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Bob Dylan surprise-releases epic new 17-minute song, ‘Murder Most Foul’

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan surprise-released a new 17-minute song, “Murder Most Foul,” late Thursday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

You thought Don McLean’s “American Pie” was the be-all-end-all of a pop-culture riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?

That now looks like amateur hour, next to the nearly 17-minute dazzling and dizzying track “Murder Most Foul” that Bob Dylan dropped without warning late Thursday.

“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years,” Dylan, 78, said in a brief message that accompanied the release of the song on his website, YouTube and most music streaming services Friday morning. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”

There’s no way to know — Dylan typically shares only as much information as he sees fit — but he may well have decided to drop the track, which is the first original song he’s released since his 2012 album “Tempest,” during the coronavirus outbreak while so many people are sheltering at home.

Now fans may actually have the kind of “deep listening” time on their hands required to absorb the complex litany of cultural references Dylan weaves into this tale that begins as a retelling of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

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Its closest analogy in Dylan’s recent repertoire may be the almost 14-minute title track from “Tempest,” another masterful, historically rooted epic journey through American history and contemporary culture.

But like “American Pie,” the focus here is on music, as Dylan name-checks bebop jazz titans Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the Everly Brothers and Patsy Cline, the Eagles and the Who, border radio DJ Wolfman Jack and the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson.

The song’s title references Shakespeare’s quote from Hamlet, Scene 1, Act 5, as voiced by a ghost: “Murder most foul, as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.”

He sets the song up as the beginning of a Homeric epic journey might unfold:

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It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die

From there, Dylan crafts a chilling telling of the assassination, filling it with classically Dylan observations on what it all means, seamlessly blending outrage, horror, humor and absurdity all at once:

It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun
Perfectly executed, skillfully done
Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl
Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul

The 2016 Nobel Prize in literature-winning songwriter touches on the ‘60s cultural revolution, of which he was a major player, and courses through mostly American music developments through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and U.S. history, and the bloody trail that runs through it, on up to a reference to “Parkland.” That, of course, is the name of the Dallas hospital to which Kennedy was rushed after being shot and where he was eventually pronounced dead, but also perhaps a nimble fast-forward to the present given the grisly coincidence of names with the location of the mass shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.


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