On the surface, these two cultural superstars have plenty in common. One could argue that each is the top performer in his industry and has been so for a long, long time. And they each have the accolades and the financial rewards to prove it.
Both also come from humble beginnings. Dylan (born in 1941) and his younger brother grew up in Minnesota, and his family ran a furniture and appliance store. King (born in 1947), meanwhile, grew up with one older brother in Maine as the sons of a merchant seaman and a medical caregiver. His father left the family when King was two, and his mother struggled financially as she cared not only for her two boys but also for her parents.
And both have also crossed over into the other’s profession. Though Dylan is primarily a singer/songwriter, he has published poetry, nonfiction, and artwork along with collections of his song lyrics. King is primarily a novelist, but he has dabbled in music for quite some time, and he has played guitar with a band of fellow authors, a group called the Rock Bottom Remainders.
But one of the more interesting commonalities is that within the last decade, each of these extraordinary artists has extensively explored one of the greatest American tragedies of the 20th century: the Dallas, Texas, assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 2011, King published an 842-page book entitled 11/22/63, the date of the assassination, and earlier this year, Dylan released a 17-minute eulogy for the fallen president, a song entitled “Murder Most Foul.”
Why such extraordinary works about an event that occurred over 50 years ago? Perhaps because these two superstars are still somewhat haunted by a life-changing event that everyone in their age range will remember forever, a where-were-you moment, much like the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.
When Kennedy was murdered, King was only 16 years old, living at home as a high school student in Lisbon Falls, Maine, still a decade away from the publication of Carrie, the novel that propelled him into the public consciousness. By contrast, Dylan was 22 years old and independently living and performing in New York City. By then, Dylan had already released two albums and was active in the civil rights movement; he performed with Joan Baez at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963, the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In his notes at the end of his book, King says that he first began writing about the Kennedy assassination in 1973, but he quickly realized he was too busy and unprepared for the task. He freely admits that “the research was daunting for someone who was working full-time at another job. Also, I understood I wasn’t ready — the scope was too big for me at that time. I put the book aside and thought maybe someday I’d go back to it.”
In a recent interview with Doug Brinkley, Dylan was asked if he, too, had previously tackled the subject of Kennedy’s death, based on unpublished writings from the 1990s. Dylan, however, denied that assertion, claiming that the writings were forgeries. Instead, Dylan admitted that people of a certain age “have a tendency to live in the past,” and when asked if he thinks about his own mortality, Dylan responded: “I think about the death of the human race. The long, strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
King’s book is a time-travel story, and his protagonist, Jake Epping, hopes to kill Lee Harvey Oswald before he has a chance to kill the president. King focuses quite a bit on the “Butterfly Effect,” the idea that one small change in the past can have drastic effects in the future. King also focuses on the idea that Oswald was the solitary assassin, the conclusion reached by the Warren Commission in 1964.
By contrast, Dylan’s mournful dirge appears to focus more on a wider conspiracy as evidenced by the use of plural pronouns in the lyrics. In the beginning of the song, Dylan writes of the killers in this way: “We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect. We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face We’ve already got someone here to take your place.”
Later, he adds the following: “Don’t worry, Mr. President, help’s on the way. Your brothers are coming, there’ll be hell to pay. Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell? Tell them, ‘We’re waiting, keep coming.’ We’ll get them as well.”
Finally, in his last stanza, Dylan adds, “Love Field is where his plane touched down, but it never did get back up off the ground. Was a hard act to follow, second to none. They killed him on the altar of the rising sun.”
I am intrigued by these works because I, too, can never forget that day when a bit of my boyhood innocence was stolen. Growing up in Amsterdam, New York, the people of our small upstate town had seen and heard the young senator from Massachusetts when he visited three years earlier as part of his 1960 campaign. As many of our mill town workers listened, Kennedy spoke about increasing the minimum wage to a dollar and a quarter. I was only in fourth grade at the time, but my classmates and I got caught up in the excitement, and we collected Kennedy-Johnson pins and bumper stickers. Thus, we were all stunned and shocked three years later when our seventh-grade math class at St. Mary’s Institute was interrupted by a late-afternoon, Friday announcement from our school principal. The initial message indicated that the President had been shot, but by the time we reached our homeroom for dismissal, a second announcement indicated that Kennedy had died.
And we were stunned and shocked again a day and a half later when we returned from Sunday Mass and turned on the television in our living room. There, we watched as the assumed assassin was escorted through the basement of police headquarters and killed by Jack Ruby — live on national television. Naturally, I had seen lots of fictional bad guys die on television previously, but this was so different, so unbelievable, and so unforgettable. Thus, I am always intrigued when others talk or write about that fateful day in Dallas.
Of the two works, I found the King book to be more enjoyable. Though I am not normally a fan of time travel and though I have not read many of King’s novels (too scary), I enjoyed his detailed account of American life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His protagonist is believable, as are the relationships he develops during his time in the past.
Dylan’s song, on the other hand, is a bit of a chore, even for someone like myself who has always enjoyed his music. The first third of this song is interesting with lots of details about the assassination and the time period, but he gradually transitions to numerous musical allusions that are simply overwhelming by the end. Various reviewers have negatively compared this song to Don McLean’s 1972, eight-minute hit, “American Pie,” but without the generally upbeat and memorable chorus. I have to agree.
When King’s book first came out, I was too busy working and doing lots of other activities to tackle such a huge text. Now that I’m officially retired, however, and somewhat isolated at home due to the Coronavirus, I have much more time to read and to listen to unusually long songs. Anybody out there have some recommendations for me?
Brinkley, Doug. “‘Good News in Today’s World Is Like a Fugitive’: Bob Dylan on his New Album, George Floyd and the World.” Independent, 17 June 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/bob-dylan-rough- rowdy-ways-murder-most-foul-george-floyd-interview-new-album-a9568606.html
Dylan, Bob. “Murder Most Foul.” Bob Dylan, 2020, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder- most-foul/
King, Stephen. 11/22/63 — A Novel. Gallery Books, 2012.