When I read that people are turning to art for solace and comfort while being isolated at home, I did not get how that worked. Is this a special occasion? Is there an understanding that art can make you forget your woes for good?
The purpose of art is not to escape life but to engage with it and right now the tragedy of the coronavirus outbreak is the truth of our lives, perhaps for an indefinite period. Can you turn your back on it by watching a feel-good Disney movie or listening to Yanni? Can you distance yourself from the images of migrant labourers trudging across empty highways across India, without food or water in an attempt to get home?
When I heard Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul, the legend’s first original release in eight years, I felt that my thoughts about the purpose of art during a tragedy had finally being acknowledged. This was the song I needed to hear at this time.
The 17-minute song has Dylan reciting the lyrics over a minimal arrangement of piano, violin, and barely audible drums. Clearly, Dylan, the Nobel Laureate, wants us to focus on the words. The song uses the assassination of American president John F Kennedy in 1963 as a starting point, and then builds on it a meditation on art touching and shaping American lives, all the while aware that the national wound of Kennedy’s murder will never heal.
Verse one sets the scene with a straightforward account of the assassination. References to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes twice – once in the title, and again, in the lines “The day they blew out the brains of the king, thousands were watching, no one saw a thing.”
From the second verse, Dylan punctuates scenes and memories from the assassination with mentions of and references to songs, movies and artists that followed and preceded Kennedy’s death, such as The Who, The Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Thelonius Monk, Bustor Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the 1984 horror film The Nightmare on Elm Street. (NPR has an exhaustive list of the 74 musical references).
The effect of Dylan narrating unfortunate details from American history while working in names of some of our most-loved artists is hypnotic.
Why Dylan released this song without intimation and in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic is anybody’s guess, but there couldn’t have been a better time. As American painter Robert Rauschenberg said, “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history,” Dylan has done exactly that throughout his career.
Read other articles in The Art of Solitude series here