The song dropped at midnight without any notice in the middle of a global pandemic. It clocked in at 17 minutes. It centered on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and name-checked everyone from Patsy Cline and Buster Keaton to Wolfman Jack and Stevie Nicks. Then it went to No. 1 on Billboard’s rock chart.
It’s hard to say which of those facets of Bob Dylan’s new single, “Murder Most Foul,” is the weirdest. And one more odd bit to ponder: It’s actually a pretty great tune, too, a piano- and violin-cushioned slow riff on music’s power in a time of tragedy.
Issued four weeks ahead of his 79th birthday Sunday, “Murder” proved that Minnesota’s greatest living cultural hero still thrives on surprise. Now we’ll see if the bard can land his sixth No. 1 album when “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first LP of original material since 2012, arrives June 19.
Here are other memorable surprises from throughout Dylan’s 58-year career.
Going electric. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, America’s hottest young folk singer played a solo acoustic set and then plugged in with an electric rock band. Fans booed. Dylan and the music world were forever changed.
Play me. It seems inconsequential after this new 17-minute epic, but “Like a Rolling Stone’s” length (6:13) was of great concern to Columbia Records. Most songs on the radio in 1965 were still half that length. The single took off at dance clubs right away, more or less forcing radio’s hand to play what is now widely considered rock’s all-time greatest song.
Going country. The lover of classic twang first went to Nashville to record “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966. It was still a bit of a shock, though, when he changed his singing style, teamed up with Johnny Cash and wound up with the laid-back, countrified sound of the “Nashville Skyline” album in 1969, at a tumultuous time when many expected angry rock and folk songs from him.
Going to the movies. Borrowing a page out of Kris Kristofferson’s playbook, Dylan accepted a dramatic part opposite Kristofferson in the 1973 Sam Peckinpah western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Fittingly, the character was named Alias. At least, the film introduced the Dylan hit song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and sparked a film career that got even odder in later decades (see also: 1978’s “Renaldo and Clara,” 1987’s “Hearts of Fire” and 2003’s “Masked and Anonymous”).
Home recording. Home for the holidays in Minnesota in 1974, Dylan wasn’t completely happy with his new record already set for release Jan. 20. So he had his brother, David Zimmerman, line up some Twin Cities musicians for a session at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, where they rerecorded five tunes. The “Blood on the Tracks” album covers were already printed without credits for the Minnesota players, so their imprint on the beloved album was little known for many years.
Pop-up tour. After he’d made a comeback tour of arenas backed by the Band in 1974, the triumphant superstar went small, doing the 1975-76 equivalent of a pop-up tour by playing in modest halls on short notice with a circuslike caravan featuring Joan Baez, poet Allen Ginsberg and other pals.
Eyeing the Hurricane. He’d been an activist in the civil rights movement throughout the early ’60s, but few musicians ever got as actively involved in the cause of justice — and successfully so — as he did in the case of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, jailed for murder in 1966. Dylan’s 1976 song “The Hurricane” and subsequent benefit concerts helped lead to Carter’s conviction being overturned.
Born again. In a simple twist of faith, the singer who grew up on country, blues and R&B in his bar mitzvah days in Hibbing suddenly found Jesus and gospel music on 1979’s “Slow Train Coming,” his first of three so-called born-again Christian albums. True Dylan believers went “oy vey.”
Opening up the vaults. After years of trying to fend off widespread bootlegging, he and Columbia gave fans a wholesale fix of outtake material with “Bootlegs, Vol. 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991)” in 1993. The surprise was so pleasantly received that they’re up to 15 volumes now, including last year’s “Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969.”
Biding his “Time.” He seemed poised for another prolific and creative heyday after 1989’s album “Oh Mercy,” so folks scratched their heads again when he turned in two LPs of unoriginal material in 1992 and 1993, “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong,” acoustic collections full of old folk and blues tunes. The creative burst did eventually come with 1997’s seminal record “Time Out of Mind,” though.
Going commercial. Just the thought of Dylan starring in any TV commercial was startling before 2004, the year he confounded even his most seasoned observers by appearing in an ad for Victoria’s Secret. That he never answered why — as if he didn’t need to — made it even more amusing. Critics thus never could get their panties in a bunch over subsequent TV spots with Cadillac and IBM.
Writing his memoir. After decades of evading the many writers trying to chronicle his life, he turned around and wrote his own book on the matter. “Chronicles, Vol. 1,” published in 2004, earned widespread praise for its prose, but its accuracy has been questioned, and it actually only raised more questions about his career and creative process. Not so surprising: We’re still waiting for “Vol. 2.”
DJ Dylan. Always media-averse, Dylan never talked more in public than as a DJ on the must-hear “Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan” on XM Satellite radio in 2006. Each show focused on a topic such as weather, baseball or mother as he spun apropos songs and discussed them. With the help of a crack research team, he sounded like a knowledgeable if sometimes cryptic DJ.
Holiday love. Amid his late-career run of outstanding original albums, he gifted fans in 2009 with “Christmas in the Heart,” a collection of 15 holiday chestnuts done unexpectedly in a straightforward style. Who knew he was such a softie sentimentalist?
Ol’ Blue Eyes. After delivering arguably the strongest late-career run in rock history with five remarkable albums (from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” to 2012’s “Tempest”), he threw a curve ball in 2015: an album of standards made famous by Frank Sinatra, “Shadows in the Night.” Thinking one good idea deserves repeating, he released two more collections of standards, “Fallen Angels” and the three-disc “Triplicate.”
Speaking up. Honored at the Grammys’ MusiCares charity gala in 2015, he delivered an extraordinary, unprecedented, 40-minute scripted speech in which he thanked pivotal people in his career, chastised those who criticized his singing voice and dissected his influences in specific Dylan songs. He’s been brash and bold before but never so unabashedly revealing.
Never Ending? Starting in 1988, the once reclusive Dylan hit the road again and hasn’t looked back. He’s played enough shows each year since then to earn his ever-rolling caravan its nickname as the Never-Ending Tour, and in recent years he’s actually earned some of the best reviews in the impressive 32-year run.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658