Murder most Foul

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”

Crawford Mackenzie

TEMPEST

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I have almost all of Bob Dylan’s’ albums, can recognise and recall most of the lyrics from memory, and never tire of singing them. Without doubt he is the master of the genre and his work has so far never been eclipsed. In my book, he is the Shakespeare, the Beethoven, the Rembrandt of this art form – the English popular song. There are many fine singer/songwriters too, but none really come close. It isn’t surprising then that hundreds of books have been written about his songs and I guess all of it has been said before and better. But it is not only as a songwriter, but as a singer that he surpasses the rest. Many people have been fiercely critical of his singing voice, describing it as “one quaver short of an octave” or simply dismissed it by saying he can’t sing. But for the range (just try and sing some of the songs and you will find that), the expression and the timing, which alone is masterly, there is none like him. It is interesting that in his recent speech at MusiCares he asks why it is that so many singers like, Tom waits, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Dr John, Charley Patton, Robert Johnston and Muddy Waters sing like they are being dragged across gravel, twist and distort their voices, scream and scratch but he is the one who is singled out for the dismissive treatment. I have wondered about this for a long time.  Singing styles are, of course, very much a matter of taste, what is not in dispute is the standard of the songs.

The one which, in my opinion represents Bob Dylan’s finest work, is  “Tempest”,  the penultimate song from the album of the same name.  Since hearing it a year or so ago, I wanted to write about it, review it and, hopefully, draw it to the attention of others. I didn’t got round to that until now. It is in the tradition of many of his ballads that tell a story with just enough detail to let you in on what is happening.  Like “Hurricane” telling a contemporary story introduced like stage notes for a film or the “Across the green mountain” following an observer through the tragedy of the American Civil War to a funeral drum beat, in “Tempest”  he takes a well-known event and without the hint of moralising or preaching lays out the story and lets the hearer decide, with a melody that glides across the waves.  The forty four verses, without a chorus or musical break, paint a gigantic picture where every brush stroke counts, its crafted understated descriptions makes the disaster all the more realistic and terrible.  Like “Cross the green mountain” the narrator observes what is going on in every level of the ship, the individuals and groups and families caught in that moment when all they have lived for and loved is about to disappear. It is inevitable that reviewers, commentators and critics will see different things in the tale. I have read quite a few but the best comes from “the gardener is gone” weblog

It is a terrific allegory for our dogged embrace of everything that does not ultimately matter in the very moment of its not-mattering. Every snapshot of sacrifice, affection, betrayal, heroism, faith, doubt, even the reckless gamblers, is set ruthlessly against the glimpses of implacable destruction. The song’s melody has a patient, rocking feel, and Dylan begins most verses with a merciless delivery of each syllable like a fist pounding a podium, and ends with softer, milder tones. So the sound of the song is a pendulum:  sacrifice and doom; affection and doom; valour and doom; faith and doom.  The vignettes range from the stock moment of the Astors unaware that their days of luxury sight-seeing are over, to the clever and sort of ballsy choice of having Jim Dandy “come to the rescue” of a crippled boy, to the subtle irony of Davey’s whores getting their final command from a man in the form of being released to their deaths. The web of religion that runs through the song is viciously tangled against itself: Jim Dandy dies in peace amid a vision of the rising Eastern star; the bishop admits at the last that human can’t save human; disembodied love and pity send useless prayers; there are angels, and they turn aside; the captain reads of apocalypse and weeps–this here-and-now apocalypse occurring under and over him was his to prevent. At one point Dylan undoes whatever transcendence you may want to glean from his tale by blaming “the wizard’s curse.”

The artist gets it right: in a single moment Leo grasps the disaster, acts with altruistic reflex, and loses his mind.  It’s the truest moment in the song for me; he’s the central character for me. His doomed sketches would have given the glorious ship art’s eternal life.  He’s struck and undone by love just as his muse the ship is struck and undone.  And he is the opposite of the watchman for whom the calamity is the phantom of his sleep: Leo the artist sees the calamity for what it is, acts because the impulse to preserve life is irrepressible, and in that moment knows the full weight of an absurd universe and goes mad.

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Where I differ from the writer, is over the central character in the drama. For me is not Cleo but the watchman who, appears in regular stanzas through the song and who sleeps through it all. Even at the end he is sleeping in that dreadful line “He dreams the Titanic is sinking and he tries to tell someone”.  When you are dreaming you find you can’t run from the bear who is chasing you or from the building that is on fire. No matter how you try you just can’t move your legs.  The watchman can’t tell anyone, and this is the biggest tragedy, because he is fast asleep.  So in this apocalyptical scene the person who should have called out the warning is out for the count. If what is in the artists mind, and he is certainly not going to tell us, is the collapse of western civilisation, then the real tragedy is that no one foresaw and no alarm was given. If, what he sees is the final apocalypse, the end of time and the final judgement then the tragedy is that the ones who could have given the message, sounded the seven blast on the ships whistle, blown the trumpet, the prophets, the preachers, the churches, were silent and found sleeping at their post. This is a most sobering thought.

Crawford Mackenzie