, through another murder and Ted was blocked from the White House through the tragedy of Chappaquiddick. (Or as Pamela Brown has suggested the other brother could be, figuratively, Martin Luther King.) And evidently, like most of the American public, Dylan thinks that the following presidents were not up to Kennedy’s standard. (Dylan wrote the song several years ago, the occasion of President Trump’s epic fail on the novel corona virus may be the reason he released it at this time.) After listing some other evocative song and film titles like Lonely are the Brave and Lonely at the Top Dylan concludes with this:

Play darkness and death will come when it comes

Play “Love Me Or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell

Play “The Blood-stained Banner”, Play “Murder most Foul”

Bud Powell was a great American pianist and Love Me or Leave Me was the name of both a famous song and much later, a lesser known film. But The Blood-Stained Banner is a name given to the confederate flag. And we know where the line Murder Most Foul comes from, it happens to be the title of the song everyone is listening to. I believe the reference to the confederate flag works in three ways: the predominant color in the flag is red, Kennedy died in the south, and JFK—as Dylan well knows—had all kinds of problems in his struggle against Jim Crow at places like the University of Alabama and Ole Miss. In other words, the ugly side of America, as represented by the confederacy, eventually won out. Dylan is to lyric composition what Frank Lloyd Wright was to designing home architecture.

III

The reaction to this evocative and moving piece of poetry and song writing has been both troubling and predictable. I can do no better than to quote David Talbot at length to illustrate it:

Idiot Wind. This is how pathetic and cowardly and willfully ignorant that our media is. Bob Dylan, America’s greatest living songwriter, has just released a profoundly disturbing song about the powerful conspiracy that killed President Kennedy and the subsequent loss of our nation’s soul. Stop the presses! There’s your story, quarantined media hacks with nothing better to do—call up Dylan and ask him why he released this stunning song now, his most politically charged work in decades. Or call assassination researchers who actually have investigated Kennedy’s “murder most foul”—authors whose work probably informed Dylan.

Instead, what do NPR’s intrepid culture reporters—Bob Boilen and Ann Powers—do? They put together a playlist of the songs that Dylan references in his epic ballad. Likewise, the New York Times’s Jon Pareles also can’t bring himself to explore the meaning of Dylan’s haunting lyrics. He’s obviously read the memo from the Times front office—don't go there if you value your job. All of these music critics are old enough and wise enough to know the huge import of this new Dylan song. And none of them has the guts to wade into these dark waters.

What sniveling and cowering “journalists.” This is why America’s Fourth Estate has been complicit with the Kennedy assassination conspiracy for over five decades. While American democracy was riddled with bullets and buried so deep we now have a mad clown as president, our press “watchdogs” licked the hands of the conspirators and snarled at anyone brave enough to question the official story.

But hey, instead of pondering the light in Dylan’s darkness, we can all listen to this fun NPR playlist!

The New Yorker compared some of the lyrics to QAnon, which shows that one can only understand this poem if you know or care anything about the JFK case. (Kevin Dettmar, 3/28/2020) Ty Burr, in the Boston Globe, said that the musical arrangement should have been stronger and more pronounced. (March 28, 2020) Mr. Burr does not understand that this work is really meant as a poem; therefore, the music is in the background. If one can believe it, the Rolling Stone said that the song is about how music can comfort us through troubled times. (3/27/20, by Simon Voznick Levinson). As I pointed out, in the work’s overtones, what Dylan is showing is how the shallowness of American culture could not deal with an event the size, scope and trauma of the Kennedy assassination. Our cultural and media gatekeepers just wanted to bypass it as quickly and as easily as possible.

In that aspect, Dylan has come a long way on the subject. Accepting an award in 1964, in an allegedly drunken state, he said he could see how some people could relate to what Oswald did. Like most of us today, he understands Oswald did not do anything that day. Like the alleged assassin said of himself, he was just a patsy. The damage was done by assailants unknown to America.

There are few poems, and even fewer songs today, that can be called folk epics. Perhaps in remembrance of his boyhood idol Woody Guthrie, this one lays claim to that rubric.


Additional materials provided by Rob Couteau:

Rear cover of Murder Most Foul by Stanley Marks

Stanley Marks indexed by the HSCA Volumes 11-12 page 695

Last modified on Saturday, 11 April 2020 00:42
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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