Thoughts on Bob Dylan and George Floyd
Impossible to let the moment pass without a gentle nod to Bob Dylan, born 80 years ago today.
There are celebratory events around the world including one aptly held in Washington Square Park this afternoon depicted at right. There’s also the soon-to-conclude three-day international symposium that’s streaming straight out of Tulsa where the new Bob Dylan Center will be inaugurated next May right beside the Woody Guthrie Center.
The guy is as vital as ever, but his so-called Never Ending Tour is now starting to feel like a never-ending hiatus. His last concert performance took place on December 6, 2019, during what had become an annual residency at the Beacon. We all know what happened next.
Covid hit our city and our social isolation began.
At the height of anxieties in NYC on March 26, 2020, at midnight, Dylan let slip into the ether a gift: a note with a new, original track. Tongues started wagging about rumors of a new album. A man of excruciatingly few public words, his uncharacteristic note said: “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” Here we were in a free fall, a time when screaming ambulances were the ghostly punctuation on as pure and extended a silence as I’ve ever heard in this city. And Dylan thought we might find his song interesting. And he told us to pay attention.
It was like a fist bump and a prophecy rolled into one. He got my attention.
The stunning track was the instantly-famous JFK dirge, "Murder Most Foul." Two weeks later, it reached the No. 1 position on the Billboard chart, a first-ever for the then 79-year-old Dylan.
Like the ghost in Hamlet, this simple ballad had truths to reveal: not merely about JFK’s assassination but also about the American decline it set in motion and about the power of culture to both buoy us and to steal our attention from the real work we must attend to. The stripped down 17-minute epic is like a bell ringing out a warning across time. And when Covid hit, Dylan himself recognized that the unforeseeable plague and its utter mismanagement actually rhymed with his song. So he hurried the track out to a captive audience, leaving everyone anticipating a new album.
But before the album released in June, the country was sucker-punched. One year ago tomorrow, the brutal murder of 46-year-old George Floyd by Derek Chauvin seared our eyes and galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place
The day that they blew out the brains of the king
Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing
It happened so quickly - so quick by surprise
Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
--Bob Dylan from "Murder Most Foul"
But to be fair, it wasn't just this song. Dylan has been calling out racism and brutality for half a century.
As the pandemic abates, as the country mournfully acknowledges tomorrow’s anniversary of the despicable murder of George Floyd, as we find each other in our neighborhood to reboot, there is, for me, hope in the healing power of human creativity.
I am grateful for the decoder ring that is the body of Bob Dylan’s work to make sense of an endlessly confusing time. He’s been holding up his mirror to us for 60 years and we’d do well to have a look.
You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
-- Bob Dylan from "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll"
May George Floyd long be remembered. May he rest in peace.