The influence of Bob Dylan is scattered across the musical spectrum, and David Byrne, an icon of alternative music with a legacy almost as strong as Dylan himself, has hero-worshipped the freewheelin’ troubadour for a lifetime.
The first moment that Dylan came rushing into Byrne’s life is a memory that has clung to the former Talking Heads leader. His introduction to this enticing alien world came through The Byrds’ version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ in 1965, and at the time, he didn’t even know the song was a cover of Dylan. “I heard it on a crappy transistor radio in my bedroom in Arbutus, a Baltimore suburb,” Byrne later commented: “It blew my little mind. The words were, to me at that time, impenetrable.”
That said, Byrne isn’t under the illusion that every artistic venture that Dyan has turned his hand to has been a shining example of brilliance. However, on the occasions when he does get it right, Byrne believes that Dylan can create art that nobody else can compete with.
Writing a piece for Stereogum, Byrne admitted: “He’s written his fair share of throwaways and clunkers. But what encourages me is that every so often he can break the mould again and surprise us”.
The last time that Dylan blew Byrne away was ‘Murder Most Foul’, a song taken from his most recent album Rough and Rowdy Ways. The 17-minute extravaganza is the longest track that Dylan has ever released and examines the everlasting impact of the assassination of John F. Kennedy on America.
The track arrived as Dylan’s first piece of original music after an eight-year gap and, coincidentally, overlapped with the world shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dylan’s return was timed to perfection, and Byrne was one of the millions thankful for the homecoming of the messiah. He commented, “‘Murder Most Foul,’ one of his epic songs — a form he lifted from old folk ballads with their many many verses, but then he added a genetic mutation to the form — surreal imagery and metaphors rather than the traditional narratives of the old ballads.”
For Byrne, the illuminative lyricism reminded him of his childhood and the songs that had soundtracked the infantile years of his life. The singer continued, “The rhyme scheme is simple, like a children’s song or a poem from Alice In Wonderland, which makes it even funnier.
“I laughed at ‘sacrificial lamb’ and ‘know who I am?’ Dylan of course is doing his well-established ‘Dylan’ voice and character throughout — which helps him pull off the hilarious rhymes and references.”
Byrne concluded, “So this song was inspiring to me — not as earth-shattering as ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was to a wee lad, but important in a different way. I hear Dylan finding, at this stage in his career, a new way to approach these epic songs. He’s not done exploring yet. That’s inspiration for me for sure.”
As a child, the cosmic sounds of Dylan that entered the “crappy transistor radio” in Byrne’s suburban Baltimore bedroom opened his eyes to a completely different world to the one he thought existed. Almost seven decades later, Dylan’s imitable aptitude still successfully casts a spell of inspiration on Byrne by redefining what exactly a song should be with ‘Murder Most Foul’.