prophets of their own time
late music of bob dylan and patti smith
We begin with death. Or, more accurately, with murder. Murder Most Foul, Bob Dylan’s first original song in eight years (released on 27 March 2020 ahead of his June album 'Rough and Rowdy Ways') is a sprawling, circuitous track that begins with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and then swings through the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. There’s no straightforward narrative, even if the political conclusions of the song are plain: “The soul of a nation’s been torn away / and it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.” Kennedy’s murder is both a beginning and a touchstone, with Dylan returning to it throughout the nearly 17-minute track.
Instrumentally the cards are on the table quickly – rolling piano, strings sliding in as if from the corner of the room, light, shimmering percussion. Then a quick alliterative crack, “It was a dark day in Dallas,” and we’re off. The piano settles into something that seems as though it could go on this way forever, like the ocean, but it’s also stealthily propulsive. Dylan’s vocals are leading us but there’s a strong wave at his back, and the simplicity and looseness of the arrangement allows the band to strike deep at the listener’s heartstrings with the slightest of effects. The double bass is never far away; the sad, steady wake of the piano’s wave.
After we leave Kennedy shot in the limousine, we’re shown a mosaic of a particular experience of 20th-century America (The Beatles arriving, Woodstock, Altamont, The Who, even, a little perversely, A Nightmare on Elm Street). As a narrator, typically, Dylan is sort of there and he isn’t. At six minutes in, he (or the song’s narrator) finally says ‘I,’ and the first person pronoun comes as a shock. It’s also not quite clear if it’s a first-person statement or if the narrator’s ventriloquizing someone else. ‘We’, ‘I’, ‘they’ ‘us’ ‘me’ – Dylan flits between them effortlessly. The result is a kind of associative map of America that the listener keeps trying to stitch together even as Dylan keeps expanding it, and these glimpses take on a cumulative power as the song progresses.
This reaches its apotheosis in the long sequence that ends the song, with Dylan calling on the DJ Wolfman Jack to play a selection of songs and artists it seems fair to assume are among Dylan’s own touchstones. Out of context or in lesser hands this list might come off as nostalgic; an ageing man pining for the music that spoke to his younger selves. But framed by the retelling of Kennedy’s death the roll-call takes on a weightier quality; it becomes an elegy for the death of an entire culture, for an America, or at least an idea of an America, that seems finally to have limped beyond endurance and fallen in the dust of a Dallas roadside.
In Murder Most Foul, Kennedy’s murderers are plural. This doesn’t necessarily read as a suggestion that Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy, it feels more like an acknowledgement that a culture has many killers – it’s a big beast to hunt down, and it takes the concerted effort of a group of people. In the song, Kennedy is a symbol. The destroyers are real, and hard at work.
Elegy is something Patti Smith knows a thing or two about. Her songs for the departed have been a constant thread through her work, from Elegie (about Jimi Hendrix) on her first album, 'Horses', to Kurt Cobain (About a Boy), to Amy Winehouse (This is the Girl), to Robert Mapplethorpe. Her song for the last, Just Kids, appears as a bonus track on her most recent album, 2012’s ‘Banga’.
The pinnacle of the album is the penultimate track, Constantine’s Dream, a thunderous, terrifying babushka of a song that chronicles apocalyptic visions cracking open into denser and denser versions of themselves. The canvas is enormous – Smith begins at night, in the present, alone, sleepless, in the Basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo, standing in front of a bust of Saint Francis. By the time the song has finished we’ve swept through 15th century Arezzo, the Empire of Constantine, to the ships of Columbus advancing, doom-laden, through the Atlantic.
Here, Smith is less concerned with the death of culture than she is with the death of the planet. The song sets up a series of dichotomies (art/nature, spirit/material, individual/environment) that the narrator is torn between. Human vanity, whether expressed as art or as the heady presumptions of imperial and colonial conquest, is here is a force of unbridled destruction. Where we’re headed is a vision of the twenty-first century: “All of nature aflame, the apocalyptic night.”
Instrumental layers stack up as Smith weaves new cables of narrative into the rope of the song, but her constant foil is Lenny Kaye’s guitar, which scythes through like a screaming spirit. Vocally, if it feels as though Dylan is there in the room with you, Smith is singing to you from out of the desert. “Oh, thou navigator!” she snarls contemptuously of Columbus as the song whirls into its climax. It’s not a line you can imagine Dylan pulling off, but that’s beside the point. Both songs are steeped in violence – murder, warfare, blood, fire. But if both Dylan and Smith’s primary concern here is the sweep of history, with vast energies that tumble human lives along like dust, they’re also deeply concerned with those human lives, their fragility, their hard-won dignity in the face of overwhelming forces. The acknowledged frailty of Smith’s narrator, and of Dylan’s Kennedy, serve to remind us of this.
What are they saying to us? These two old, unweary prophets sounding late alarms to a time that’s already caught up to their telling? Murder Most Foul and Constantine’s Dream are warnings, certainly, but also, in their way, they tell us to take hope – not for comfort, but as a matter of urgency. “Murder most foul” comes, of course, from the ghost of Old Hamlet, and what is the ghost of Old Hamlet if not a spur to action? If the hour has grown this late, we must be bold enough to reach for radical new possibilities and bring them into being. The time has come for new visions.
KIT BROOKMAN is a writer and theatre director based in London. Recent work includes The Stones, Whalesong, and Close. His plays have been performed across Australia, the US, and the UK and his writing has appeared in journals including HEAT, Southerly, Harvest, and Westerly. His audio drama "The Empty Cage" can be found in Issue #3.
Image: detail from Legends of the True Cross by Pierro della Francesca, fresco in the Basilica di San Francesco, Arrezzo.
Photograph by Melissa Chambers.