Bob Dylan baffles the world again

Music legend quietly releases 17-minute meditation on JFK assassination

Bob Dylan performs at the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware in June 2017. (Reuters Photo)

Bob Dylan has surprised and baffled the music world by releasing his first original song in eight years, a mysterious 17-minute meditation on the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Backed by meandering piano, strings and muted drums, Murder Most Foul retells the shooting of the US president from various vantage points while describing the evolution of 1960s counterculture.

“This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you,” Dylan posted on his website, along with a portrait of Kennedy, who was slain in 1963 while riding in a motorcade through Dallas.

The timing of the song’s release and its subject matter have prompted more questions than answers, as is typical for projects associated with Dylan, who rarely gives straight answers when asked why he does what he does.

The good news is that millions of people stuck at home because of the coronavirus — especially Baby Boomers who elevated him to godlike status in the 1960s — now have one more thing to occupy themselves besides Netflix and workout videos. The official audio version has already racked up 1.3 million listens on YouTube.

They can spend hours trying to decipher the meaning behind all the artist name-drops and pop culture references, including to The Beatles, Charlie Parker, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks and the Woodstock festival.

Or they could try to juxtapose the lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited, a Dylan classic from 1965, with the music of his new release and discover that it works, up to a point. On Apple Music, one person managed to compile and post a playlist of many of the songs referenced in Murder Most Foul within hours of its release on Friday.

Writing in The Guardian, Alex Petridis said March 2020 was “a pretty apropos moment to release an epic song filled with death and horror and apocalyptic dread”.

“Shot down like a dog in broad daylight / Was a matter of timing and the timing was right / You got unpaid debts; we’ve come to collect / We’re gonna kill you with hatred; without any respect,” Dylan recounts in his signature sandpaper vocals.

Another line declares: “I’ve got blood in my eyes and blood in my hair / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier” — a reference to the vision Kennedy set out for America in the early 1960s.

It’s the singer’s first original song since his 2012 album Tempest, though he has released three albums of cover tunes, many of them assiociated with Frank Sinatra, in the interim.

Murder Most Foul is also the first song Dylan has penned and released since he reluctantly accepted the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first songwriter awarded the honour.

Dylan, regarded as one of America’s most influential singer-songwriters, has shunned publicity for decades but still performs regularly at small venues around the world.

At 78, he has maintained a relentless touring schedule, though he was forced to cancel a string of April dates in Japan over the coronavirus pandemic.

The artist is still scheduled to kick off a North American tour in June.