A last midnight glance at the social media sites said Bob Dylan had released a new 17-minute song just now. 17 Minutes? Really? I had better listen to it in the morning with not so tired ears. A morning call on other matters and then a text from a friend asking if I heard the new song, “Murder Most Foul”, woke me up well before my new pandemic rising time of 11am. I’m up now, might as well listen and listen I did. The clarity of the words is what struck me first. As if it was important that every word be annunciated so there could be no misunderstanding. The second thought was how honored Nick Cave will be when he hears it, as Dylan sounds a bit like Nick Cave now, although I’m sure it started as the other way around.
In this time of Coronavirus sequestration, I have not taken up cooking or cleaning or filling my time with boredom. Instead, I’ve wandered through the lives of a few 19th Century poets. I am not actually reading the poems of Emily or Tennyson, or Blake or Keats yet. My interest is in their worlds. What made them tick? What were commonalities in their lives? What were the temperaments and circumstances that led them to devote themselves to the written word this way? And who drops down into the middle of this reading, but the man many consider to be the greatest poet of the 20th century and beyond-Bob and his new epic poem. I don’t really see it as a song. While the strings and piano provide a beautiful backdrop, these weavings of words and ideas would have withstood bagpipes and a kazoo.
Logophile. A lover of words. A word I learned a week or so ago. Not only a lover of the meaning but the sound of words strung together like the finest of violins. And there are not many logophiles more maestro than Dylan. Like a perfectly punctuated puzzle, he pieces together words to give you an observation or a thought or an idea that never existed before, that soars or saddens you and sometimes does both at the same time. Tennyson said, and I paraphrase from spotty memory, the artist can never be in society. The artist can only observe society. And Bob has certainly achieved the accolade of one of the keenest eyes we have had these past six decades.
Halfway between here and the incident, I became obsessed with this murder most foul. I tracked down every book that was written about it from the conspiracy point of view. There was no Internet, no Google, just one book that mentioned another and that book mentioned another. And then appeared the name of the book that allegedly solved the case. I found the only available copy of this small paperback written by one of the shooters in an obscure library through tenacious trickery and not much else. Fiction is never removed from the shelves, but truth often has to fight for its space. A few years later, I disbanded these thoughts when I became a mother. Parenting causes enough paranoia without adding conspiracy theories into the mix. And anyway, the fires of conspiracy burn best and brightest in youth. Today, when my 18-year-old son tells me that this pandemic is a political plot to topple the Trump regime, I merely shrug my shoulders and say “ Who Knows?” The truth of some things may never be known, but the impact always will.
Bob takes me back in “Murder Most Foul’ to what was my main conspiracy theory for many years, masterfully dispersing the details and images of that day in and out among what came after in pop culture. How profound and how timely this poem is for his patrons and his peers with this current corona devastation aimed right at them. For one brief minute today, I like to think he stopped the COVID headlines in their tracks, as all the news conduits proclaimed this new Dylan song after an eight-year hiatus. Has it been that long? I don’t keep that much track, honestly. Bob like your God, your Higher Power, your warlock or your witch comes to you when needed most. To a 10 year old girl, confused and saddened by a senseless TV war came “Like A Rolling Stone” through the AM radio airwaves. Anthems always delight no matter what they say. To the 18-year-old poetess on training wheels, came “Blood On The Tracks” and by year’s end, she lived every verse or imagined she did. And it’s only fitting that today he speaks to his contemporaries about another tragedy that defined their lives all those decades ago. It speaks to hope and failure in a kaleidoscope of musical and popular references of that decade. But most of all it speaks to survival. His generation has been defined by the Kennedy tragedy the same as the millennials have been defined by 9/11. He reminds his generation to take the good with the bad, but points a finger at some of the bad still here without actually pointing fingers.
Possession is nine tenths of the Dylan fan law. He gives both communion and community. To his most faithful, they come in solitary listening to receive the word and the balm that will help each of them heal their harm. Their communion with Dylan, the host, is private, personal and possessive. But then communion turns to community and they share themselves with kindred spirits. This happens all over the world. In my tiny corner, it happens once very May where about five hundred of the faithful gather for a day of non stop Bob Dylan music performed by some fifty odd brilliant musicians. Not too many artists are paid this kind of homage.
Many write and many sing but only a precious few really say anything. Some will love this new poem, but won’t understand it. Some will hate it because they understand it too well. But O the joy for those who will both love and understand it. This is Dylan’s latest, and many, I imagine, may think his greatest. Will it be his last? Who knows? For now, let’s listen to it, let’s read it and let’s let the tears of hope and sadness flow.