Bob Dylan, the JFK Assassination, and My Frantic Quest to Connect the Two
With the stunning recent midnight release of Murder Most Foul, Bob Dylan declared his deep distress at the unsolved mysteries surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. I wish I’d known about that sooner. It would have saved me a lot of anguish and embarrassment.
It was November, 1975. “Oswald’s November,” as the poet Anne Sexton once branded that gloomy time of year when daylight shrinks, weather turns dank, and hearts feel the chill. Dylan, recently emerged from an extended hibernation, had just launched the now legendary Rolling Thunder Review tour. Nov. 20 at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge was among the first dates on the tour. Next was Nov. 21 at the Music Hall in Boston. On Nov. 22, a mass rally calling for a re-opening of the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination was planned for Boston’s Government Center. I was a principal organizer of this event, along with others from the Assassination Information Bureau. Sounds hare-brained? We didn’t think so.
Underdog causes, starved for attention, often lurch for celebrity endorsements. With Dylan hovering nearby, it seemed negligent not to reach out with an appeal for him to appear at our rally. The odds against him doing so were overwhelming, yet no more so than the odds against the Kennedy assassination being formally re-investigated. One improbable longshot pursuit converging synergistically with another was how I viewed it. We were all Quixotes, my colleagues and I. Surely Dylan would pick up on that, and admire us for it.
I had one plausible pathway into Dylan. Ed Sanders, Fug, beatnik poet, and chronicler of the Manson family, was a supporter of our efforts and had agreed to speak at our rally. He was also a friend of Allen Ginsberg, beatnik bard and friend of Dylan. Ginsberg was reportedly part of the freewheeling Rolling Thunder entourage, along with Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Rambling Jack Elliot, and Ronee Blakely. Sanders to Ginsberg to Dylan would, in this feverishly envisioned scenario, be how my message would get conveyed to the inner sanctum.
My message was: the demonstrably deceitful Warren Commission account of what went down in Dallas constituted a massive brain-washing of the American public, with poisonous spillover into every aspect of our national life. With renewed interest in the case in the wake of the Watergate break-in and cover-up, the time was ripe to mobilize public support for re-opening the JFK case. Of course, to grab Dylan’s attention I’d need to boil it down to a pithy sort of elevator pitch.
Stuck inside an elevator with Bob Dylan. Now there’s an intriguing notion.
Connecting face to face at one of the two concerts was perhaps my better option, although equally a long shot. With this in mind, I assembled a manila briefing folder to bring along, something not too voluminous yet not so thin as to insult Mr. D’s intelligence. Just the basics concerning: a) the argument for conspiracy about which I was fully capable of blathering for hours on end — magic bullet, vagrants on the grassy knoll, the botched autopsy; b) the great awakening from our collective coma that would result from stripping away the cover-up; c) our November 22 rally taking place less than a mile from where Bob’d be performing; and d) the huge upsurge in awareness about the assassination controversy if he’d agree to appear, and the thunderous outcry for renewed investigation that would inevitably follow.
I failed to score a ticket for the Nov. 20 Harvard Square show but I went there anyway, a couple of hours early, to stand outside the alleyway stage door with the manila folder clutched in my frozen fingers. My plan? Hand it off to Dylan as he entered. I had no Plan B. This was back in the days before Plan Bs.
Why did I think Dylan might be receptive? Beyond a few stray comments over the years lamenting the President’s murder, there was no evidence he particularly cared about the case. Worse, there was the taint of his widely condemned remarks made at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee awards banquet in December, 1963, mere weeks after Dallas, “The man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald . . . I saw some of myself in him.”
What in my desperation I also ignored was Dylan’s well-documented history of turning a deaf ear on such appeals. Organizers of nearly every major march against the Vietnam War had at one time or another tried to get Dylan to grace the stage, figuring the prospect of hearing his live rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” might draw a few hundred thousand more. Soldiers were dying, civilians were dying, there was blood in the trenches, blood at Kent State. Where was our savior? It ain’t me, babe, was evidently his response.
Still, I gave him some slack. Surely anyone as savvy and prescient as Dylan would realize it was hubris of the highest order to think he had the power to stop a war, no matter how many earnest activists indulged the delusion that he could. By comparison, what I was asking was ridiculously modest: a brief appearance — heck, he didn’t have to sing or bring his guitar — at an event that could not be more conveniently timed and located. Nothing delusional about that, right?
Dylan and entourage somehow made it into the Harvard Square Theater bypassing me. I did connect with a lanky stagehand who came outside for a smoke. I handed him the manila folder, stressing the extreme importance to the republic of getting it to Dylan. “Far out,” he muttered.
I might not have known the concept of Plan B, but it turns out I had one. The next night’s Rolling Thunder Review, set for the Music Hall, was also sold out. However, an afternoon show was added, and I was able to land a ticket for that. I assembled a duplicate information folder to bring.
Before the show, I checked in with Sanders to see if he’d made any progress. The rally was set for noon the next day. Sanders had written a powerful poem, ideal for the occasion, including the line, “This is the age of investigation and every citizen must investigate.” Alas, Sanders had made no progress with Ginsberg. Truth be told, I suspected that as a seasoned veteran of activist struggles he knew my request was folly, and may well have harbored a jaundiced attitude about the left’s fixation on pursuing celebrity supporters.
Footage of the Music Hall concert is featured in Martin Scorsese’s quirky Netflix documentary about the tour. Dylan in carnival clown whiteface and a flower-brimmed hat was absolutely mesmerizing. The all-star supporting cast was dazzling. My seat wasn’t bad, one-third of the way back from the stage, near the left-side aisle.
I howled enthusiastically after each number, enthralled as any fan. But all the while I was secretly scheming, checking the placement of security guards at the lip of the stage, taking note of the tech guys fussing with the equipment between numbers, studying the ebb and flow of performers from the wings, assessing the angles and points of possible access, evaluating where my best chance might lie.
What did I intend? I intended, damn it, to deliver this packet of dynamite info to the Jokerman himself.
The music was rapturous. Hearing Dylan sing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll live felt like something I’d been waiting for my entire life, a kind of homecoming. (Remember, back in 1975 Dylan was not the ubiquitous, non-stop concert circuit presence he bizarrely became in the ensuing decades. Devotees who came of age in the late 60’s and early 70’s rarely had a chance to see him perform.)
Mr. Tambourine Man swept the audience into a blissful swoon. Off to my left, a woman stood in the aisle singing along, really belting it out. She had a gorgeous voice, clear and soulful. But still, I wished she’d pipe down. I turned to shoot the songbird a nasty, knock-it-off scowl, and was shocked to see it was Ronee Blakley! Only minutes earlier she’d been cavorting on stage as a Rolling Thunder back-up singer. What the hell was she doing out here in the bleachers?
Mind you, Blakley was not just a talented singer-songwriter who blended seamlessly with the eccentric ambience of Dylan’s posse. She was also the Oscar-nominated co-star of the most acclaimed movie of that year, Robert Altman’s Nashville. In the film, Blakley plays Barbara Jean, an emotionally unstable C&W star loosely modeled on Loretta Lynn. Released from a mental hospital, Barbara Jean is forced by her heartless manager into a high-pressure gig opening for a mass political rally promoting a surging presidential candidate.
I leapt like a panther across the knees of the startled fellow to my left, manila folder in hand. Crunch time was here. Don’t think twice.
Blakley looked radiant in a black blouse, dark vest and flowing white scarf. I guess she could tell I meant business, or meant something, because she did stop singing. Dylan did not. The music was loud. I had to be quick, and louder than Dylan.
“Please listen,” I implored. “We’re re-opening the Kennedy assassination. The investigation, that is. Bob can help. Tomorrow. In Boston. Stone’s throw.”
She appeared attentive yet wary. Was she even able to hear my words? I wished they’d turn down the volume on the sound system. Just for a minute or two.
“The Kennedy assassination,” I hollered. “It’s the Rosetta Stone. The cover-up. Our rally tomorrow . . . “
Blakley kept her cool, although the thought did flash through my rattled mind that what I mistook for courtesy might have been fear. Feeling the mounting pressure of the clock ticking down, I pushed the folder toward her in such a way that she pretty much had to grab it to defend herself.
“Give this to Bob,” I shouted. “It’s all in here. The JFK assassination . . .”
Alarm blazed across Blakley’s face. Suddenly I saw what I’d been too crazed to notice. “Assassination” is not a word to toss around casually, not to a stranger, not to a quasi-celebrity, not in a crowded theater exploding with sound. Above all, and for this oversight I can offer no excuse, “assassination” is not a word to repeatedly scream at the top of your lungs to an actress who, in the climactic scene of a movie that to this day stands as one of the great achievements of American cinema, is herself assassinated! Shot dead on stage. By a lunatic lone gunman. While performing live.
Envelope in hand, Blakely promptly fled. Who wouldn’t?
I don’t know if Dylan ever received that potent packet of information I’d so meticulously prepared. However, based on several erudite references in the lyrics of Murder Most Foul, I can state with some certainty that if he failed back then to demonstrate the kind of avid interest in the case that I’d wished for, he is doing so now.
He did not appear at our rally. Few did. The day was bright but very cold. The speeches by Allard Lowenstein, a former Congressman and aide to Robert Kennedy, Carl Oglesby, former SDS president and mainstay of our group, and Sanders were uniformly superb. The mood among those of us who cared was upbeat. This was the launch, not the culmination, of our campaign to get the United States Congress to re-investigate JFK’s death.
A scant three years later, on December 30, 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after a two-year, multi-million dollar investigation, released its stunning final report in which it concluded, among other revelations, that there was a “high probability that two gunmen fired” at President Kennedy and that he was “probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.”
As it turns out, we didn’t really need Bob. I’d like to think he knew that all along.