…OK, that title is a bit of a joke, I’ll admit it.
But in listening to Bob Dylan’s masterful, dense new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, and its epic closing track, “Murder Most Foul,” I find myself spinning back to make a most peculiar connection: This feels like Dylan’s homage to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
I was a card-carrying Billy Joel fan in 1989. Joel’s easily digested, open-hearted everyman pop songs were everywhere in the 1980s, and what turned out to be one of his last big hits, 1989’s Storm Front album, got to me. In particular, his endearingly clumsy anthem “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”
I have a soft spot for it, coming as it did in the fall of 1989, when the Soviet Union abruptly crumbled and the Cold War we’d all been conditioned since birth to be afraid of just went away almost overnight. I was just turned 18, at that peculiar junction in life, between high school and whatever lies next, at the cusp of adult cares and fears. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” seemed a totem of that urgency, of being suspended between moments in history.
“We Didn’t Start The Fire” hasn’t aged particularly well, I’ll admit. Billy Joel’s songs were best when he went for the personal. When he tried to go big and broad on social issues, he wasn’t subtle – “Allentown,” “Goodnight Saigon” – but they were powerful, angry songs still, and anchored in human experience. The problem with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is that it’s all huff and no puff, a list without much of a message.
Joel’s song is angry. He basically recites a list of cultural touchstones from the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War, catchily rapping off names from Stalin to Elvis to Bernie Goetz, interrupting the lists with his chest-thumping chorus, “We didn’t start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world’s been turning.”
Now, that rhyme makes me cringe a bit. Yet I still kinda love that song. It’s awkward and befuddled and the only real message despite its urgency seems to be, “Hey, shit happens.” In the video, Joel pumps his fists and rages as the background bursts into flames behind him. Again, it ain’t subtle.
Now, take Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” at 17 minutes the longest song the bard’s recorded in his 50-year-career. If anything, Dylan’s song is even more of a laundry list than Joel’s. He peppers in Tom Jones lyrics, Freddy Krueger, Buster Keaton, BB King.
Unlike “Fire,” it’s structured around a narrative, a hallucinatory seance of imagery revolving around the assassination of President Kennedy, fragments of Americana scattered by the death of a dream: “They killed him once and they killed him twice / Killed him like a human sacrifice.”
Joel hits on JFK too, of course, with a particularly wince-worthy rhyme again: “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?”
Dylan is 79 now. He doesn’t rage, he contemplates. There’s a mesmerizing power to “Murder Most Foul,” even as the tempo barely changes, as the song just kind of chugs along without any of the fire of Billy Joel. It’s got the power of a mystic chanting around a campfire, a thousand years ago.
At one point Dylan asks, “What is the truth, and where did it go?” In 2020, nobody knows.
The difference is that “Fire” is a list, a yell. “Foul” is a sermon, a prayer, and in wrapping his summoning of all America’s highs and lows around the fateful events in Dallas in 1963, Dylan conjures up something sadder, more haunting than Joel’s outraged yelp. I’ve listened to “Murder Most Foul” many times so far, and each time it unfolds new facets.
Dylan’s become more of a magpie than ever in his autumn, picking up bits and pieces of pop culture strewn throughout history and saying something new with it. Who’s to say he didn’t perhaps find a kernel of meaning to redirect in Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as he assembled what might be his magnum opus, a song that stretches wide and high to try to define the indefinable?
One song seemed perfect for the perhaps misguided optimism of 1989. One seems just right for the muddy, uncertain waters of 2020. One was the sounds of being 18, and one hits home with me as I near a half-century on this strange, perplexing world.
Both songs grapple with that old chestnut, the American dream, a hope and a mystery nobody ever really seems able to solve.