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The Buzzard in the Bardo

On March 27, Bob Dylan released a single called “Murder Most Foul,” centered on the assassination of John F. Kennedy but rippling far beyond that now-mythic event. For 17 minutes, Dylan sweeps slowly across a ravaged landscape, like an old buzzard peering down at the carcasses and smoldering ruins below. Voices rise up here and there, along with snatches of music fading in and out like the signal from pirate radio. Are they the cries of the living or the echoes of the dead, reverberating one last time before they dissipate forever? At some point, you finally realize it’s not John Kennedy being conveyed to the afterlife: it’s you, along with the particular jumble of history and culture that formed you, all of it now passing away.

“Murder Most Foul” is not a literary work, although Dylan is, rather infamously, a Nobelist of Literature. (An honor he himself seemed to treat largely as a joke.) It’s barely even a song, meandering with no firm structure, shifting in and out of viewpoints voiced by different characters: some malevolent, some mournful, some speaking with a sarcastic sneer, and some – or perhaps one, perhaps the main one – speaking like an old man meditating through a sleepless night, a whisky in hand as the fire flickers and the shadows dance.

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