Fifty-nine years ago today, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. Generally seen as a pivotal moment in the second half of the twentieth century, certainly in the context of American history at least, there have been countless theories around his assassination and also “what might have beens” had he not been killed.
/Subject /JFK, American Politics
/Playlists /Spotify / /YouTube
/Related /056/ American Politics /350/ American Politics v2 /Tuesday Ten/Index
/Details /Tracks this week/10 /Tracks on Spotify Playlist/9 /Duration/49:32
His proposals for civil rights at least survived, in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while arguably the Vietnam War was escalated by Lyndon B. Johnson in the aftermath of his death. But a younger, more dynamic President like Kennedy wouldn’t happen again for well over forty years, when Barack Obama took over.
Such a pivotal event like this did, of course, inspire an awful lot of cultural work. There are countless books, films and songs about a variety of angles on the subject, and I’m picking up on just ten of the songs here.
My interest in the event came about thanks to a set of History Lessons when I was about thirteen, when we were introduced to what happened, the Zapruder film, and theWarren Commission report – and indeed the single-bullet theory, which frankly was scarcely believable to a class of thirteen year olds, never mind the political class of the mid-sixties.
I discovered Bill Hicks not long after (while much of his work has not aged well, his JFK skits remain brilliant), and started noticing songs about it too. This post has, it must be said, been on the back-burner for years, waiting for the right time, and indeed gradually pulling together the list of songs until I was happy with them. Whether this is or not, it’s time to finally get it off the “to post” list.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound me. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
/Was (Not Was)
/11 Miles an Hour
/What Up, Dog?
The bizarro funk-soul-pop world of Was (Not Was) took in a host of subjects in their songs, but often looking at the underbelly of the American dream, which seems appropriate seeing as they grew up in post-White Flight Detroit. I guess the assassination of JFK fits into this, and on What Up, Dog?, the first of their albums I heard, aged about ten, this song stood out loud and clear. An upbeat charge of a song, with those baritone vocals delivering the dark tale (interestingly, Oswald is deemed guilty here), the title of the song referring to the speed the motorcade was moving at down Elm Street.
I’m featuring the international version that I know, by the way, especially as it is vastly better than 11 MPH (Abe Zapp Ruder Version) that appeared on the US release.
/Strong Arm of the Law
South Yorkshire to Dallas is a long way (4,633 miles, according to Google), but even so, Biff Byford still had something to say about an event that happened while he was eleven. Like Was (Not Was), in many ways, his horror at the event is mostly by reciting the details – but with some perhaps imagined elements around how the killer arranged things (and notably, Oswald is not mentioned). The song itself is excellent, drawn-out heavy metal, with a killer guitar solo and the kind of rolling momentum that sounds like it could continue ad infinitum.
/Murder Most Foul
/Rough and Rowdy Ways
The first new song from Bob Dylan in nearly a decade was this near-seventeen minute (!) epic, released in 2020 as the first track released from Rough and Rowdy Ways – a mostly piano-based song with accompaniment from Fiona Apple. Addressing, at last, JFK (while Dylan had imagined a phone conversation with him in song in the sixties, he’d never otherwise commented on it in song), Dylan takes in the horror of the event, the massive changes wrought in the sixties generally, the Zapruder film, a host of musical references – indeed enough for the likes of The New Yorker to do entire analysis pieces of it.
/The Human League
A world away from the singles on Dare comes this stark song, little more than a jabbing finger of a drum beat, some minimal synths and Phil Oakey’s accusatory vocal tone, as he takes aim at JFK’s killer with the repeated refrain “It took seconds of your time to take his life“. No names are mentioned, indeed there is scant detail, but the way the scene is described, the meaning is obvious.
/He Was A Friend Of Mine
/Turn! Turn! Turn!
The only song here written in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, this short song was apparently written by Roger McGuinn on the night of 22-November, as he tried to process what he’d seen on the news (it is a reworking of an old folk standard). An acoustic lament, pretty much, it has the fragmented feel of someone truly devastated by what has happened, as if things will never be the same again.
/Manic Street Preachers
/I’m Just A Patsy
/Send Away The Tigers
Probably my favourite living writer is Don DeLillo, whose weighty prose about the US and the modern world are often fascinating, detailed stories, and usually based somewhere in fact – even if he then imagines the gaps that need filling. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a sage of twentieth century America, he took on JFK, but from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald, in Libra. Oswald’s story is told, but with a host of additional imagined threads.
Indeed, I’m kind of surprised that it took the Manics so long into their career to look at a similar subject, and on I’m Just A Patsy (the title is the phrase Oswald used to deny that he killed JFK), they look at the difficult life of Oswald, and how the failures in his own life led him to apparently being set-up for killing JFK, and then killed himself just two days later.
/The Wedding Present
Arguably one of the best-known Wedding Present songs, the dense, fast-paced track feels like it is as influenced by shoegaze as it is The Fall and other eighties indie bands. The lyrics are relatively obtuse, but as I recall the “Look of Life” was a Jackie Kennedy bracelet, “Ari walked away with Johnny’s wife” nods to her remarrying, and the desire to be famous a clear nod to the shooter. One listen to the song, by the way, confirms that the “lyrics” propagated online are riddled with errors!
/Brain of J.
One of the more bizarre stories around JFK is that his brain is missing. It was discovered in 1966 that his brain had vanished from the National Archives, with a variety of theories popping up to explain it, the best-known perhaps that it vanished so that the direction of the gunshot(s) couldn’t be ascertained for sure.
Pearl Jam take on the subject on this song from their album Yield, and while it rails against conspiracy and authority, it also has an optimism that things will change and get better, regardless. Sadly (it was written/released in 1998), I think it’s fair to say the opposite happened.
/From The Choirgirl Hotel
One name rather absent from so many of these songs is Jacqueline Kennedy, who as the wife of JFK and First Lady – and only in her mid-thirties by the time of his death – was subject to press coverage and attention in ways that she perhaps never imagined. Not to mention, of course, the unimaginable horror of seeing her husband slain right in front of her.
The mental strength that must have taken is referred to by Tori Amos, as she considers her own future (and indeed doubts about marriage when she was younger), and invokes Jackie’s strength and power to give herself inspiration and help.
/The Kennedy Curse
A first entry for post-hardcore band Alexisonfire in this series, and they close out this week’s post with a song that considers, in relatively crude terms perhaps, the Kennedy legacy. JFK’s death – nor indeed his brother Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 either – is far from the only tragedy to befall this notable US political dynasty. The events that make up the “curse” total no less than twenty-two separate instances, including thirteen deaths. If nothing else, it is certainly an unfortunate family.