One Friday this March, you might have noticed a weird trending item about Bob Dylan releasing a nearly 20-minute new song about the JFK assassination. You might have listened to it for a few seconds and turned it off, or left it running and walked away to make coffee, returning to find one of his classics autoplaying. Or you ignored it altogether, because there are, after all, more important things going on in the world. There was nothing remarkable anymore about proclaiming that much of America’s ills stem from the nefarious deeds of a shadowy cabal.
Those who did listen to the melancholy stream of consciousness, however, may have come out pondering what it was really about, and why the first weeks of the United States’ pandemic lockdown were chosen to release it. Dylan’s enigmatic lyrics have always been the subject of cultural analysis and fan theories. There’s perhaps no better example than the infamous line from “Ballad of a Thin Man”: There’s something happening here but you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?
When that song was released in 1965, Dylan was a central figure in the emerging radical counterculture. He played civil rights movement benefits and protests and penned songs about social injustice and leftist folk heroes. At first, Mr. Jones seemed to be a clueless parent or politician, the same stand-in for the old-world mentality to whom Dylan sang “The Times They Are a-Changin’” from Highway 61 Revisited, released a year and a half prior.
But during that time Dylan’s temperament had changed dramatically. He now resented his cultural vanguard status and began to publicly deride “The Movement.” Mr. Jones, he implied in interviews and concerts, was actually an archetypal nosy cultural critic too desperately to decipher Dylan’s cryptic lyrics. The scene of the song was not the new world emerging from his bohemian haunts, but a phantasmagorical carnival of Americana, defiant of rational interpretation. More than just a journalist who dared question what Dylan meant, Mr. Jones was also a stand-in for also the earnest radical fans who interpreted songs like A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall to be anti-nuclear, the Village yippies who demanded he rally his fans against war and Wall Street, or anyone else who insisted they had deciphered some intention in his poetry.
Dylan’s resentment for politics deepened over the decades. For every clear-eyed masterpiece like “Hurricane” there were multiple nihilist “Political World”s. Last month, the trend culminated in his first Billboard chart-topper, “A Murder Most Foul.” Some critics greeted the seventeen-minute meditation on the JFK assassination and its repercussions as a haunting and poignant indictment of the regime that failed to slow the spread of COVID-19. In reality, it was recorded years ago, and while the timing of the release is cryptically intriguing, it doesn’t take a Mr. Jones to recognize the tempest of conspiratorial and cultural references as little more than regressive nostalgia.
Although Dylan’s career began in a West Village folk scene populated by radicals whose hatred of Kennedy surpassed Oswald’s, he had revered the man during his boyhood in Hibbing, Minnesota. “The upper Midwest was an extremely volatile, politically active area—with the Farmer Labor Party, Social Democrats, socialists, communists,” Dylan recalled in his memoir Chronicles. “John Kennedy had come up to Hibbing on the campaign trail… people were hanging from the rafters and others were in the street, that Kennedy was a ray of light and had understood completely the area of the country he was in… If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there.”
On November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot in Texas, Dylan was scheduled to play a concert in upstate New York. He was worried his recent opener “The Times They are a-Changin’,” with its lyrics of letting the weights of the old world sink in order to create a better one, would enrage the audience. But he played it for the sake of consistency, and to his disgust, the crowd loved it. “I couldn’t understand why they were clapping,” he told his biographer Anthony Scaduto, “or why I wrote that song even.”
Hagiographies of Kennedy often portray his assassination as the end of an Arthurian America, ushering in an era of race riots, senseless war, and parapolitical intrigues that Dylan calls “the age of the Antichrist.” In Dylan’s career it marked a transition from lukewarm embrace of the rebellious content of the folk songs he grew up singing to his long withdrawal from politics and public life, and “A Murder Most Foul” explores the origins of that cynicism. A decent and honest man was horrifically killed as a spectacle. His body was mutilated, and the blood continues to stain American life. The allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the song’s title, however, implies that through telling the story there may be some hope of redemption, or at least vengeance.
In the first minute of the song he depicts the assassination in typical conspiracy theory vagaries. “They” had “led him to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb” and “blew off his head while he was still in the car.” While this “they” is never named, it is clear he is referring to a faction of the US government: “It was a matter of time, and the time was right. You’ve got unpaid debts. We’ve come to collect… we’ve already got someone here to take your place.” After obligatory references to the grassy knoll, magic bullet, Zapruder film, and Jack Ruby, Dylan’s narrative nears the theory popularized by Oliver Stone’s film JFK, in which US intelligence agencies, worried Kennedy was closing-in on their organized crime and war syndicates, had him killed in favor of a more corrupt and militaristic Lyndon Johnson.
Suddenly the song jumps to the sixties’ infamous end: “I’ll go to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age!” Dylan sarcastically croons about the festival he famously sat out, and its bloody West Coast equivalent the next year which confirmed his suspicions about the counterculture: “Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage!” The final six minutes is a series of song requests to the DJ Wolfman Jack—an American Songbook soundtrack with allusions both obvious and cryptic to the injustice of that and other unpunished killings. The final request is “Murder Most Foul” itself, its lyrics perhaps whispered into Dylan’s as if by the ghost of the slain King Hamlet.
Cryptic as the message accompanying the release urging fans to “Stay safe and stay observant…” may have been, Twitter and Youtube filled with thousands of comments that they had received Dylan’s message loud and clear. Intentionally or not, the imagery closely resembled aspects of the QAnon conspiracy phantasmagoria, in which Donald Trump, in tandem with John F. Kennedy Jr. (he faked his death, of course), are waging a hidden war on a global pedophile elite, and are using the pandemic as cover to arrest and execute them once and for all. Like Dylan, QAnon believers see the JFK assassination as the initiation of a Satanic coup. The most compelling similarity comes from the non-sequitur reputation of “Wolfman Jack,” widely interpreted as an allusion to George H.W. Bush’s CIA codename Timberwolf. Then there’s the song’s bizarre length, clocking in close to the favorite number of QAnon believers—17, the letter Q’s position in the alphabet.
Also populating the comments, although greatly outnumbered amidst the ecstatic Trump-supporting conspiracists, were “resistance” liberals. Kennedy was a Democrat, after all, who had, like Hillary, been taken down by clandestine forces. One can only imagine these commentators as Democratic primary voters who recently handed Joe Biden the nomination in hopes of restoring America to a time before Trump. If anyone under the age of 45 enjoys this song, it is likely out of irony.
Perhaps our generation has a much different relationship to national tragedy. Repelled by the jingoistic response to 9/11, we trade fewer melodramatic tales of “where we were” than we do memes portraying the entire affair as Bush’s bumbling inside job. No matter who is really behind tragic spectacles, nothing could have turned out any differently. Even if the official account were clean of manipulation, the truth would have made no one free. The mandatory collective grieving and acceptance of drastic eye-for-an-eye measures became objects of ridicule.
The sea change from simpleton reverence to satire began decades prior, with the Misfits’ masterpiece “Bullet.” Covering all the conspiratorial horror of the Kennedy assassination in its first minute, it still had 35 seconds to spare for a sadistic fantasy about torturing Jackie O. Trump was the first politician to plumb the vast well of this sort of cynical rage to water his insurrectionary 2016 campaign. He entertained every conspiracy theory, endorsed the extreme of every issue, praised Nazis and white supremacists. When it seemed expedient, he said he would release files on the JFK assassination. In another moment, he implied his rivals in the Republican party were behind the killing, or that Bush allowed the attacks of 9/11 to occur. His devoted base need not defend his actual policies, deeds, or worldview—some like the tax cuts, some the misogyny or white nationalism, some the pseudo-evangelism, some their fantasy that he is secretly fighting off the Satanic elite. The MAGA slogan, a promised return to an undefined golden era, unite them all. It mattered not when this, too, was openly confirmed as pure fantasy by the assertion that America had been made great again the moment he took office.
It’s no coincidence that the allure of reaction is as entrenched today as it was a half-century prior. Not since the sixties has it been so clear that the time’s are a-changin,’ as a radical generation struggles awake from exhaustion with psychotic imperialist war, economic precarity, and the daily violence of white supremacist patriarchy. But this time, fewer people hold any faith in our buffoonish leaders, the illegitimate political and justice systems, or the American dream. Perhaps without cryptic folk lyrics standing in for manifestos, things are a bit clearer now. We may not yet “know what’s happening here,” but we at least recognize the logical extent of Dylan’s Shakespearean metaphor: tragedy. ♦
A.M. Gittlitz is an independent writer and paranormal investigator from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice, The Baffler, Commune Magazine, and Protean Magazine. He co-hosts The Antifada and its spinoff Proletkult podcast. His upcoming book I Want to Believe: Posadism and Leftwing Ufology is available April 20th, 2020 from Pluto Books. Follow him on Twitter or see more of his work at Gittlitz.space.