SONG CORNER BY Sarah Gates, St. Lawrence University

“The Truth Just Twists”: Psychedelic Irony in “The Gates of Eden”

“The Gates of Eden” must be one of Bob Dylan’s more opaque songs, since there is so little commentary on it, and that little only addresses the lyrics—and not all of those. For example, Michael Gray discusses only two of the song’s nine verses to claim that it is about “balances of opposites” (62-63), while Nick Smart and Steven Heine look only at its refrain, calling its Eden “a vision of paradise” (186) and “the locus of non-dual truths” (126), respectively. To me, such readings do not capture the haunting, ominous quality of the song, when it is apprehended as a whole. Here, I will explore all the verses and the music, the whole song, in order to describe a tone and mode that Dylan uses so effectively in works throughout his career, but which he honed especially well in this early period. I like to call this mode “psychedelic irony” for its blend of imagery that invites and escapes rational analysis with an accompaniment built on an ironic musical sleight of hand.


The Kingdoms of Experience: Psychedelia

When I use the term “psychedelic” as a way to describe the particularly cryptic effect created by lyrics of songs like “The Gates of Eden,” I mean first that Dylan does verbally something akin to the sensory effects brought on by ingesting a psychedelic substance. The images and vignettes in these songs seem to me to perform a swirling, shape-shifting intertwinement not just of visual phenomena, but also of phenomena from the other senses, of ideas, figures, scenes, and of phrases from other songs and literary works. Other commentators have noticed Dylan’s intertextuality. Rona Cran calls his style “collagesque” and connects his work to that of modernist poets and visual artists (187), while Alex Ross refers to his “magpie mode of writing” (309). Christophe LeBold sums it up when he writes, “Basically, Dylan does to the great American Songbook what T. S. Eliot did to the Western literary canon” (133). These characterizations very smartly get at the way Dylan layers his songs with bits from all over the blues masters, ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, cowboy songs, sea shanties, American standards — roots music, as we now call these forms — and those who identify them enlighten us helpfully about where the contents of these song-conglomerates come from. However, with the term “psychedelic,” I want to get at effect as well as content.

For a brief example of what I mean by this psychedelic effect, I’d like to consider one of my favorite lines from another song, and another kind of song, “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”  Now, I don’t know what that means.  I am not sure I even know what it might represent metaphorically. What is the “ghost of electricity”? And whatever it is or represents, what does “howling” mean that it’s doing “in the bones of her face”? However, I do know how vivid the image is: I know what it looks like, what it sounds like, how it feels. That bony, hollow face glows and pulses and aches; it’s starkly lit and shadowed; she’s inspired, or angry, or agonized, or ecstatic — or all of these — or the singer sees all of these in a projection onto her face of his own feeling. The full couplet suggests such an entanglement of identities: “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face / Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.” So, while I may not know what it means, I believe pinning it down to a specific meaning is not the point. We do not need to know what it “means”; we can see it, hear it, feel it. This flickering of an image among referents and sensations, like an optical illusion, is what I mean by the “psychedelic” aesthetic effect.     

In 1965, too, important psychological and spiritual dimensions accompanied the perceptual dimension of psychedelic experiences. The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s not by Timothy Leary or Aldous Huxley, but by British psychiatrist Dr. Humphry Osmond, who was at the time researching the treatment of schizophrenia. He noticed a similarity between adrenaline and mescaline molecules, which led him to theorize that schizophrenia might primarily be caused by distortions of perception from “intoxication caused by one’s own body” (“Humphry”). Since some alcoholics seemed able to give up drinking only after experiencing delirium tremens, he observed, perhaps inducing a similar condition with hallucinogens would lead to a cure. His ensuing experiments with hallucinogens on himself and as treatment for schizophrenic patients revealed to him the mind-expanding and mystical experiences such substances could induce, and it was he who guided Aldous Huxley through the mescaline trip that led to Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception.

Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” from two Greek words: “psyche” (which the Oxford English Dictionary tells us means “mind” and anima mundi, the animating principle of the universe) and “delon” (which the OED translates as “make manifest, reveal”). So literally, “to reveal the mind,” “to make manifest the mind of the cosmos.” In correspondence with Dr. Osmond, Aldous Huxley proposed his own coinage in a rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (from thymos: “spirited”). Osmond retorted with his own rhyme, in better rhythm and fuller understanding of hallucinatory range: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (qtd. in “Humphry”). As I use this term, then, I want to suggest an aesthetic influence that includes this metaphysical suggestion. And I think it is safe to say that the psychedelic effect of “The Gates of Eden” is not one of “soaring angelic” (despite its cowboy angel) but rather one of “fathom[ing] Hell.”  

The song unfolds a ghastly world of absurdity, neglect, decadence, torment — and longing gazes toward “Eden.” In the seventh verse, we see the abdication of responsibility, as “the princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not” with rotting “precious” windiness, while paupers scrabble for each other’s possessions, “each one wishing for what the other has got.” The third verse shows a “savage soldier,” head in the sand, complaining to a “shoeless hunter who’s gone deaf” — two figures that seem to have withdrawn from the world and their roles in it (blinded, head in the sand, deaf to complaint). The same might be said for the wish-purveyors of the fourth verse, “Aladdin and his lamp” and the “utopian hermit monks,” who make “promises of paradise” from their “side-saddle” perch on that false idol “the Golden Calf,” pointing the way with a “time-rusted compass blade.” The fifth verse shows “those who are condemned to act” according to “relationships of ownership” that “whisper in the wings” — enslavement from behind the scene.

Still, the most hellishly haunting psychedelia come in the two verses whose figures that entangle human with machine or human with beast and object perpetrate the most horrifying abuses. In verse two, an iron-clawed lamp-post cop with his “shadowed metal badge” and forbiddingly “folded arms” looms over “holes where babies wail” in a frightening display of state power over the most helpless victims of urban decay. The sixth verse brings us the part-woman, part-machine “motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen” and “silver-studded phantom,” figures that shift among Madonna with Holy Spirit, gypsy queen with spirit familiar, and two-wheeled dominatrix in black silver-studded Phantom motorcycle jacket.  She/they torment a softly helpless “gray flannel dwarf” with his “bread-crumb sins” who “screams” and “weeps.”     

Both Michael Gray and Seth Rogovoy consider these bread-crumb sins an allusion to the tashlich atonement ritual of Rosh Hashana in which the sinners cast the bread-crumbs that have accumulated in their pockets into a body of water in order symbolically to shed their sins—a ritual that responds to Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread forth upon the waters, for after many days you will find it” (Gray 482, Rogovoy 84). Like his tormenters, however, the gray flannel dwarf also appears as a shifting composite figure. He is as much the innocent Hansel as he is the guilty sinner. In the tale, Hansel leaves a trail of bread-crumbs in order to find the way home, but the birds eat them, leaving him and Gretel lost in the forest. Here, “wicked birds of prey” “pick up on” (that is, notice and reveal), “pick up” (that is, retrieve), and “pick upon” (that is, tear at) the bread-crumb sins in a nightmare of humiliation, lost-ness, and predation such as Prometheus endures, chained on the mountain, his liver eaten over and over by the eagle.     

Yet, every vignette concludes with a pronouncement about “Eden,” the songworld’s lost paradise. Sometimes ills plaguing the songworld are said to have no place in Eden (kings, sins, trials); sometimes desired things lacking in the songworld appear there (trees, a laugh, the truth). Yet for all the confidence with which such conditions are projected into this paradise, the performance of the refrains feels as unsettling as the verses they close. In his reading of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Christopher Ricks notes in passing that “The trees of Eden are haunting, frightening trees” (144), and Nelson Hilton claims that Dylan’s Eden owes a debt to eighteenth-century poet William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (110). (I would note that it could as easily have come via Huxley’s book: “the doors of perception” is a phrase taken from this Blake text.) However, we do not need to know William Blake to feel what’s “haunting and frightening” about the songworld’s Eden. Dylan performs it in the music.


You Will Not Hear a Laugh: Irony

Certainly, local ironies appear in the individual scenes: the soldier may be “savage,” but he is also plaintive and cowardly; the deaf “shoeless hunter” can hear neither his companion’s complaints nor his prey; the “time-rusted compass blade” will not point in the needful direction; “friends” are “other strangers.” These local ironic twists contribute to the ways the scenes and figures invite and resist interpretation and so intensify the phantasmagoric feeling of the songworld. But the song’s main structural irony plays out in its harmonic movements.     

How do we perceive irony in the non-semantic language of music, whose “meaning” resides in pure sound and the feelings it provokes? Harmonic music creates feeling by establishing a “home” (or “root” or “key”) and then moving away from and back to this “home.” In more complex music, the harmony can lead away from one home and establish a new one—or move into and out of several such homes. Such movements create the patterns of tension and resolution that constitute the “meaning” of music.

The simplest folk and rock songs play out a home-away-home gesture in their three or four chords, sounding some variation of tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic. In “The Gates of Eden,” G major is the established tonic home, but the chords that lead away from and back to it are not always the ones we expect to hear in that key. Instead, Dylan colors or inflects that journey with sonorities from the Dorian mode — a scale and family of chords that fall between major and minor keys. Minor keys have three flatted notes, which gives them their somber sound. Major keys have no flatted notes and so feel brighter. However, Dorian mode has two flatted notes, which is why it is “between” major and minor, although it is closer to the “somberness” of minor. It thus produces a scale that sounds unresolved, even uncanny, to our modern harmonically-trained ears because it does not follow the patterns of whole- and half-steps found in the major and minor scales that we are so used to hearing. The Dorian scale sounds like it ends on the second degree of the scale instead of the first; it feels unresolved and uncanny, as though it is hovering in mid-air. To us — or to me, at any rate — it is an unsettled and unsettling mode.

This Dorian coloration provides the unheimlich sonority established in the first two lines of the verses in “The Gates of Eden.” The first four chords (G major – D minor – F major – C major), as they are voiced on the guitar, outline in their highest pitches a descending Dorian scale: G – F natural – F natural – E natural, or do – te – te – la. The chord progression itself also gets Dorian coloration from the use of a minor dominant (d minor, or v) leading to two major subdominants (F major—a bVII instead of the usual vii—and C major, or IV), which return home to the tonic via plagal cadence. The sequence we are used to hearing (tonic to subdominant of various kinds to dominant to tonic) is reversed: the dominant gives way to the subdominants, which then shift directly back to the tonic in a plagal cadence. On top of this unsettling progression, Dylan sings a pentatonic melody whose highest note sounds in repeated emphasis, as peak moments in the melodic shape, the flatted seventh-degree te: “Of war and peace the truth just twists.” Put all this together, and we get a combination of sonorities that creates the uncanny, portentous sound characterizing the songworld.

However, the third melodic line, the one that leads into the refrain about Eden, feels different. Its harmony moves comfortingly toward resolution as it approaches the refrain through a standard progression from tonic through subdominants to the major dominant: G major (I) – B minor (iii) – A minor (ii) – G major (I) – A minor (ii) – C major (IV) – D major (V). That D major chord jumps into prominence after the lyrics of the line have finished, as a full-measure fill in the guitar, so its bright F#, or ti, sounding at the top of the texture, provides the strongest possible leading tone towards resolution, like a promise to take us not just home but Home—to Paradise. Then, during the refrain itself, when for example the “ships with tattooed sails” are “heading for the gates of Eden” in a melody that pushes through an insistent repetition of the “home” note G, the harmony shifts behind those notes, beginning with a brief, disquieting Dorian inflection in the transitional chord that comes halfway through that line. I want to call it a Bb7sus4, but whatever it is, it includes all three notes, the F natural (te), Bb (me), and E natural (la), of the Dorian scale. It sounds only briefly, but it takes us not to the D major chord that promised to take us Home via authentic cadence, as in the third line, but back to the C major subdominant (IV) that has been circling us around in the songworld in the first two lines. With the harmony shifting the ground below them in this way, those repeated G notes in the melody draw us unrelentingly to a place where the first syllable of the very word “Eden” is sung on that same flatted te (in the lower octave): “Heading for the gates of Eden”: te do. It is like waking from a bad dream only to find that you are still dreaming. This is the irony sounded in the music: Eden is not a better Other Place but in fact is part of the songworld and its nightmares.     

In this kind of irony, one thought — the acknowledgement of a reality — is clothed in another thought — a wish expressed in the surface utterance. It is the voicing of disillusionment: the ironic utterance banishes the wish in the very act of saying it, even as the wish’s sweetness makes acknowledging the reality bitter. Oedipus wishes to be the righteous king who restores the fertility of his people and their lands and cattle by punishing the criminal whose unnatural actions have caused their desolation. But the unnatural criminal he seeks is in fact himself. The words in the refrains voice a wish: Eden holds original innocence and the Tree of Life—no sins, no kings, no trials, no crashing but meaningless blows. The compass will point the way, the ships will reach the gates, we will laugh in joy when we return. But the music hollows laughter into derision: “And on their promises of paradise you will not hear a laugh / All except inside the gates of Eden [tedo],” where they know better than to listen to promises of paradise (or make them). The “curfew gull” and “cowboy angel,” wafting up from Eden’s trees on “four-legged forest clouds” with “candle lit into the sun,” bear a wish: the time has come to return where truth glows bright. But the curfew gull “just glides,” the glow is “waxed in black.” Within the wish comes bitter reality: Eden also holds that other Tree, the one with the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of good and evil: we have always already fallen. The song turns on this irony, just as it turns on the refrain that wishfully cycles around at the end of each verse: Eden world is songworld.


No Words but These to Tell What’s True

Lyrics and music are of course delivered in a performance, and this song is performed for and addressed to listeners by a first-person singer/speaker. This singer has enough in common with the cowboy angel that I’m tempted to consider that angel his Eden-world avatar. Both bring portentous news, both come accompanied by birds — the “curfew gull,” the “lonesome sparrow” — both have what seems an alienated relation to the “foreign sun,” which “waxes” the cowboy angel’s candle-glow “in black” and “squints upon” the singer’s bed that is never his own.

However, the cowboy angel bears “the truth,” and in this song, whether the bearer of “the truth” is Eden’s cowboy angel, the state’s lamp-post cop, the church’s motorcycle black Madonna, the capitalist’s whisperer in the wings, or philosophy’s arbiters of what is real and what is not, “the truth just twists.” How can our singer bring us a true message and how can we hear it in such a world? The final verse gives us a “glimpse”:     

At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams

With no attempts to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means

At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true

Telling the dreams provides the words that tell what’s true. Attempts to shovel these glimpses “into the ditch of what each one means” just twist their truth.

We so often approach poems as though what a poem “means” is something other than what it “tells.” But with dreams and much poetry and certainly songs composed in this psychedelic-ironic mode, we need to listen in the state of receptivity that poet John Keats calls “Negative Capability”: the capacity to rest in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (109). Our singer, keeping himself (like his lover) in this state of negative capability, speaks through art, not exegesis. If we attend to what he tells instead of irritably reaching after what he means, at times we might see and hear and feel what’s true, especially in a world where the truth just twists.


Works Cited

Cran, Rona. Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Ebook.

Dylan, Bob. “The Gates of Eden.” Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965.  

——-.  “Visions of Johanna.”  Blonde on Blonde, Columbia Records, 1966. 

Gray, Michael.  Song and Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan.  2nd ed. Continuum, 2000.  

Hartman, Charles O. “Dylan’s Bridges.” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2015, pp. 737-57.

Heine, Steven.  Bargainin’ for Salvation: Bob Dylan, a Zen Master? Continuum, 2009.

Hilton, Nelson. “Waxed in Blake.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2009-10, pp. 110-11.

“Humphry Osmond.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 March, 2017. Accessed 13 May, 2017.

Keats, John. Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 (27?) December, 1817.  John Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Selected and edited by Jeffrey N. Cox.  W. W. Norton, 2009, pp. 107-09.  

LeBold, Christophe. “I’ve Got the Judas Complex and the Recycling Blues: Bob Dylan as Cultural Theft.” Ranam, vol. 43, 2010, pp. 127-35.

Ricks, Christopher. Dylan’s Visions of Sin. HarperCollins, 2004. 

Rogovoy, Seth. Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic Poet. Scribner, 2009. 

Ross, Alex. “The Wanderer.” The New Yorker May 10, 1999, pp. 56-65.  Rpt. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. Ed. Benjamin Hedin. W. W. Norton, 2004, 291-312. 

Smart, Nick. “Nothing but Affection for All Those Who’ve Sailed with Me: Bob Dylan from Place to Place.” Popular Music and Society, vol. 32, no. 2, 2009, pp. 179-197.


Rob Stoner thinks the handwringing and conjecture over Bob Dylan’s decision to sell his publishing catalog is nothing more than mixed-up confusion.

Too many people, all too hard to please.

“This is strictly a business deal. This is all about the numbers, cut and dry. It’s not surprising, and I don’t understand the controversy,” said Stoner, who played bass and was bandleader during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and toured and recorded with Dylan later. “Bob is no dummy. Do you think he is going to make a stupid deal? He’s always had his ducks in a row. He’s always had the best advice, the best lawyers, the best accountants that money can buy.”

Stoner’s advice to fans: Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.

Dylan’s decision to sell his entire publishing catalog of more than six hundred songs, up through Rough and Rowdy Ways, to Universal Music Publishing Group for what Billboard now says is between $375 million and $400 million reflects the unprecedented value of Dylan’s catalog because of the near-ubiquitous nature of music streaming. It’s the right deal at the right time, observers say, the confluence of opportunity and convenience for both sides in the landmark deal.

For fans, the sale likely means a lot more Dylan music will begin appearing in commercials and across mass media, as Universal recoups its investment by licensing as many songs as often as possible—and we can only hope with respect to the integrity of the collection. More significantly, it does not mean Dylan will stop recording, stop touring, or begin concentrating only on making paintings and sculpture. If he does, it almost certainly will be for reasons unrelated to the publishing deal.

Indeed, within a few days of the report of the sale to Universal in the New York Times, the Dylan camp announced the upcoming release of the new Dylan/George Harrison box set, following up a limited release of a special-edition collection issued primarily to extend copyrights. Both products suggest it will be business as usual in terms of curated, bootleg-style releases.

For Dylan, the Universal deal is about cashing out at high value and walking away with the ability to continue to do whatever he wants to do, still with control of his masters but without the headache of administering a song catalog that grows more complicated with time, shielding his heirs from the hassles and complexities of evolving entertainment and business law.

“Now Universal will do all the administration, and Bob doesn’t have to deal with it,” Stoner said.

For Universal, it’s about gaining control over the most valuable and culturally significant collection of contemporary songs ever written, the jewel-in-the-crown of twentieth-century American art.

Dylan’s deal is the latest and most intriguing among the so-called evergreen generation of songwriters and recording artists, who generate huge revenue on streaming services because of the size, popularity, and sustaining nature of their song catalogs. Each time a Dylan song is sold, broadcast, or streamed—or placed in an ad, movie, or TV show—Universal will earn back its investment.

In addition to signing over his publishing royalties, Dylan also sold the copyrights to his songs, according to multiple reports. That means Universal will earn money each time a Dylan song is covered by another artist, and Dylan will have no say in how his previously recorded songs are used or how much Universal can charge to license them.

George Howard, an associate professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, said the sale of the underlying copyright (“the whole kit and caboodle,” he told Business Insider) “almost never happens,” which makes this deal unique. “That explains the valuation.”

It’s a safe investment for Universal because streaming services have made music revenue predictable, which makes music catalogs attractive to investors. That is why so many artists have sold their catalogs, from Stevie Nicks to Taylor Swift. “The way streaming services are growing, this will be the gift that keeps on giving, in terms of royalties,” Howard said of the Dylan deal.

Tim Riley, a longtime Dylan observer, music critic, and associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, called the deal a slam-dunk for Universal and said the initial report in The New York Times of the sale being worth $300 million “struck me as a small number.” He said Universal would earn back its investment in a few years’ time.

He wasn’t surprised by the news—nothing about Dylan surprises him anymore—but he was surprised how much attention the sale received and how much Dylan was criticized. It’s easy to criticize wealthy rock stars, Riley said, “but we will never understand the air they breathe. They make a lot of decisions that may seem weird to us.”

He agreed with Stoner that this deal is about timing and convenience. “The idea that you could sell it for a lump sum and never deal with it again—‘just get it off my plate’—that becomes very attractive after you have had to manage it all these years,” Riley said. “If he spends four hours a week administering his catalog on the phone with his team, it’s probably the worst four hours of his week.”

People who are upset with Dylan for making his music available for commercial purposes have had plenty of time to resolve those conflicts. Dylan has licensed his music for ads for more than a quarter-century, sometimes successfully and with artistic flair, sometimes less so. He filmed an ad for the “ladies’ garments” company Victoria’s Secret in 2007, using his song “Love Sick,” and appeared without music in another for IBM. “Forever Young,” it seems has ageless appeal among advertisers. The list is long. As Dylan himself said, money doesn’t talk, it swears.

“There is punditry that you now will start to see Bob’s songs everywhere, and you might,” Howard said. “But he’s not like Radiohead or Neil Young, who have never licensed their work. Maybe you’ll notice a bit more, maybe a bit less, but the average consumer probably won’t notice much. Dylan already licenses his music for such weird things. Not much he does would surprise me.”

I’ve been listening to Dylan since the ‘60s, I’ve been a fan since the ‘70s, and I’ve attended eighty-plus shows all across the country. This year, 2020, will be the first since 1986 that I have not seen at least one Dylan concert. And yet, I have never appreciated his music more, with a tantalizing new record and the convenience of streaming music during my walks in the Maine woods that have carried me through the pandemic. When people ask what I did during the pandemic, I will tell them I listened to a lot of Dylan.

The use of his songs in TV ads in no way diminishes my connection to his music or my desire to see him again in concert. I sometimes wish he hadn’t sold this or sold that, but who am I to judge his motives?

As Tim Riley said, we will never understand the air he breathes.

I appreciate the ads for their quirky mystery. I see the Chrysler Super Bowl ad, with “Things Have Changed” lingering in the background, as an extension of one of his road songs, a travelogue, and an homage to American adventure with at least one great line: “Because we believe in the zoom, the roar, and the thrust.”

Richard Thomas, the Harvard classics professor who wrote the book Why Bob Dylan Matters, said the worst-case scenario of the Universal deal is that Dylan’s music shows up in ads we don’t approve of, that perhaps degrade the integrity of the song. But he’s not too worried. “I don’t buy Victoria’s Secret, and that didn’t bother me. I quite liked that ad. I thought the Cadillac ad was pretty good too,” he said.

As a researcher who has worked with Dylan’s team to secure permission to reproduce song lyrics, Thomas understands the work involved in dealing with those requests. He called it “a level of micromanaging” that Dylan and his management “are not enamored of.” He said Dylan’s team has always been cooperative, and he hopes Universal is equally responsive and open to allowing writers to quote Dylan’s lyrics.

Further, Thomas said he does not read anything into the deal as the end of one phase or the beginning of another. It’s nothing more than a business deal, timed to coincide with the high value of Dylan’s catalog at this historic moment in the music business.

“Any new material is not included in the deal, so the implication is there could be new material, new song material as well as other things he is working on,” Thomas said. “I sure hope he is writing another album, since the last one we got is so terrific. Dylan will keep doing what Dylan is doing, which is continuing to produce his songs, paintings, and sculpture. And I think he will tour again. I sure hope he does. I think touring is something that means a lot to him, and it means a lot to us.”

Stoner said Dylan became savvy in business from fighting with Albert Grossman, his early manager who suffered an inglorious separation from Dylan in 1970. “Bob didn’t want to let Grossman have a penny for his songs, so he retained his own rights and administered his own publishing through his own employees,” Stoner said. “The people who ran his business office back in the 1970s were the people he poached from Grossman’s office. When Bob split with Grossman, he replicated the same operation with the same employees a few blocks away.”

The deal with Universal is the same kind of thing, only this time civil, and with higher stakes and rewards. With Dylan turning eighty in the spring, who can blame him?

“It’s a huge chunk of change,” Stoner said, “and now his heirs don’t have to fight about it.”

“Murder Most Foul”

SONG CORNER BY Anne Margaret Daniel, New School

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop

It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up

He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”

I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot

Anita Ekberg

Sophia Loren

Country’ll grow”

—   Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free,” 1962

In November 1863, as the Civil War blazed on, an eighteen-year-old Baltimorean named David Bachrach traveled in a buggy to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to photograph President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered what would be known as the Gettysburg Address. The young man quickly made a name for himself as a prominent portraitist in the relatively new medium. Almost a century later, in 1959, David’s grandson Fabian Bachrach was hired to photograph his Harvard contemporary, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Fabian’s portrait of Jack would become President Kennedy’s official White House photograph.

Bob Dylan released his first original song in eight years on March 27, 2020, just after midnight. “Murder Most Foul,” which centers on and circles around Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, uses the Bachrach Studios portrait as its associated image. It’s a crop of the portrait, sepia-toned, what one would normally but cannot in this case call a headshot without cringing. The song’s title appears in Gothic sans, in gold, right under Kennedy’s chin. The song is one second short of being seventeen minutes long. Staring into the young president’s clear eyes, with the care lines to come not yet present, looking at his perfectly combed thick hair and smooth half-Windsor knot to his tie and what you know to be a Brooks Brothers two-button pinstripe suit, becomes overwhelming quickly if you know the history of which Dylan sings. If you’re just learning it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the end, too.

Once upon a time, a very young, nervous, and intoxicated Bob Dylan was roundly booed at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Bill of Rights dinner. The committee was giving him the Tom Paine Award at the Americana Hotel in New York, with a writer he much admired, James Baldwin, in attendance. The night was December 13, 1963, and in closing his short speech Dylan babbled out, “I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where—what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too—I saw some of myself in him.” This Everyman attempt utterly failed, particularly before a liberal audience deep in mourning for JFK, not yet a month dead.

Dylan tried to explain himself to Nat Hentoff in June 1964 by pleading that both he and Oswald were “up tight” and that was what he’d meant. In 1977, he hypothesized to Jonathan Cott about things forever-mysterious: “It’s something you can only feel but never really know. . . . Any more than you can know who killed Kennedy for sure.” In his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1 (2004), Dylan speaks of Kennedy with praising grace.


From that first seventeen minutes to subsequent quarter-hours-plus, one does not so much listen to “Murder Most Foul” as be washed over by it. The song ebbs and flows. It comes at you not in lines or verses, but in ripples and waves. “Tempest” may be his song about the Titanic, but “Murder Most Foul” is titanic, oceanic. You stand not on a smooth beach but a rocky shore, nowhere to sit or to safely set your feet, and the song comes at you like the sea. The litany of the long ending—all the lines beginning with the word “play”—comes at you with a beating rhythm, incessant, insistent, really more a catechism than a litany, for what you’re being told is didactic and instructive, and meant to be repeated: the last line of the song is the directive to replay it.

The instrumental opening is quiet, baritone, and very like the instrumentals backing Dylan’s Nobel Lecture in Literature, recorded in Los Angeles on June 4, 2017. Tony Garnier’s big bass bow (or is it Donnie Herron playing a low cello?) resounds. And then come delicate keyboards, multiple keyboards, in a manner not unlike Dylan’s, but with a far lighter, brighter touch. His flat-fingered jazzy, sometimes boogie-woogie style is different. Fiona Apple and Alan Pasqua play piano on “Murder Most Foul,” while Benmont Tench mans the Hammond organ. Dylan’s statement, coincident with its release, that the song was recorded “a while back” could have meant anything, but evidently “a while back” meant early 2020.

The tune, a stately grazioso suited to the gravity of the matter, is pleasing but unremarkable, neither memorable nor danceable. The import, and importance, of “Murder Most Foul” is in the lyrics. Its words are short, easy to understand, and land with great force, particularly when describing Kennedy’s murder. Ann Wilson of Heart recently termed them “Hemingwayesque.” In the past, Dylan’s official website has not released the official words of new songs for months or even years. The lyrics to “Murder Most Foul” were posted there within days. This swiftness emphasizes the importance of knowing what he’s saying, of reading the lines and rhymes, and remembering them.

“Murder Most Foul” is composed in rhyming couplets, which Dylan has reveled in for decades, and an intermittent anapestic tetrameter. Dylan has an ear for rhyme as keen as Lord Byron’s or Alexander Pope’s, and he knows well the rhythms of scansion and the power of prosody. The song starts with two quotations, altered and combined:

‘Twas a dark day in Dallas—November ‘63

The day that will live on in infamy

Tommy Durden’s 1967 song “Dark Day in Dallas” begins: “‘Twas a dark day in Dallas, a dark day indeed / When death walked the streets of big D and then reaped the fruit of the Devil’s seed.” Kennedy’s most popular Democratic predecessor of the 20th century was a president also known by his initials: FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” in his Pearl Harbor declaration of war address. November 1963 brought America another infamous day, also inflicted on its own soil, and as catastrophic in its consequences as the attack that finally brought America into the second World War. Dylan has borrowed Durden’s start, with the archaic and therefore eternal-sounding “’Twas,” and made of Kennedy’s assassination day not “a date” but “the day” of infamy.

To treat the entire song as I’ve just done the first two lines not only would take many pages, but would also be a disservice to Dylan’s song. He is not composing a poem to be parsed, but a song to be listened to and taken in in its entirety. This essay will accordingly continue to be about “Murder Most Foul” and the connections that both compose it and hold it together, discussing it as a mosaic whole, instead of zooming in on the fragments of which the art is made. I do think of Dylan’s songs as mosaics, as collages, akin to those tactile arts but composed of words and music. “Murder Most Foul” is a mosaic like those made by Antoni Gaudí that now are synonymous with Barcelona, like those by Squire Vickers and Eric Fischl, Yoko Ono, and Willie Birch that greet New Yorkers in MTA stations. It is an American mosaic made of cultural, historical, and musical references. “Murder Most Foul” could be a quilt, in the windmill or double wedding ring patterns for the way it rolls in circles and returns to concepts as it unfolds, but a quilt is comforting and warm. The song is neither. Though it sometimes reassures with familiarity, it leaves you unsettled, sad, and thoughtful.

Pay very close attention to not just the words, but their linguistic forms, in “Murder Most Foul,” this song whose title leads off with a word that can be a noun or a verb. From its opening, the ongoing act on a “good day” of “to be living” ends hard, with the imperative stating that is ultimately a good day “to die.” Dylan’s pronouns, as ever, refuse to be nailed down. A line reads “Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?” and it’s shocking: Dylan is ventriloquizing a man about to be “shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” When the “I” returns, it slips and slides, from the singer / narrator (“I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age”) to the dying President (“Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier”). Who are the “we” and the “they,” styled as a collective of killers? Dylan deploys “they” to intense effect in his songs, and it generally stands for whoever the ominous opposition might be: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown” or “They’ll hang you in the morning and sing ya a song” or “They’ll be drownded in the tide / And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.” Is he saying, here in “Murder Most Foul,” that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone? Dylan always engenders more questions than he’ll ever answer. Even when answers come, if they come in this song it is usually from the “they.” Don’t trust them. Flee and condemn their actions and words.

Can a murder be a “perfectly executed” magic trick? The execution is in the phrase itself. The foul murder of old King Hamlet looks like a trick; someone pouring poison in the porches of the ears. Like killing words it enters, in a gross parody of one of the most common artistic constructions of the Virgin Mary receiving the Annunciation. Dylan takes the song’s title from Act I Scene 5 of Hamlet, in which the father’s ghost informs his horrorstruck son that his death was a murder “most foul, strange and unnatural,” a fratricide. His own brother Claudius, young Prince Hamlet’s uncle—and now married to his former sister-in-law, old Hamlet’s widow and young Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude—has killed the king. Dylan knows his Shakespeare as well as any leading actor; I’d have given a lot to see him enact the title role in Hamlet, when he was suited most to it, for my money, in his wild spring season of 1966. Now in the older years of a Lear or Prospero, Dylan continues to find in Shakespeare, as well as in classical and contemporary literature, ageless fire that he uses for his own purposes.

Like James Joyce, however, Dylan will never use a word or phrase that means one thing, when he can use a word or phrase that means two things, or more, or has a homonym meaning something completely different. Yes, “murder most foul” is a phrase from Hamlet. It is also the name of a wacky 1964 movie starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. The (very loose) plot of Murder Most Foul concerns a repertory acting company putting on murder mysteries in which real murders occur. Shards of the unlikeliest literary works crop up in the film, including Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Were Service’s poem, in spectacular rhyming couplets, or his widely popular volume Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912), works Dylan has known well for a long time, ever on his mind as he wrote?

Section 2 of the song, as divided up in the official lyrics, sweeps through the rest of the 1960s from the “English Invasion” and arrival of The Beatles in February 1964, to Woodstock and Altamont. Echoes of lines from Warren Zevon, whom Dylan admired and celebrated by performing his songs live as Zevon was terminally ill in 2002, appear here, and later, in “Murder Most Foul.” The imaginative landscape of this section spreads wider, with quotations from Kennedy and Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas in 1963, mixed together with three bums in rags, shooters aiming for the Invisible Man, and Robert Johnson’s crossroads. The line “Black face singer—white face clown” is a reminder not only of minstrel shows and Al Jolson movies, but Dylan’s own Rolling Thunder Revue, and scenes in his 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous. Still, the setting, if that is the right word, of this section remains primarily Dallas: the triple underpass, grassy knoll, Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, Deep Ellum. A concluding mention of “Oswald and Ruby”—killer and killer—as sources for “the truth and where did it go” keep things tied firmly to Kennedy’s assassination.

Section 3 begins to fragment into the musical references, or playlist, that constitute most of the rest of the song. The framing text is still, chillingly, from Kennedy’s point of view. Lyrics from other songs clash against the frames of William Zapruder’s film: I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine; I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap. Why is the Zapruder film, if that is the “it” in question in the lyrics, “deceitful”? Because it does not show the truth of who shot Kennedy? Or does that truth not matter, and only the fact of the man’s death that begins the “age of the anti-Christ”? Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One, and a nation threw in the towel. Johnson did, too. A master of the Senate, Kennedy’s vice president was elected easily by the stunned nation he was leading in 1964, after getting the Civil Rights Act passed. However, Johnson hated being president and as the Vietnam War escalated and the Democratic party fragmented, with Robert F. Kennedy running against him, he announced in March 1968 that he would not seek the nomination. After Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, just after midnight, Johnson refused to change his mind, and Richard M. Nixon was elected.


Robert Weston Smith of Brooklyn, New York, known from 1963—the year of Kennedy’s death, as if we needed reminding—as Wolfman Jack, one of America’s best known disc jockeys and radio personalities, is called upon to spin the long list of songs, sprinkled with movie, literary, and cultural mentions, that ends “Murder Most Foul.” Although What’s New Pussycat seems at first a throwback to the classic movies Dylan has referred to by mentioning characters without naming them, as in Gone With the Wind and On The Waterfront, to me it is more a recognition of the triviality of pop culture, post-November ’63, in the poppiest of ‘60s movies. What’s New Pussycat?(1965), with a screenplay by Woody Allen and the title track sung by Tom Jones, stars Allen, Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss, and a host of famous cameo faces from Ursula Andress to Richard Burton. It centers on psychotherapy and adultery, and it features the silliest of all the silly 60s-movie car chases (go-karts; a rural French village; women in leopardskin catsuits and Valkyrie costumes complete with spear). And Dylan goes and rhymes the mention of this farce with “I said the soul of a nation been torn away.” He’s a king of 18th-century twisted chiasmus, Dylan is, welding the sublime and the ridiculous together like Pope or Jonathan Swift, John Wilmot or John Gay. He has always been good at this in his lyrics, but “Murder Most Foul” astounds. Why is it specifically “thirty-six hours past judgment day”? Perhaps because of 36 Hours, another 1965 movie, starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. The film 36 Hours, though set during WWII, runs along the lines of its far more famous 1962 predecessor, The Manchurian Candidate. Its lobby poster tagline was “Give me any American for 36 hours and I’ll give you back a traitor.”

Litanies are part of religious responses, and of children’s rhymes. The rhythm and rhyme and repetition make us remember them. “Murder Most Foul” ends with a litany that, as I’ve said, is more a catechism. It’s didactic and instructive, directing Wolfman Jack and you on what to listen to. It also puts you into a trance. You don’t want to dance. Sit still and listen. You’re not given any other choice.

Dylan eschews the potential triple rhyme of Jack—black—Cadillac for a simple “long Cadillac,” which is, possibly, a line from the dirtiest car song ever recorded, “Mr. Thrill” (1954). Dylan, assuming Wolfman Jack’s seat as dj, played Mildred Jones’s classic version on the “Cadillac” episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour in 2007, and then cracked, “A song that’s kinda like a single entendre.” Every single song mentioned in “Murder Most Foul” will carry with it different connections, different meanings and memories, to every listener. If you’re familiar with the music he’s speaking of—and he wants you to be, saying “write down the names”—it’s a week of music shoehorned into fifteen minutes, filling your head with everything. It’s personal for every listener. For example, “Tom Dooley,” in the Kingston Trio’s 1958 version, was the second ballad I ever learned to sing, after “Barbara Allen,” from my North Carolina mountain grandmother. Dylan has personal connections, too, to the songs he chooses. “St. James Infirmary” has been sung thousands of times by Dave Van Ronk, and, after him, by Rambling Jack Elliott. It’s a cornerstone in Dylan’s own musical history that involves both men.

Actual people always occupy space with Dylan’s lyrical phantasmagorias: think of Einstein and T.S. Eliot sharing the song with Dr. Filth, the superhuman crew, and lovely mermaids in “Desolation Row.” “The Man with the Telepathic Mind” was William McCaffrey, a card magician extraordinaire. McCaffrey, of Cratfon, Pennsylvania, dazzled America in the 1930s and 1940s with his magic tricks. While blindfolded, he could tell mystified people at parties the serial numbers on dollar bills they held. The musicians Dylan names here are real—Carl Wilson, Etta James, Stan Getz, Beethoven, and so many more—but then there are “Mr. Mystery,” “the Lord of the Gods,” a dog with no master, and merchants of death. These names break the flow of the song titles and the playlist, keeping you jumpy, on edge, waiting for the unfamiliar or weird to drop. And Dylan keeps on with his use of portmanteau phrases that contain multitudes. John Lee Hooker’s “Scratch My Back” is actually Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” Guitar Slim (New Orleans bluesman Eddie Jones) was dead in New York City when he was just 32. Dylan chooses Slim’s dismal song “Goin’ Down Slow” to be played for “me and for Marilyn Monroe.” It’s suited to a woman some believe to have been destroyed by her association with the Kennedy family. Who, though, is the “me”—the singer of the song? JFK? The listener? Monroe predeceased Kennedy; she died in her Los Angeles home on August 4, 1962. How can she be listening? History is become topsy-turvy in the wake of JFK’s assassination. Nothing is linear anymore. Remember that Dylan once sang “I have no sense of time,” something he shares as an artist with Hamlet (“Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord”). Time is confining. Be not for an age, but for all time.

In two 1965 interviews, Dylan praised Eric Burdon and The Animals and their recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which is a song written for Nina Simone. Which version does he want played for the First Lady, who in massive understatement “ain’t feeling that good”? Either? Both? Does it matter? Eric Burdon tells a great story about the song. “Paul McCartney’s wife at the time [Linda Eastman], dragged me to Hunter College” in April 1969 to hear Simone perform. After the show, they waited backstage to meet Simone and her husband, Burdon recalled: “She said, ‘So, you’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I knew I shouldn’t have come here.’” Both performers had a hit with the song; both made it part of music history in the years after Kennedy’s death.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey are here. Randy Meisner, however, who sang lead on “Take It to the Limit” and wrote most of the song, doesn’t make it into “Murder Most Foul” along with his Eagles bandmates. The Eagles make a subtextual connection to the next couple of musicians, Carl Wilson and the unnamed Warren Zevon. “Desperado” is one of the Eagles’ best-known songs. Dylan’s lyric bridges into Carl Wilson’s fade-out on his collaboration with Zevon, “Desperados Under the Eaves”: “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away.”

“Take Me Back to Tulsa” should be its rollicking, jolly self thanks to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They held court at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa for decades, and still smile down from the walls—along with Dylan, who has also played there. Yet Cain’s is situated on dark and bloody ground. The strip of downtown Tulsa called the Greenwood District was once also called the “Black Wall Street” of America: it was the wealthiest African American community in the country. But over Memorial Day weekend, 1921, nearly 40 blocks of downtown Tulsa were sacked and burned. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in what Greil Marcus, speaking at the first World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa in 2019, rightly called not the Tulsa race riots but “the Tulsa pogrom.” Scene of the crime, indeed. The new Bob Dylan Center, housing Dylan’s own archives, will be situated in the Greenwood, fronting on what is today called Reconciliation Way.

The succeeding hymn can’t quell the pain, though it’s a good golden standard. “The Old Rugged Cross” is surely something to cling to. But the line ends with “In God We Trust,” the official motto since 1776 of “America,” and what’s been written on our American money since 1864—money, which is the secondary cause, after racism, of the Tulsa pogrom in the first place. Everything circles back in “Murder Most Foul,” lyrics spinning out in what looks like a widening gyre, and then collapsing back into a flashpoint focus on a connected detail. The next spin begins with Ride The Pink Horse, which is a 1946 novel and 1947 film noir with Robert Montgomery, a merry-go-round, and a lot of shady doings down in Mexico. “Long, Lonesome Road” is an unrelated song, but the concept of the lonesome road can’t be confined to just one song. Doc Watson and Frank Sinatra both looked down it, and Paul Robeson sang it best in “Show Boat.” Then, suddenly, when you have no idea at all what will come next, “wait for his head to explode” is a horrific reminder of the Zapruder film. Dylan’s not going to let us forget for one moment the man who is staring at us as we listen to the official video and try to understand why these songs, and why in this order.

“The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree” ends in an arresting phrase, with its powerful natural image of fallen greatness. It turns out to be a line from the Finnish poet Arvid Genetz, which Alan Lomax learned in Minnesota, translated in full as “When anyone scorns the people / he topples like a rootless tree.” The motley crew of the Reverend, the Pastor, and the dog that’s got no master give way to jazz musicians and the Allman Brothers. Movies and movie stars, Shakespeare and Fleetwood Mac, Nat King Cole are all washing against each other, cultural flotsam and jetsam. Thelonious Monk is here; his name rhymes with junk, the heroin that destroyed the great Charlie Parker, the next musician namechecked by Dylan. The connection of “all that junk” leads to “All That Jazz,” and a swing away from music back to movies, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. Yes, it was an Oscar-nominated movie in 1962, but Robert Stroud, “the Birdman,” was a real person who stayed in prison most of his life for murders—and who died on November 21, 1963. It all comes back to that dark day in Dallas. Bringing it all back home.

The internal circles of the song continue, accumulating, building, layering, pressing you down with the weight. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd should make a moviegoer laugh, but are as apt to make you cry. Gambler Bugsy Siegel and bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, adopted as a Robin-Hood hero in Oklahoma and celebrated by Woody Guthrie in a song Dylan has performed and recorded. The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth appear for a moment, but vanish in the threat from a spooky dialogue about brothers: “Tell ‘em we’re waiting—keep coming—we’ll get ‘em as well[.]” JFK’s death heralds RFK’s, and everyone listening to this song should know it. “Murder Most Foul” shaves off, or spins back into itself, with a final scattershot recitativo of songs and compositions in genres from croon to classical, military marches and love songs, and, in the end, “Murder Most Foul” itself: “Play the Blood Stained Banner—play Murder Most Foul[.]” Sharing space with either an American Civil War flag of the Confederacy, or “l’entard sanglant” of “La Marseillaise”—or both—“Murder Most Foul” wraps in on itself, starting all over again, taking it from the top, da capo al fine. In my end is my beginning.