A Playlist for the Apocalypse
December 7, 1941, and America in shock.
“Me, I was born in 1941,” Bob Dylan says onstage a few minutes before Barack Obama is officially declared the 44th President of the United States. “That’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are going to change now.”
November 22, 1963, and America again in shock. “America leads the world in shocks,” says Gil Scott-Heron. “Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock.”
Is the world just one big magic trick and we’re the hoodwinked audience?
Bobby Zimmerman didn’t vote in the 1960 election, the 19-year-old being far too busy with the task of becoming Bob Dylan. As far as anyone knows, Bob Dylan doesn’t vote in any election — evading the question the few times he’s been asked about exercising his franchise. On the other hand, in Chronicles Dylan does relate an anecdote of his mother seeing Kennedy in Hibbing in October 1960, watching JFK give a “heroic speech” and writing to her Bobby that Kennedy was a ray of light bringing people a lot of hope. “If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there.” Dylan adds.
When JFK was killed, on November 22, 1963, Dylan was 22 years old. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had come out six months earlier. He had finished recording his third, The Times They Are a-Changin’, which would be released two months later.
For a song-and-dance man who makes his living from words, Bob Dylan has had difficulties articulating his feelings about the Kennedy assassination. A month after the President was killed, an uncomfortable and drunk Dylan made a rambling speech at The Emergency Civil Liberties Union “Bill of Rights” dinner, concluding with…
I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where — what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone — I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me — not to go that far and shoot.
“Oh the french papers claim”
Dylan wrote the Kennedy portions of the so-called “Margolis and Moss” papers during 1963–64. Including poetry, prose, two plays (one only 12 lines); and early drafts of what would become “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the collection was stored in Albert Grossman’s attic, abandoned and forgotten by Dylan. The papers eventually found their way to auction house Margolis and Moss and were purchased in 1990 by musician Graham Nash.
Fragments of the Margolis and Moss papers include the lines…
Oh the french papers claim the (gangsters “x’d” out) right wing (“paid for the” is written in by hand)
thru the papers a plenty many a tale is told
it had to be done with more guns than one
it could not fire that fast say the Italians
and the Dallas police say they have a closed case
t the ears of the riderless stallion
and on another page,
and the bullet came from somewheres below level
and on still another, harkening back to Dylan’s ECLU speech
and I ask “would I kill the president”
for any reason
and men have reasons
for how they act
an I say
What the young Dylan would have said is lost.
At Dealey Plaza they appraised the theory that Oswald had acted alone. Then they took the station wagon along Kennedy’s path, everyone but the driver looking back toward the depository where the shots supposedly came. Pete [Karman] recalled, “Everyone, including Bobby, started acting like a detective. We looked at that distant row of windows and we all pretty much decided that if someone had shot Kennedy from that window, he would have had to have been a fantastic marksman.” ~ Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, Robert Shelton
Some fifty-odd years after putting some thoughts about the Kennedy assassination to paper, Dylan would revisit the story graphically with two works in his 2012 Revisionist Art installment at the Gagosian Gallery. With silk-screened images replicating various magazine covers — Time, Life, Playboy, and Rolling Stone among others — the 30-odd paintings of the Revisionist Art series adds Dylan-created copy to make ironic, sometimes cryptic, sometimes tasteless, commentary on its subject.
Life Magazine: Jack Ruby uses an image originally published in the February 21, 1964 issue of Life accompanying an article titled, “One Shot Lifted the Veil on a Shady Life.” In Dylan’s Revisionist Art re-imagining, the shot of the Carousel Club owner cavorting with two of his strippers becomes the cover of the February 14th issue of Life, with captions reading:
Song & Dance Man from Dallas Shoots Alleged Killer of President
Ruby Will Not Plead Guilty
Strip Tease Boss Jack Ruby Does Card Trick for One of his Strippers
Wait a minute. Card trick? Song and dance man?
“Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know,” ~ Bob Dylan 1965 press conference.
Bob Dylan used February 14 1964 as the cover date for his faux Jack Ruby cover because he had already assigned the February 21st date to another pseudo-Life silkscreen, this one using the actual cover of that issue, a photo displaying Oswald holding a communist newspaper, the rifle he would use to shoot JFK, and carrying the holstered gun he would use to kill police officer J. D. Tippit. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the photo was a clumsy fake, although a 2015 analysis of the shot by the Dartmouth University School of Computer Science indicated that it had not been doctored.
Dylan removed the original cover copy, replacing it with three mysterious captions and the title “The Secret Life of Outlaw Assassin Lee Oswald.”
While part of the original installation, the Life Magazine: Lee Oswald painting would soon be removed from the Gagosian walls, not to be seen again. Neither painting would be displayed when the Revisionist Art series moved to London’s Halcyon Gallery in 2013.
“I had to go on stage, I couldn’t cancel. I went to the hall and to my amazement the hall was filled. Everybody turned out for the concert. The song I was opening with was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and I thought, “Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.” That song was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there.
I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping or why I wrote that song, even. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.”
Interlude: Three-Card Monte
Watch closely now — the dealer places three cards face down on a table, turns up the Queen of Hearts and flips it back over.
“The stuff I’ve seen you wouldn’t believe,” he says, rearranging the cards.“Seen things go around and come around like chickens coming home to roost. But they never did make me sad; they always made me glad.”
“Pick out the Queen.”
You select the card that should be the Queen, but it’s the Jack of Spades.
“Black Jack!” the dealer exclaims. “Old Bob, his boots reversed. An unlucky card for some.”
“It’s all rigged,” he continues, his hands moving so quickly that they seem to blur. “You think you’re seeing, but you don’t have a clue. Me, I see everything. I seen a town wiped off the map, wiped out of history, wiped out of the collective memory. Like Judgement Day. Happened more than once, too.”
“Man, I seen six million dead and rocket ships built with spit and paperclips to put whitey on the moon. At least they say that. Me, I know we never went to no moon. Pick out the Queen.”
Before you can touch the cards he flips all three over. The Queen’s not there. All three cards are blank.
“There’s your hero President,” the dealer says. “Now you see him, now you don’t.”
“I felt as rotten as everyone else. But if I was more sensitive about it than anyone else, I would have written a song about it, wouldn’t I? The whole thing about my reactions to the assassination is overplayed.” ~ Bob Dylan, Anthony Scaduto
’Twas a Dark Day in Dallas
It would take several decades, but Bob Dylan would write a song about the assassination.
“Murder Most Foul” almost seems to have started out life as two different songs. The first 22 lines focus exclusively on the Kennedy assassination, alluding to his death at the hands of the Mafia, the CIA, Freemasons, other unseen forces, all while America watched, insensible.
As with many Dylan works, some lines — as well as conspiracy theories — in “Murder Most Foul” appear to have been lifted from other sources, notably an obscure self-printed pamphlet from 1967 by one Stanley J. Marks that shares its title with Dylan’s epic song, both using the same line from “Hamlet” to title their pieces. “Murder Most Foul” seems to have been a popular title for Kennedy assassination theorists. At least two newspaper articles — one by Willam Safire and one by Walter Winchell — use it to lead off their pieces.
As I said, Stanley Marks’ pamphlet is both obscure and — 53 years after its printing — not easy to locate. Google Books only provides a “snippet” view of its contents; but enough of a view that one can be fairly confident that it is in Bob Dylan’s library. There appear to be several lines from Marks’ MMF the pamphlet that make their way into Dylan’s MMF the song, perhaps even the song’s opening line about a “a dark day in Dallas.”
Dylanologists lucky enough to lay their hands on a copy of “Murder Most Foul! The conspiracy that murdered President Kennedy; 975 questions & answers” should have a field day. I look forward to reading their research.
“Hush up, little children, now don’t you fret”
With a reworking of a line from Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues” — a song about another presidential assassination — Dylan suddenly seems to abandon Kennedy’s murder and moves from conspiracies into the British Invasion; the Beatles arrival in America; and the birth and death of the ‘60s, which he disposes of in a single couplet.
On the other hand, MMF’s weird juxtaposition of sliding down banisters with Gerry & the Pacemakers treacly “Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey” can also be interpreted — especially if you’re a conspiracy freak — as references to two characters who appear in a multitude of Kennedy assassination theories: Guy Banister and David Ferrie.
“Hush, little children, you’ll understand” reflecting Poole’s “Hush up, little children, now don’t you fret” is only the second of dozens of song references made in “Murder Most Foul” with callouts to everyone from the Louvin Brothers to Queen. References to films also abound in “Murder Most Foul” ranging from a movie about a radio deejay plagued by a crazed stalker, through film noir — with a nod to Jack Ruby’s Carousel strip club — to slasher films, human organ harvesting, and Nazi mind control conspiracies.
All the while the Lincoln Continental speeds to Parkland Hospital carrying a dying President, his shattered head cradled in his wife’s lap as someone — maybe Kennedy, maybe the song’s narrator, maybe Bob Dylan , maybe all three— calls out requests to radio deejay Wolfman Jack for “Only the Good Die Young,” “Twilight Time,” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Does Bob Dylan really believe in any of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories? Maybe. This is, after all, the man who has claimed his life is mystically tied to the death of a Hell’s Angel. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter what Bob Dylan believes. The narrator of “Murder Most Foul” definitely believes in a conspiracy — in fact, he believes in all the conspiracies, from Freemasons through the Mob to the CIA.
For a song that has only been in public release for a week as of this writing, “Murder Most Foul” has generated almost as many interpretations of Dylan’s intent as there are Kennedy assassination theories. And that’s probably the way Bob Dylan wants it. The only way you can see through a trick, even “the greatest magic trick under the sun” is to study it, to “be observant” as Dylan himself observed when he announced the release of “Murder Most Foul.”
Watch carefully. Don’t take what you’re seeing as the truth. Always be aware of the presence of God.
Me, I’ll leave you with a line from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” a version of which ends the penultimate couplet of “Murder Most Foul”…
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Stay safe and may God be with you.
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