- 27 Mar 20
There’s a party going on behind the grassy knoll...
On November 22nd, 1963, my mother went to the cinema with her pals. She was in the Adelphi on O’Connell Street enjoying Hitchcock’s The Birds when the movie was stopped to announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. They went out on to the street, in shock like everyone else. “It felt like the world had been shot,” is how she puts it.
Bob Dylan was already flying by 1963. His second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, came out in May of that year, and songs like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ saddled him with the voice of a generation tag that he fought long and hard to shake, although he never really did. I’m more of a ‘Girl Of The North Country’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ man myself, but that is a whole other story.
Despite making an eejit of himself by having too much to drink, and identifying with Lee Harvey Oswald, at a National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee awards do three weeks after Kennedy’s death, Dylan didn’t directly address the assassination on 1964’s rather dour The Time They Are a-Changin’. Devout followers The Byrds would though, two years later. Their version of ‘He Was Friend Of Mine’ was included on Turn! Turn! Turn!, a song that Roger McGuinn possibly heard first from Dylan, who had recorded it for his debut album, although it failed to make the cut. McGuinn rewrote the traditional song’s lyric to reference the killing. All this isn’t to say that Dylan was unaffected, how could he not have been? The world had been shot. According to those who were with him on the night of November 22nd, Dylan said “they are trying to tell you ‘Don’t ever hope to change things’.” Not long after that, he wrote “it is useless to recall that day once more.”
2020: we’re at another tear, another rift in history. There’s a petulant child in the White House and a global pandemic has exposed him. He is being held up to measure and he is being found wanting. This will surely be his end, although we’ve all said that before. At this moment in time, Dylan – a man who has given expectation the finger since he first got off the bus in New York – decides it is not useless to recall that day after all, and releases a seventeen minute song about Kennedy’s last hours. But is he mourning the events of 1963, or the historical turning point – be under no illusion, that is what it is – that we’re spinning around now.
Musically, this isn’t a lot going on here. There’s a possibly improvised piano, brushed drums, and a groaning cello, and the faintest hint of the vocal inflections of Randy Newman’s subject-sharing ‘Brothers’ here and there, but this is, for all intents and purposes, Dylan reading out a prose poem. But that is more than enough. After eight years of mostly insipid standards, here - at last - is fire. In a way, the music is perfect.
They – the man, the powers that be, the whoever - have come to collect Kennedy’s unpaid debts, and the actual foul act itself is the “greatest magic trick ever under the sun” The throne has been usurped, and not for the last time. The sixties descend from here – The Beatles are there to distract and hold our hands, as we skip blissfully - and intentionally unaware - towards Woodstock, and even Altamont, where another violent act will close out the decade. The fire is sweeping, the flood is threatening. Murder, it's just a shot away.
There’s time for one last episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, hosted by Wolfman Jack, to soundtrack a dream's dying. Go down to the crossroads, try to flag a ride in the black Cadillac that takes us all to our final rest. Play Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim. Play Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and all that junk. We are soldiers in the army so play the 'Blood Stained Banner' that we must hold up until we die, play ‘Murder Most Foul’.
Hamlet stands on the battlements, his father’s spirit calling for revenge, decrying the unnatural act. Dylan is the ghost of our collective conscience that goads us on “I said the soul of a nation been torn away, And it's beginning to go into a slow decay” The ghost howls “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not” But we have borne it, The “day of the antichrist” that began back in 1963. We live with it now, and feel its clammy hand on our shoulder, and its foul breath on our neck, whispering "don’t ever hope to change things."
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