Friday, April 24, 2020

Bob Dylan's (Gnostic?) New Song "Murder Most Foul"

The Gnostic Bob Dylan and “Murder Most Foul”

              On March 27, 2020, Bob Dylan released a song called “Murder Most Foul.” It was an original song written by Dylan, the first since the release of his album Tempest in 2012. It was an end to a drought of new material that had been the longest of Dylan’s nearly 60 year career, a very welcome surprise. Since then he has released a second original composition (“I Contain Multitudes”). Perhaps an album awaits us later in the year?
             It is not clear when it was written. The lyric style feels very similar to some of the songs on Tempest and so some theorized that “Murder Most Foul” was a Tempest outtake. But while there is a Tempest feel to the lyric, Dylan’s voice is much clearer than it was during the Tempest sessions. Listen to his singing on Tempest, then compare that to the relative clarity of the Great American Songbook albums (Triplicate for instance) and it is clear that “Murder Most Foul” was recorded much more recently than Tempest. So another possibility was that it was written around the time of Tempest but recently re-recorded. But while possible, the release of “I Contain Multitudes” with its very similar instrumental sound and voice quality, increases the probability that Dylan recently went into the studio with a set of songs. Whether he got a sufficient number down for an album, or just got a few and then stopped, I guess we will have to wait and see.
“Murder Most Foul” is also the first original song Dylan has released since being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. I had wondered if being a Nobel Laureate was going to affect his songwriting, perhaps make him a bit self-conscious about what he should be writing. “Murder Most Foul” is his longest song in terms of time and probably in terms of word count as well. It has almost no discernable tune. It’s more of a running talking narrative in which Dylan controls the phrasing and intonation, and the minimal music is free flowing piano and strings well below his voice in the mix – this is no three-chord folk tune. Is the emphasis on the lyric and away from the music a result of his feeling the need to live up to the Nobel designation?
It may also be just that Dylan is recognizing that this is the way his voice works best for him right now. There is no straining for high notes or fumbling with fast phrasing. He sounds good. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s last few albums that made such great use of his voice, then so limited by his age.

              “Murder Most Foul” is very lyric driven, but the “cover” sets the tone. Dylan released it as a single across all electronic platforms (as far as I know there is no physical release yet) and the electronic “cover” photo is of John F. Kennedy in black and white, but with a sepia background and “Murder Most Foul” written across his chest in the same hue as the background. Without hearing a word, just from the title of the song and the picture, a mood and expectation for it are set.
              As I listened it struck me how much sense the song makes if you interpret it through a Gnostic lens. A Gnostic perspective was suggested to me probably because I had just read a book called God Knows Everythingis Broken: The Great (Gnostic) Americana Songbook of Bob Dylan by Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer. My wife gave it to me for Christmas (one of the first times she has found a Dylan book that even I didn’t know about!) on a recommendation from one of her colleagues who knows how much of a Dylan fan I am. It is full of interesting interpretations of Dylan songs (more like lines, really) from a Gnostic point of view. (As an aside, when my wife got it for me she did not know that the author spent a good portion of his Introduction in the book discussing my wife’s book The Gnostic New Age. She got quite a laugh about that!) Rabbi Glazer’s book shows that there are a lot of Dylan’s songs that have lines in them which one can associate with a Gnostic world view or framework, and as I listened to “Murder Most Foul” it seemed to me that this, too, was a very Gnostic-compatible song.

Okay, full disclosure up front. I am not arguing that Bob Dylan is a Gnostic in any conscious way. I think if you were chatting with Dylan and said something about Gnosticism he would probably respond with bemusement or disinterest. He is a singer-songwriter not a theologian or philosopher. What I mean when I think about Dylan in Gnostic terms is that Dylan is (like all of us) living in a country that is permeated with Gnostic ideas and frameworks that essentially work in the background of our consciousnesses.
              I am thinking of the way that Professor Harold Bloom, describes Gnosticism and Gnostic influence. Of course there are lot of Bloom quotes about Gnosticism that illuminate this point, but I use the following one from his introduction to an edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Green” because of the song that Dylan released immediately following “Murder Most Foul”:

“Walt Whitman was the crucial celebrant of what I think we yet will call the American Religion, the momentary fusion of all denominations in an amalgam of Enthusiasm and Gnosticism that marked the beginning of the end of European Protestantism in America, and which began in the Cane Ridge Revival of 1800. The Southern Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, Adventists, and other native strains are ongoing emanations of what began there. Our theologians and prophets of the American Religion include Emerson, Joseph Smith, and Horace Bushnell, among others. The philosopher William James is its psychologist, and Walt Whitman forever will be its poet-prophet, who sings only songs of myself. We now have an American Jesus and an American Holy Spirit, and have largely banished Yahweh, except that he marches as Warrior God, endlessly trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” – Harold Bloom from his introduction to "Leaves of Grass (July, 1855 ed.)," published by Penguin Classics.
              Whitman is a poetic hero of Dylan’s and Dylan borrows from him for the title and refrain phrase of his newest song “I Contain Multitudes.” Dylan is influenced directly by Whitman, of course, but also indirectly through one of Whitman’s most ardent admirers, Dylan’s friend, Allen Ginsburg. Ginsburg went beyond Whitman in his Gnostic sensibility by actually referring to Gnostic entities in his poetry, notably in “Plutonian Ode” where he rattles out the names of several ancient Gnostic figures (including Ialdabaoth himself!). Ginsburg was also heavily influenced by the Gnostic material through William Blake (whom Dylan has also stated his admiration for) but Whitman was almost certainly influenced by Blake as well, so there you go.
              Now Dylan has not quite “banished Yahweh” but he has certainly adopted many Gnostic characteristics from this “fusion of all denominations” that is “an amalgam of Enthusiasm and Gnosticism” that characterizes so much of American religious and “spiritual but not religious” thought.
              I don’t approach this completely neutrally, of course. My own (what I refer to as) “Gnostic UU” world framework looks something like this: first in terms of the literal world which we observe around us and live in [and in mythological terms that are not literal]:
The material world is indifferent to our hopes and desires, sometimes giving us blessings and sometimes giving us pain and suffering [The Demiurge and the Archons are the rulers of the world and because they are ignorant or evil create and manage a world that gives us blessings, but also, as often, cause us pain and suffering].
Human beings, being a part of the natural world, are flawed too, and so we make mistakes which cause ourselves and others around us pain [Our human bodies are imperfect material creations of the Demiurge, and we are therefore subject to ignorance which influences us to make bad decisions which hurt ourselves and others].
But humans also have the capacity, from thousands of years of communal living and cooperation and social growth, to experience love and to behave in loving ways that bring peace to our internal lives and comfort and joy to those around us [In each human there is a divine essence that with proper learning, and practice, we can cultivate and strengthen, so that we can overcome the indifferent and evil suffering the Demiurge and Archons cause and rejoin the God Above God in whom Love is perfected].
While the material world inevitably causes suffering at times throughout our lives, we can train our individual consciousnesses, whether through meditation, prayer, philosophical or artistic expression, or just becoming more loving and generous, to change the way we view suffering so that we can enjoy our physical lives when things are good, and endure the difficult times with grace and humility when pain and suffering cannot be avoided [The material world is the realm of the Demiurge and Archons and will inevitably cause us to suffer while we exist in the material world, but through Gnosis we can learn how to overcome them and escape the limitations of the world and rejoin the realm of the God above God which is immaterial, and in that way defeat the Demiurge and overcome the suffering we endure in our material lives].
              This Gnostic worldview promotes resistance by individuals against the “rulers of this world” [the Archons] and continuously challenges the citizen to cultivate the best within them through use of their own reason and conscience. To assume that the authorities are suspect and it is the individual who must rise up to overcome them is very American. No Kings for us – we are all about revolution.
              With that in mind I go back to the lyric of Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul.” Dylan is doing a lot of interesting things here. He begins by writing about the Kennedy assassination in the language of the traditional British/American murder ballad.
              These ballads tended to often have lyrics that described the murder in graphic (almost awkwardly) simple terms. For instance in traditional ballad “Down in a Willow Garden” the Kossoy Sisters sing (in very sweet voices):

And there I poisoned that dear little girl
Down under the banks below
I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife
I threw her into the river
Which was a dreadful sight
-          From “Down in a Willow Garden” as sung by the Kossoy Sisters on their album Bowling Green. (1956)

Or, on the same album in the traditional song “On the Banks of the Ohio”:

I drew a knife across her breast
As gently in my arms she pressed crying
"Oh, Willie, don't you murder me
For I am unprepared to die"
I took her by her lily-white hand
I let her down to the river strand
I plunged her in where she would drown
And stood and watched as she floated down
-          From “On the Banks of the Ohio” on Bowling Green

Dylan adopts that murder ballad style in the song on his Tempest (2012) album “Tin Angel.” Short, brutal descriptions of violent murder such as:

"We're two of a kind and our blood runs hot
But we're no way similar in body or thought
All husbands are good men, as all wives know"
Then she pierced him to the heart and his blood did flow
-          From “Tin Angel” on Tempest (2012)

To be honest, I never liked “Tin Angel” that much. The problem with it is I never really cared too much for any of the characters described and so there is no sense (at least for me) of the tragic. All that is left is awkward brutality.
              In “Murder Most Foul” however, Dylan re-adopts the murder ballad with all the gross murder details but this time about a person we are all familiar with from history, and about whom we have some sort of emotional connection. Whether it be love, nostalgia or curiosity it is hard not to have feelings about the assassination of Kennedy. For instance he has:

Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
‘Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect
We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect

And here we know he is talking about Kennedy and most of us don’t hate him and we respect who he was, so we are instantly put in a position of disagreement with whoever “they” are.
              And that is where things get very interesting. Clearly Dylan is referring to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories here. There are references to the Grassy Knoll, magic bullet, and the title itself (while it is a Hamlet quote) is likely related to a Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy (KAC) book (“Murder Most Foul!”) by Stanley Marks. Now I am not going to go into whether the song presents evidence that Dylan believes or doesn’t believe in any particular KAC theory. I don’t know and it is not all that important to me. I love Dylan’s music and lyrics, but I don’t really take his accounts of history all that seriously in the specifics. I don’t form opinions about Joey Gallo, Billy the Kid, or John Wesley Hardin based on his songs. I mean this is a guy who wrote a song about the sinking of the Titanic and included probable references to Leo DiCaprio as a passenger. It is a song, not a history book.
              But the question (in a larger song philosophy sense) of who the “they” he is referring to is, seems interesting to me. For example think of the lines:

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
Of course we do, we know who you are
Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car

I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine
Ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
Oh Lord, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap
We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and took out his brain
What more could they do, they piled on the pain
and, finally,
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 ‘em we’re waitin’- keep coming - we’ll get ‘em as well.

In that first section “they” are the ones who kill Kennedy not “he”. Since the official account is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, this tells you the song is rejecting that account. But in what sense? Yes, it could mean he is talking about a conspiracy of killers, multiple shooters, and all that, but there might be something a bit deeper going on too.
              First thing to note is that all of these accounts are clearly intended as fanciful not connected to any real event. Kennedy never said to Oswald or anyone else “do you know who I am?” No one ever told him that they would ask for, nor give, any quarter. No one said to Kennedy that his brothers would rescue him and no one said that they would “get ‘em as well,” conspiracy or not. No, these are symbolic conversations included for another reason. From near the beginning of his songwriting career, Dylan has seen assassinations in terms of larger social structures. Most famously, perhaps, in “Only a Pawn In Their Game” in which (in reference to the man who shot Medgar Evans) Dylan has a refrain that goes:

But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
-          From “Only a Pawn in their Game” on the album The Times They are a-Changin’ (1964)

One has to wonder, if the shooter himself isn’t to blame for the killing, who is? If he is a pawn in “their” game, who does the game belong to? Dylan’s answer is the society and rulers (Archons?) who manipulated him. In “Murder Most Foul” he might be returning to a similar theme. The killer of Medgar Evans was, Dylan asserts in his song, a pawn of the “southern politicians, “deputy sheriffs,” “soldiers,” “marshalls,” and “governors” presumably among others who teach him to hate African-Americans. The “they” of “Murder Most Foul” are not as easily named.
              Of the three “Murder Most Foul” quotations above, I find the one about the “brothers” (not “brother” singular) most interesting. While the “they” in most of the references could refer to assassination conspirators, I think one would be hard pressed to come up with a conspiracy theorist who could tie together the assassination of John Kennedy, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, AND the Chappaquiddick incident with the same set of conspirators. And unless I am woefully mistaken these have to be the incidents he is talking about there. Robert Kennedy was on a path to possible election as President when an assassin gunned him down, and I think most folk believe there is a good chance that if the Chappaquiddick incident didn’t happen Ted Kennedy would have more strongly contended for the Presidency and perhaps won it at some point in his career.
              So who are the “we” that are going to get Robert and Ted too? Even if you buy some far-fetched theory that Sirhan Sirhan is connected to some shadowy figures that manipulated Oswald and others to assassinate John F., I find it really hard to fathom that the same folk were connected with Ted Kennedy’s car accident and subsequent behavior at the accident scene.
              But what if we do a “Only a Pawn in Their Game” type analysis and assume that the “they” and the “we” of the song are more akin to the rulers and manipulators of society and fate, rather than a few conspirators? To me, the song then makes a lot more sense and says a lot more. If the “they” and “we” of the song are metaphorically like the Archons (rulers of this material world that cause suffering and pain to exist) then it all kind of fits together. Conspirators in the assassination of Kennedy can still be a part of that (and I suspect for Dylan they are) but they are not the whole. (More full disclosure: I pretty much accept that Oswald was the main force behind the Kennedy assassination, but I am not sure he was completely alone in his knowledge of what he was going to do. I have a hard time believing he never told anyone, not his wife or a friend or someone, what he was planning on doing, but I don’t believe it was a large government conspiracy.)
              In the first “Murder Most Foul” quote above such a reading means the author is imagining Kennedy addressing the Fates or the Powers of the Material World when he asks “do you know who I am” and it is the material world that says back to him that of course they know, but they don’t seem to care. Doom comes to all, kings and princes and even Presidents. The “they” who take out his brain and mutilate his body are not just the shooters, but the doctors who autopsy him, from which those awful last photographs circulate – after he is killed society and its officials continue to tear his body apart. In the last quote above, the Kennedy family almost seems cursed by fate (the “we”?) when his brother Robert is shot to death also and his brother Ted is politically and morally undone by his own actions.
              Another curious line this reading illuminates comes after “they” have killed the President: Dylan sings:

We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place

Again, this can certainly be taken to be a reference to a conspiracy to replace Kennedy with Johnson, with the CIA being behind it all, as some conspiracy theorists have it, but let’s face it, beyond the extreme unlikelihood of this (if much of the national government was behind this it seems far fetched that no one and no evidence of this has come to light for this many years) the “we” would also have to include the laws of the land (the Constitution is what requires Johnson to succeed Kennedy after all) and Kennedy is the one that chose Johnson as his running mate and the American people are the ones that voted both of them in, knowing that Johnson is there for this purpose – to replace the President if the President is unable to continue his duties. The “we” includes at the very least the killing actors, the Constitution, and the American public. More rulers, actors and pawns in this material world.
              Much of the song’s running narrative is a description of the aftermath and the repercussions of the assassination and thy are as dark as its description of the murder itself:

I’m in the red-light district like a cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street…

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”…

Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier…

What’s New Pussycat - wha’d I say
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day…

The powers that rule the material world seem to have triumphed and we are all pretty much screwed. (Not an uncommon theme in Dylan’s work.) If he left it there it would be a very depressing song. But, being Dylan, he doesn’t leave it there. Most of the rest of the song is an invocation of someone very different: Wolfman Jack.
              Why Wolfman Jack? Wolfman Jack is probably the most memorable name of all the Radio “disc jockeys.” He is also extremely … himself. He does not seem to belong to the ruling society. He is an outsider, like the movie wolfman an object of fear to the mainstream, and named in part after the great Bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf, whose growling voice he seems to have adopted, who was also a loud, brash, highly unique character in the blues world.
Wolfman Jack immediately invokes the idea of wild songs being played over the radio. And songs are important to Dylan. Very important. He was exposed to rock and roll early in his life through the radio and songs took on an importance to him greater than what most of us experience. He famously says in a David Gates interview with Newsweek:

“I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. … I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that…. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”
So the material world is a place of murder and darkness in which mysterious “they”s go around bringing down Presidents and shaping our lives. Where to go for relief from suffering of the material world? Where to, but to songs, which express our suffering and overcome it with joy and love? In “Murder Most Foul” he asks the Wolfman to play a litany of songs after advising the kids:

Hush li’l children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand
Slide down the banister, go get your coat
Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat

Sliding down the banister while getting your coat invokes the Hard Day’s Night movie and the exuberance The Beatles would soon bring the world with their energetic songs of teenage love. (The Mersey Ferry drops into Liverpool, home of The Beatles, at Pier Head.)
              And Wolfman is directed to not only play the music but to play it for certain people. Invoking Dylan’s early composition “Chimes of Freedom,” the Wolfman is directed to play the music for those he referred to in that song as the “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” Here he says:

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James…

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe…

Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling that good…

Play Mystery Train for Mr. Mystery
The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree
Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that’s got no master…

Play Lonely at the Top and Lonely Are the Brave
Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave…

In other words, play it for everyone from the high to the low, the live and the dead, and he is also asking for it to be played for himself. It seems that the only way he has to overcome the tragedy and the suffering of the world is to sing (and be sung to) about it. This is nothing new. Dylan has talked about this as far back as the interview printed on his second album (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) when he said:

"The way I think about the blues," [Dylan says] "comes from what I learned from Big Joe Williams. The blues is more than something to sit home and arrange. What made the real blues singers so great is that they were able to state all the problems they had; but at the same time, they were standing outside them and could look at them. And in that way, they had them beat. What's depressing today is that many young singers are trying to get inside the blues, forgetting that those older singers used them to get outside their troubles."
At his best, Dylan sings with a clear sense of using the song and the performance to get outside troubles (his and ours) to “beat” them. He asks the Wolfman to play all kinds of music that can help you do that but ends (not immodestly) by suggesting that Jack play Dylan’s own song:

Play Love Me or Leave Me by the great Bud Powell
Play the Blood-Stained Banner - play Murder Most Foul

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