July 1, 2020

Driving With Mr. Dylan: A Rough and Rowdy Ride

By Stuart Mitchner

The last time I road-tested a song was for a column celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ White Album, released in the U.S. on November 22, 1968. Driving from Kingston to Princeton with “Revolution 9” on the stereo, I covered the distance in 8:15, the exact length of the surreal sound collage created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Twice as long, “Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan’s Kennedy assassination tour de force, took me and my 20-year-old-and-counting Honda CRV to Kingston and back and then halfway to Rocky Hill so I could hear it again. The ride was as rich, as dense, and as sweepingly provocative as a novel compared to the churning, driving soundscape of “Revolution 9,” yet both in-motion listening experiences reverberated with the chaotic, fateful aftershocks of the same day in Dallas.                        

Twilight Time in Tulsa

Given the enormity of the audiences their records reached, Dylan and the Beatles had the power to sound and shape the culture of the period, underground as well as mainstream. The Beatles knew what they were doing by releasing the White Album on the fifth anniversary of the assassination, as Dylan knew when he sent Tempest into the world on September 11, 2012 and timed the June 19 release of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways to coincide with Juneteenth, the date officially marking the end of slavery. 

There are some coincidences in this, his first set of original work since Tempest, that underscore the fact that September 11, 2001, happened to be the release date of Love and Theft, his first album of the 21st century. Is the segment in “Murder Most Foul” pairing the aforementioned Beatles sound collage with a Beethoven symphony (“Play number nine, play number six”) a happy accident or another hand dealt by “the man with the telepathic mind” cited in the same sequence? And how is it that the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways happened to coincide with the date a flailing president picked for his ill-fated coronavirus rally? That Trump’s advisors talked him into staging the event a day later doesn’t lessen the impact of the moment when Dylan tells his pirate DJ, Wolfman Jack, “Play tragedy, play Twilight Time: take me back to Tulsa, the scene of the crime.” An inspired conspiracy theorist might say that Dylan intuited the rally’s proximity to the site of the 1921 race riot that left hundreds of blacks dead, wiped out an entire upscale black neighborhood, and served as a white supremacist dog whistle in the race war narrative being cooked up ahead of the 2020 election by the Far Right. 

And is it a fortuitous coincidence that the man with the telepathic mind has Wolfman Jack playing “Lonely at the Top” in the same playlist, as if magically envisioning the source of the widely viewed clip of the dazed, dejected, strung-out commander in chief ‘s late-night return from the tragedy in Tulsa, slouching off Air Force One, red tie undone, hair mussed, like an Alec Baldwin travesty of Trump as Sinatra.

Trance Writing

Asked about “I Contain Multitudes,” the new album’s opening track, in Douglas Brinkley’s June 12 New York Times interview (“Bob Dylan Has a Lot on His Mind”), Dylan says, “It’s the kind of thing where you pile up stream-of-consciousness verses and then leave it alone and come pull things out…. Obviously, the catalyst for the song is the title line. It’s one of those where you write it on instinct. Kind of in a trance state. Most of my recent songs are like that. The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors. The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.” Later he says, “Well, it’s not more like trance writing, it is trance writing. It’s the way I actually feel about things. It is my identity and I’m not going to question it, I am in no position to. Every line has a particular purpose…. Why or where or how, but those are the facts.”

The uneasy association of facts with trance writing takes for granted that we know Dylan got his title from Whitman’s Song of Myself, when, if anything, his implicit claim of the right to contradict himself echoes Whitman’s and puts him among the multitudes Walt claimed to contain in 1855 (why does it never feel OK to call Dylan by his “nighest name,” the way we do Walt?). It’s not up to the Nobel laureate to routinely acknowledge his borrowings from the Good Gray Poet, no more than it’s his responsibility to admit that “Murder Most Foul” comes from Shakespeare by way of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.

The Power of Suggestion

Born in late May 1941, Dylan knows that tuned-in listeners raised in roughly the same time period have been sharing the same stations, pirate or otherwise, reading the same newspapers and books, listening to the same music, wading in the same streams of consciousness. All through “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan taps our free-association reflex, aware that if the first word we hear is the archaic “’Twas” of a Christmas Eve childhood, we’re conditioned to expect “the night before Christmas,” not “a dark day in Dallas.”

At the same time, Dylan plays on our most banal expectations by following pop trivia like “What’s New Pussycat” with the tearing away of “the soul of a nation … beginning to go down into a slow decay … thirty-six hours past judgment day.” When the context is Kennedy’s last ride, anything goes: you can “Take it to the Limit,” and follow a Dionne Warwick hit (“Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by”) with a catchy tune by the Everly Brothers: “Wake up, Little Suzie, let’s go for a drive.” Or you can rhyme the Acid Queen from The Who’s rock opera Tommy with the “long black Lincoln limousine” carrying the president “straight on into the afterlife.” All bets are off when the writer’s on a roll, audaciously mixing and matching periods and art forms, using Nightmare on Elm Street to haunt “the street where you live” from My Fair Lady, and telling the Wolfman, “Play the Merchant of Venice, play the merchants of death, / Play Stella by Starlight for Lady Macbeth.” 

Dylan’s Voice

Several important and uniquely admirable qualities of “Murder Most Foul” were clarified by driving with Mr. Dylan. First, it made sense to be following a route through a complexly allusive work of art about a historically fateful trajectory, “step on the gas … try to make it to the triple underpass … At Dealey Plaza, make a left hand turn … Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive …Turn the radio on, don’t touch the dials, Parkland Hospital’s only six more miles.”

Next, there’s the way the intimacy of listening in the car enhances the quality of the reading, because Dylan’s approach to his 17-minute narrative has more to do with reading than singing. For all the comment his late-period voice has prompted (the rasp, the croak, the aging vocal chords, the comparisons to Tom Waits), his reading of “Murder Most Foul” is masterful, inimitable, worth the admiration of any actor. What a range he covers, such a subtly nuanced balancing of existential extremes, moving between major and minor chords, darkness and light, villainy and pathos, like the way he goes from the casually presidential presumption of Kennedy’s, “Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?” to the voice of the plotters behind the deed, “Of course we do, we know who you are,” to the blandy stated shock of “Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car.” You hear that same Mephistophelian voice after the line, “your brothers are coming, there’ll be hell to pay — Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell? Tell ‘em we’re waitin’— keep coming — we’ll get them as well.”

Questions of Space

The disadvantage of these road tests, including a third one Monday to the Kingston post office, is that “Murder Most Foul” has consumed so much space at the expense of so much else: namely “My Own Version of You,” where Dylan plays Frankenstein collecting body parts (“I’ll be saved by the creature I create”) for a composite that includes Richard the Third, Julius Caesar, Freud and Marx, and the “robot commando” he forms with pieces of Scarface Pacino and Godfather Brando. Another column could be written about “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” or “Black Rider,” about “Mother of Muses” and “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.”

Without the enlightened accompaniment of guitarists Charlie Sexton and Bob Britt; the steel guitar, violin, and accordion of Donnie Herron; the bass guitarist Tony Garnier; and drummer Matt Chamberlain, “Murder Most Foul” might come off sounding too cynical and savage for its own good, less credible, less moving, less everything that it so brilliantly is.

It’s fitting that the Beatles are close to the emotional dynamic of the song. It helped to be there, to feel the truth of the transition from the violence of “the day they blew out the brains of the king” to “Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand … The Beatles are coming they’re gonna hold your hand.”