I remember it very clearly. It was Friday night. I had spent the evening in the school hall with the Boys Brigade. It was my brief flirtation with a uniformed organisation. I was a lance corporal and I was learning about marching and polishing shoes and buttons. The uniform was a simple a pill box hat with the company’s number, a white sash and a belt. It was the belt which fascinated me with its rich leather and the brass buckle that clipped into place. At school the boys used it for fighting. They swung it at each other. Mercifully it seldom hit, at least I never saw a strike, but it looked lethal. Polishing brass was always interesting and rewarding. When my older brother came home for a break in his military training as well as teaching us to march in formation and hold a wooden gun, he taught us how to polish buttons, how the fabric of the jacket was carefully protected by a piece of stiff card with a slit cut in it and how the dull metal, with a splash of Brasso and a quick rub, could be made to shine like gold.
That evening we left the hall and took a lift in a landrover, it wasn’t far from the village, to our home and I remember sitting in the back with the tarpaulin flapping with its mica vision panel and red rear lights reflecting across the spray from the road. I stepped off the back plate and ran up through the gate to the house. The lights in the hall were on and my father called through from the back. “President Kennedy’s been shot”
Most of my generation, in the western world, will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what they did and who they were with on that day. It was one of these moments where it seemed we were all tuned into the one thing at one single point in time. Over the years people have responded in different ways. For Bob Dylan, it took more than half a century before he was able to put together a song, but it has been worth waiting for. “Murder most foul” belongs to the genre of contemporary ballads that Dylan is by far the maestro. The way he soaks himself in the event, feels for the time, understands the emotions of the actors and weaves a tale referencing a collage of connections is masterly. Like “Tempest” on the fate of the Titanic,or “Across the green mountain” for the American Civil War he never preaches or moralises. He avoids any political point or message but simply lays it out and leaves you with the story crafted in scores of layers.
A ghost gave us the title and it is a strange song in many ways because you would be hard pushed to identify a particular tune. Yet it is a song, not a poem or piece of prose, and sung over rolling piano arpeggios and soothing violins with simple chords. There is only a hint at verses, ending with the title and it is a series of couplets. The opening immediately draws the listener in.
It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-riding’ high
Good day to be living and a good day to die
This one event in history must have produced so many conspiracy theories. It was possibly even the event that invented the genre. Dylan merely hints at versions of it but he doesn’t lay it down. There was something going on and we never knew exactly what it was.
What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know
“Shut your mouth,” said a wise old owl
Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul
Most of the references are to music and songs, film and popular culture and these are meshed together with quotes from speeches, Zapruder’s film, the voices of the assassins and the shooters, the back and forth all along the way down Elm street, from the grassy knoll, the underpass Parkhill hospital and airforce one with the signing in of the new president.
Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are coming, they’re gonna hold your hand
I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage
The dreamlike sequence with characters appearing in cameo roles slipping out and in, paint a picture of the movement from life to death in slow motion. The mix runs in a stream of consciousness through the mind of a dying man and plants the thought that here there was something more than a man that was dying.
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun”
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul
Even the way the song continues long after you think it should be finished gives it a disturbing edge in what becomes a long fade out. Here there is no sudden cut and then silence, but a slow winding down as if holding on to life till it disappears, trying hard to make meaning of these final moments. In this, the dying man is making up his own playlist of songs he wants to hear and in the final twist, referencing the song itself. It is very deep and terrifying.
Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”
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”
Too right – a magnificent song, a fine poem