The events surrounding the historian, and in which he himself takes part, will underlie his presentation in the form of a text written in invisible ink. The history which he lays before the reader comprises, as it were, the citations occurring in this text, and it is only these citations that occur in a manner legible to all. To write history thus means to cite history…
We have to wake up from the existence of our parents. In that awakening, we have to give an account of the nearness of that existence.
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
If you wanna remember, you gotta write down the names
– Bob Dylan, ‘Murder Most Foul’
At midnight on March 27, Bob Dylan suddenly released a new song to the world. ’Murder Most Foul’- his first original song in 8 years and, at 17 minutes, his longest song ever recorded- is ostensibly about the assassination of President Kennedy, ceaselessly probing the details of that event with the urgency of a conspiracy theorist. Along the way, Dylan unfolds before the listener a dizzying array of references to popular musicians, films and other cultural artifacts, stretching across the 20th-century and beyond- from Nat King Cole to the Beatles, Stevie Nicks to Nightmare on Elm Street, Charlie Parker to Harry Houdini, the Dead Kennedys to 1880s gospel classics, and more.
But ‘Murder Most Foul’ isn’t only about the JFK assassination, and it isn’t just a trip down memory lane. As the U.S. reels from the mounting public health and economic crisis brought on by coronavirus, Dylan released this song with the cryptic message that his listeners “may find [it] interesting…stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” He seems to signal to us that his decision to release the track at this moment of world-historical chaos was, as he says of JFK’s assassination in the opening verse, “a matter of timing, and the timing was right”. He seems to hope that we interpret its winding verses closely, in light of present conditions.
Like JFK’s assassination, the coronavirus has shocked the U.S., plunging us, seemingly overnight, into an uncharted future. Now as then, as Dylan croons in the opening verse, “thousands were watching, no one saw a thing/ it happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise/right there in front of everyone’s eyes”. In a flash, our world has changed irrevocably. Now as then, history has polarized itself into a ‘before’ and ‘after’; our lives will never be the same.
Most reviews of ‘Murder Most Foul’ have suggested that Dylan assembled the vast montage of 20th-century American culture in order to suggest that this legacy may provide “comfort in troubled times”. But I’m not convinced it’s that simple.
While Dylan’s voice is born aloft by gentle, airy swirls of piano and violin tracing pleasant major chords in the air, his evocation hardly feels light and sweet. Interspersed with morbid details of JFK’s murder, what may have been pleasant reminiscence of 20th-century popular culture feels instead unsettled, rife with tension, brewing with threat of decay, political urgency lingering beneath the surface. “Put your head out the window, let the good times roll/there’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll”, Dylan croons, merging, in a single breath, the youthful abandon of ‘60s idealism with an ominous JFK conspiracy theory. “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age/then I’ll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage”, he sings, juxtaposing the ecstatic highs, and violent lows, of ‘60s counterculture.
In 1940, the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote his final work, Theses on the Philosophy of History, while fleeing fascism in Nazi-occupied France. “A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’,” he described,
shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Why is Dylan inviting us to reminisce about the Who and the Beatles, Woodstock and Altamont, as a deadly plague sweeps the land, bodies pile at under-resourced hospitals, and millions more suffer from an economic system reeling towards collapse? Dylan sings, “the day they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun… the soul of a nation’s been torn away, and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.… It’s 36 hours past judgement day.” Perhaps Dylan invites us to bear witness, like Benjamin’s angel of history, to the past 50 years as a kind of wreckage, piling before our gaze in a present of political emergency.
“For the last fifty years” since JFK’s murder, Dylan cryptically croons, we’ve “been searching for” his soul, which Dylan seems at times to identify with the civil rights movement, the “new frontier” of hope and possibility represented by the 1960s, and more. It is tempting to conclude that Dylan performs a kind of liberal boomer nostalgia, suggesting that a certain strain of 20th-century optimism and progress, embodied by Kennedy, ultimately failed to deliver on the change it had promised, with Trump and Trump’s coronavirus crisis as the result. But it seems a deeper work of mourning is also at play.
Like the Angel of History, Dylan seems to watch helplessly as the events, not only of JFK’s assassination, but the 20th century itself unfold inexorably before his eyes. In both cases, a hidden truth seems to lurk beneath the surface; justice waits to be delivered. Walter Benjamin hoped that a certain kind of remembrance could ‘rescue’ the phenomena of our past from a kind of entrapment. “What are phenomena rescued from?” he asked.
Not only, and not in the main, from the discredit and neglect into which they have fallen, but from the catastrophe represented very often by a certain strain in their dissemination, their “enshrinement as heritage”. They are saved through the exhibition of the fissure within them. There is a tradition that is catastrophe.
Perhaps Dylan is subverting the mainstream enshrinement of ‘60s counterculture as ‘timeless heritage’, suggesting that beneath the glossy, commodified surface of ‘The Sixties’ as our culture remembers it, a catastrophe was long brewing— one that flared up briefly in Kennedy’s murder and has erupted, in full force, in our present moment. Rather than inviting the listener to derive comfort from 60s nostalgia, perhaps he’s throwing the rose-colored glasses aside, imploring us to awaken to the realization that, as Benjamin puts it, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
As the ghost of Hamlet’s father returns to cry ‘murder most foul’, revealing to his son the true circumstances of his untimely death and asking for revenge, Dylan seems to warn us that our entire society has blood on its hands, and is due for a reckoning. The coronavirus crisis deepens in our midst- a crisis, not only of microbes, but of mass unemployment, lack of health care, a social safety net in tatters, rampant structural inequality, administrative incompetence, xenophobia and fearmongering, and myriad other contradictions of neoliberal capitalism. In this moment, Dylan parades the names and faces of 20th century music, film and radio stars before our eyes, and one almost feels a sense of vertigo, as if what-has-been careens, with its full, crushing weight, toward the abyss of the now.
In what Benjamin calls “the prophetic gaze that catches fire from the summits of the past”, these historical figures seem to haunt us, implore us, call us to account for the moral crisis unfolding in our midst, awakening us to the barbarism of our condition. Dylan, meanwhile, delivers lines like ‘don’t worry Mr. President, help’s on the way’ with a sneer, suggesting to our ears President Trump’s ‘murder most foul’, the mounting death of thousands due to his administration’s mismanagement of the crisis. Elsewhere, Dylan’s lines evoke the injustices of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racism more broadly, while lines like “don’t ask what your country can do for you” and “business is business, it’s a murder most foul” seem to criticize an entire economic system that puts profit over people.
In the 17 minutes of ‘Murder Most Foul’, one senses that Dylan is both assembling evidence in the trial to convict JFK’s true assassin, and putting our civilizational history itself on trial for the barbarism unfolding in our midst. But all is not necessarily doom and gloom, either. In the song’s final minutes, Dylan implores the ghost of a popular 60s DJ to ‘play, play, play’ the songs of the 20th century, in what amounts to an incantation, a requiem for the treasured artifacts of a civilizational heritage, rhapsodized in the dark days of its decay. Even as we bear witness to the wreckage, he seems to suggest, we must not despair, but rather play, play the beauty of this imperfect world.
“Pick up the pieces and lower the flags,” he tells us, inviting us to perform mourning itself as a redemptive act, to hold with resolve the immensity of the past, in all its beauty, pain, and promise- and concluding, in the song’s final line, with the affirming hope that ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself may be inscribed within the ragged fabric of our stubborn inheritance.