Once I had found my thread, I wrote three new songs in very short order.
The first would revolve around the life of the police officer riding in the motorcade directly beside Jacqueline Kennedy at the moment of the assassination. The next, from the perspective I imagined as the First Lady. It was upon finishing this second song that I realized slaying my Minotaur would involve the creation of an entire collection of narratives that, when strung together, would follow the chronology of that tragic weekend in Dallas. A suite of songs. The Kennedy Suite was a title that came almost immediately and involuntarily. That inspirational spark was closely followed by my first structural calculation.
Newton’s third law of motion states that “when one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body.” The same is true for physics of storytelling. The profound loss I had felt when I discovered President Kennedy had been murdered found its power in the deep sense of awe that had been generated in me as I explored his life. If I was to help the reader appreciate that same experience to any degree, songs addressing the assassination and its aftermath would need to be preceded by a vivid depiction of the palpable excitement and tangible possibility for change his ideas generated.
And so I set to work on a prologue.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”
President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address was, and is, a thrilling listen. If you have never taken the time or had the opportunity to do so, you can treat yourself by clicking on this link: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BqXIEM9F4024ntFl7SVAjA.aspx.. Look through the transcript. Stunning. It was clear very early that nothing I could create could match hearing the President speaking for himself, and so it would be that both the demo I would set down with my friend Doug Telfer and the final recording produced by Michael would begin and end with him doing so.
Freed from having a rhetorical toe to toe with my hero and avoiding a disastrous Dan Quayle moment (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWXRNySMW4s ), I began to play – an activity that is, for me, the essence of the writing process.
One of the games I like to play most is to turn a phrase, especially a cliché – something I learned to love in Elvis Costello’s writing (“Who’s making Lover’s Leap safe again for lovers?”) Needless to say, one of President Kennedy’s most famous phrases from that speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” immediately piqued my sense of linguistic mischief.
One of JFK’s great qualities was his ability to question the status quo with skepticism and intelligence. In the final days of his presidency he was looking to extract the country from Vietnam, he had beaten back the hawks encouraging him to use military force in Cuba and was quietly pursuing a back-channel dialogue with Castro. The unofficial overtures had gone so well that Castro had joked he would publically back Republican Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater if it would help Kennedy get re-elected in 1964. Furthermore, the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis had fostered a growing understanding with Nikita Khrushchev that, more than adversaries, they were partners in holding back forces within their militaries that were advocating for preemptive nuclear conflict and presenting that strategy as not only advantageous but reasonable. Kennedy’s challenge to instigate meaningful change and his ability to express that challenge with an eloquence and incisiveness that made change seem not only possible but inevitable was infectious. To put it another way, the new Commander in Chief was a shit disturber of the highest order, and his rhetoric, as audacious as it was erudite, was a clarion call for others to aspire to the same level of progressive insubordination.
“Ask not what your country can do, ask what it’s done.”
I had turned the phrase, and in so doing, had found a probing disposition that I felt was not only representative of the times and of the Kennedy presidency, but would also weave its way through the writing of the entire project.
The prologue of The Kennedy Suite would be entitled Origami Peace Corps Mischief Makers. Its first and more succinct title was Make Us! My friend Adam Faux had encouraged me to trade it for interest’s sake with a line I had created for the chorus. Though the title changed, that spirit of “progressive insubordination” would remain integral to the song.
It was at this moment that the development of the lyric, as it began to take on a life of its own, took a funny turn.
I could think no greater example of steadfast courage, dignified resolve and unflinching defiance than in the stories of hundreds of ordinary Americans who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. The song began to head full stream in that direction. While there were references to Kennedy’s call to land a man on the moon and his almost subversive use of diplomacy to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, references to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders and the murder of Emmett Till (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxK8u58PqTE) began to take over the page. What was interesting for me was that a song celebrating Kennedy’s zeal for societal change was running into an area where Kennedy was roundly criticized for his lack of action – the area of Civil Rights. For conservatives who were safely removed from the crippling degradation of racism, he was moving too fast – for those suffering the hourly indignities and horror of state sponsored brutality, he was inching reluctantly at a pace which was only exacerbating the suffering.
A confluence of events would push President Kennedy to conclude that the struggle for Civil Rights was, in fact, a moral issue that would need to be addressed, whatever the political consequences. He would lay his convictions before the American people on June 11, 1963, five months before his death. Two of those ordinary heroes, Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, were attempting to enroll in the University of Alabama and the state’s Governor, George Wallace, was blocking their way. Kennedy would be forced to send Federal troops to resolve the issue. In his speech explaining his actions he would say in part that, “…this nation, for all its hopes, and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.” (the full speech can be seen at: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx )
When the song had found its feet, it had aggressively turned the tables. The man who boldly challenged others would himself be boldly challenged. And sometimes political pragmatism would mean that he would not rise to meet that challenge until the actions of those less powerful, even powerless, forced his hand.
Was President Kennedy all I had imagined him to be?
The ode to the penetrating skepticism of a man I had admired since I was a young boy was now poking its thick finger in my chest, looking into my eyes, wondering if I was willing to go where it may lead me.
Its probing disposition had me wondering the same thing.
The National is Canada's premier national news broadcast. We were very honoured that they took an interest our little corner of the world and created a very substantial news item about The Kennedy Suite, which aired last Friday night. They came in to our studio during rehearsal for the Winter garden shows and went out to Scott's school and filmed him at work as well as doing extensive interviews with me, Scott and Andy. It's a terrific piece…, please give it a listen, if you have a few minutes in your day.
It was an amazing weekend of music. We thank all of you that put your faith in us and bought a ticket. We hope you weren't disappointed. And we thank all of the musicians and crew that came together to create a weekend of inspired music. It was one of the more satisfying and uplifting events that I have had the pleasure in being a part of. Here are some pictures from backstage….I was a little busy so I didn't have much time to properly document the event. I'm expecting to receive some more pics over the next few days so I'll post them when I receive them. Check out the Cowboy Junkies and The Kennedy Suite facebook pages for more coverage and photos.
Scott Garbe is the writer of The Kennedy Suite. He will be posting a series of blogs about the writing of the Suite, it is a fascinating journey and definitely worth following along…make sure that you check back in every now and then.
Writing The Truth About Us (The Ballad of Lee and Marina) was a cathartic artistic and personal moment. It was a relief to give expression to some of my broken certainties, and I was later thrilled and humbled when the Skydiggers decided to include the song on their 1997 recording Desmond’s Hip City. With the passing of several years, however, I began to realize that I had broken out of one maze to find myself in another. The sense of freedom I had felt initially was replaced by an existential stone on my chest. What was I to do?
“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” – Joseph Campbell
This quote eloquently crystallizes one of literature’s great comforts, and in my search for an exit strategy, I latched onto it immediately. If I wanted to avoid becoming Joe Pesci playing David Ferrie in Oliver Stone’s JFK , I had better play Theseus. The Labyrinth is dark, but the path well travelled. I needed to find the end of that thread, slay my Minotaur and follow it out.
Back to the beginning…
I dug out my copy of The Torch Has Passed… and turned again to the series of photos that had so devastated me decades before. I interrogated the images for information, pushing further and further with my imagination. Where was the thread? Pushing to get close. Young and old at Love Field, straining to shake the President’s hand. Opaque reflections framed in horned-rimmed glasses. A child giggling in a rain hat on the shoulders of an unseen parent. Jackie beaming – the recent death of her infant son Patrick lifted from her expression. Red roses. Pink Chanel suit. Fall sunlight glinting off flawless chrome. Straining to pull humanity from still faces. Find the thread. Tight knot on a thin tie. The turn from Houston to Elm. A shot. A shot. Hands to the throat. Mrs. Kennedy’s white glove cups her husband’s jutting elbow. She leans towards him. Questioning. Inches from his puzzled face. Back brace holding him aloft. Upright. In harm’s way…
A police officer rides directly beside Jackie Kennedy. His head turned sharply over his right shoulder. In between the second and third shots, his mind is in transition. Faint smile fades. Jaw clenches. I had found my thread.
November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and of all the events marking it, none is as unexpectedly poignant as this song cycle created by Toronto poet Scott Garbe, produced by Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins along with Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers. Who would have thought that a bunch of Canadian indie rockers could encapsulate the ongoing mystique of what happened that day in Dallas so comprehensively? But that's precisely what these 15 tracks accomplish, with various perspectives illustrated by voices that include Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett, Martin Tielli, and the Junkies and 'Diggers themselves, the last of whom revisit the monumental "The Truth About Us," first recorded on 1997's Desmond's Hip City. On paper, the overarching concept might suggest a dour history lesson — or worse, another Oliver Stone conspiracy theory — but from the opening Who-like performance by Hawksley Workman and the Screwed, The Kennedy Suite's drama is rooted in the real hope for change JFK instilled, and how his killing was an act that irrevocably changed North American society — an act not repeated on a similar scale until September 11, 2001. In that sense, Garbe's words are perfectly measured, focusing on intimate encounters with major players such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, as well as unnamed JFK admirers and hospital workers. It adds up to an audacious statement that musically conjures memories of '90s CanRock glory. More significantly, The Kennedy Suite is a highly affecting portrait of a moment in time whose lingering effects still cast a long shadow.
(All of the work that we did on The Kennedy Suite was based on the inspired demo that Scott Garbe and Doug Telfer created. It was an impressive blueprint, and for some of the songs, all we had to do was colour in the squares. The blog below was written by Doug Telfer who co-produced the demo along with Scott. If you pre-order the Kennedy Suite before Tuesday Nov 12th you will recieve a free digital copy of the demo. I think that its an important part of the project.)
Musicians meet musicians through other musicians; it’s like social media except without the colossal invasion of privacy. That’s how I met Scott Garbe – through our mutual friend Dean Sherman. Dean gave me a collection of songs that Scott had written – the songs were awesome, the lyrics were intelligent and insightful, but the recording was awful (sorry Scott).
I had some home recording equipment I’d been tinkering with rather than doing something productive. So, naïvely thinking it would take a weekend and maybe a couple of evenings, I made an offer to Scott to turn his collection of songs into something a little more polished.
The demo recording – which took about a year – was a continuous learning process. Scott credited me on the demo as co-producer, but that’s an exaggeration. Scott would have an idea, and my contribution was to turn off the furnace and hit the record button, hoping I had everything set up correctly.
The more we recorded, the more creative Scott became. He had a clear vision of the sound he wanted. The demo for Senior Prom was the most complex, with historical sound clips, Sydney Hodge on violin, and a late-night recording of my insomniac daughter Katie counting in (which made it to the final version). At the end of the song, the shot that felled Oswald reverberates through the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters.
Scott was still writing during the recordings, and he kept showing up with new songs that were getting better and better. Some of those later songs are still my favourites, especially Secret Spy Decoder Ring, The Dallas Youth Auxiliary, and Slipstream.
With the release of The Kennedy Suite, it’s a revelation to hear how each song has been interpreted. Lyrically, there is dark comedy and despair, but hope is also given elbow room. I hadn’t heard the demo in quite a while, so I went back to give it a listen recently, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the recording despite our inexperience. I do confess pride at playing a small part in this unique project. But the songs would have shone through no matter the quality of the recording.
When we started, Scott was a friend-of-a-friend. By the end, the hyphens and the degree of separation had disappeared. He’s a remarkable guy, soft-spoken but driven. Luckily it seems he’s met up with some other driven people along the way (notably Mike Timmins) who have moved this suite of songs to a special place. – Doug Telfer
(Make sure to order The Kennedy Suite before Tuesday November 12 in order to get a free copy of composer Scott Garbe's demo. Also make sure to check out the deluxe folder that brother Pete has created…you can check out one of his collages below. The No Depression review can be found here.)
reviewed by Skot Nelson
"Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / When you’re pointing a gun at the President” sings Andy Maize towards the end of the Kennedy Suite on a song originally released by The Skydiggers in 1997. “I’m no flunky with a rifle / I’m an N.R.A. Golden Boy / I’m a Genius Forging a Legend.”
The fifty years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy have seen no shortage of artistic expression dedicated to the memory of Camelot. That assassination had as much impact north of the border as it did in the United States and the latest release ostensibly from Canada's Cowboy Junkies (though it's really a collaboration album) is an ambitious song cycle that chronicles the man and the events of the time.
The album’s fifteen tracks tell the assassination’s story from the perspective of a series of interconnected characters and those stories are told with the help of some of the band’s formidably talented friends: in addition to The Skydiggers, there are guest appearances from Doug Paisley, Lee Harvey Osmond, Reid Jamieson, and Martin Tielli to name a few.
The song’s perspectives vary widely and the musical styles shift with them: the jazzy I Got a Bullet for You captures the conspiracy theory nature of the era with a wide array of guests. Secret Spy Decoder Ring is a straight ahead rocker told from the playful perspective of a child.
The album’s songs unfold along a loose but intertwining timeline. While the first few start early in the day by the time we get to Parkland—not quite half way through the full collection, and told from the perspective of a hospital worker—the President is dead.
We’re gradually moved into post-assassination territory with the poignant Disintegrating (the only song on the album to feature Margo Timmins’ voice at the forefront) and Senior Prom before culminating in the events of the days immediately after the President's death..
Those days lead to one of the album’s finest moments, when Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is given voice by Andy Maize in The Truth About Us, a song that chronicles the American dream and optimistic sentiment of the the times. “Let’s settle up on boot hill / To the view we adore” Maize sings at the song’s start before moving on to a later refrain of “Oh Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely / when reporters are carrying your coffin.”
As a concept album, The Kennedy Suite succeeds where other similar efforts might have failed in capturing a historic era. There are no rose coloured glasses here: Slipstream sees Martin Tielli sing about the complex duality of Camelot with lines like “Buy an election / get the girl / while the girls are gone / have more than one” that allude to Kennedy’s numerous affairs. This is followed by news clips covering the assassination of Martin Luther King and making reference to the eventual death of Bobby Kennedy. Camelot may have been sunny, but the Cowboy Junkies are looking in the shadows too.
Highlights on the collection include Lee Harvey Osmond’s Parkland, the Skydiggers’ Truth About Us and Martin Tielli's performance on Slipstream. It really is a collection that should be listened to in full though.
The Kennedy Suite is a rich, complex work that rewards a close listen. Grab this, sit back with a good set of headphones and spend an hour with an album that succeeds on just about every level: it’s a lyrically rich, well constructed, musically versatile tribute to a time when America was the land of hope and glory when, as The Skydiggers put it, “Every girl and boy could grow up to be the President / Or grow up to be the President’s killer.”
Iowa City (Nov 1): We had a day off in Iowa City…Halloween in a college town. Most of us stayed safely inside our rooms and watch the debauchery unfold on the streets below. As the night wore on the howling became more intense, the clothing a little bit scantier and the footing a lot less sure…woo-hoo, paaaaaarty. Pete and Jeff decided to dress up for the occasion. Pete dressed up as his favourite hockey player and Jeff dressed up as Belzebub or maybe it was the donkey from a Midsummer's Night Dream….I'm not sure.
It was another church tonight. Not a bad sounding church, but a church nonetheless. The main issue was the size of the stage which was so shallow that we basically had to line up in a row against the altar wall. It made for a tough time hearing each other on stage. But it was a fantastic audience, small but mighty, and they helped us through.
Evanston (Nov 2): We always enjoy playing The Space in Evanston. It is not yet a great sounding room, but they keep tweaking and slowly improving it. It's a definite listening space which is what makes it a fun room to play, the audience is tuned in from the first note. They also have a great dressing room space in the back, which is clean and comfortable and inviting…and it has a turntable and an eclectic vinyl collection, say no more. We had a great day and two excellent shows…both of them sold out, with two excited and appreciative crowds. Tonight was the first night on this tour where it felt like we really took off…sometimes it just takes some time.
Ann Arbor (Nov 3): When we were pulling up to the venue this morning we were trying to figure out how many times we have played Ann Arbor. Al figured that it was around 350 times, it's probably closer to 20, but we settled on “a lot”. It's always been a good town for us and it's an easy place to visit. The Ark has been our home in Ann Arbour for the past few years. It's a small venue but a great listening space, the audiences are always tuned in and the room and stage sounds great (the only negative is that the dressing rooms are crap). The Ark is a non-profit room and tonight's show was part of their annual fund-raising. It was another good audience tonight, but I thought our performance was a little uneven, not terrible but it never took off….a little disappointing from our side of the stage but the audience seemed to enjoy themselves which in the end is what its all about.
Next up are The Kennedy Suite concerts on Nov 22 and 23 at the Winter Garden Theater in Toronto. We and alot of people behind the scenes have been working like demons putting the show together. It involves over 30 musicians and a few other whiz-bang production thingies ….it is going to be an exciting night of music, something completely original and something that we probably won't repeat, so if you are looking for a road trip…I think it will be worth your while. We hope to see you there.
The day started bright and beautiful, and quickly turned a little gloomier on hearing that Lou Reed had died. He's the first of our rock god pantheon to die a “natural” death, the first of, no doubt, several to follow over the next decade. It's hard to process the death of someone that you don't have a personal connection with, but someone who nevertheless has had a significant effect on your life through their art. It's not like their absence will now affect your day to day life, but there is a definite sense of loss….mostly it makes one long for those days when so much was new and music, in particular, consistently and constantly changed the way you processed the world.
As I mentioned it was a beautiful Fall day in Stoughton, Wisconsin. We spent the day wandering around this sleepy little town, I gazed longingly at the river that ran through its middle. I made the decision to not bring my fishing gear on this tour, thinking that it would be too cold and the opportunities to fish, too thin. I kicked myself, it would have been worth the effort to have had a couple of hours standing on the banks, on this spectacular day.
It was a nice little venue tonight. One of those classic small town opera houses sitting on the second floor of the town hall. It was an odd show….we were a little tentative as was the audience. It wasn't a bad night, but it never seemed to take off, perhaps Uncle Lou was on our minds.
We've always enjoyed coming to Minneapolis, but it's an odd town. It has grown substantially in the two decades that we have been coming here, but it never seems to change. I think a large part of the reason for this stasis, is the 2nd Floor interior walkways that connect all of the main buildings in the downtown core. Everyone is inside and getting from place to place through these hamster tunnels which leaves the streets feeling very flat and lacking energy. It's a thriving downtown core but it doesn't have that feel, unless you venture into the buildings and experience the mad lunchtime scramble through the warren….it is all just a bit too low budget sci-fi for my tastes.
We had a day off on Monday which also happened to be Pete's birthday. We plied him with drinks and went to watch the Wild get dissected by the Blackhawks…Al bought him a Wild t-shirt to commemorate the day….a t-shirt of his favourite player, Clayton Stoner.
We had four shows over two nights at The Dakota Jazz Club. It's an odd room, with the stage facing the short wall and a PA that doesn't seem to be properly tuned, which makes it difficult to find a groove on-stage. We probably bit off more than we can chew with the four shows. Two shows would have been solidly sold out, but as it stood, both of the late shows were a little light. These weren't great shows from our point of view. We seem to be having difficulty finding our rhythm on this run. We're not playing badly but we seem to be lacking a bit of intensity. The audiences didn't help our woes, they seemed to be lacking the same intensity, it was like both sides of the stage were waiting for the other to single that it was ok to let loose a little, with neither wanting to make the first move. By the last of the four shows we kind of figured it out and realized that we just needed to play for ourselves and the audience will follow (a lesson learned and relearned dozens of times over the years) …which they eventually, grudgingly did. Maybe all of us Northerners are beginning to slip in to our winter hibernation phase. Time to slap ourselves around a bit and finish off this tour on a high note.
We crankily watched the Red Sox move toward their World Series victory during the break between our shows. Jared once again gets to celebrate and shove another Boston championship in our faces….bastard.
We shuffled off to Buffalo, stumbled down the QEW… a morning departure, an intense but simple border crossing…and we were there. We've never really found a home in Buffalo. We've played various venues and sometimes miss the city entirely on any given tour, despite it being an easy two hour drive down the highway. Tonight we were in the smaller room at Buffalo's main concert hall. It seemed to fit well with the locals, as we had a full house…..it also helped that this was the one and only Trinity Session show on this leg. We fought the room during soundcheck, a large empty space with a lot of hard surfaces designed for acoustic instruments, not for electric guitars and a drum kit. But once the hall was full and we settled in and figure out the acoustics, the show slowly came together: in large part because the audience was excellent…enthusiastic and responsive. It was a perfect way to kick off this little road trip.
One long overnight drive and the road fog descends. Day 2 and it feels like we've been on the road for a couple of weeks. A ten hour drive around Lake Erie, where the lake effect weather keeps the roads in a constant state of disrepair, it's like trying to sleep in a giant Yahtzee can. Saugatuck is a pretty little town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, but it's quaint downtown strip has been overrun by kitchy tourist stores selling t-shirts and fudge. From the perfect repair and size of the houses and the boat slips it looks to be a town with an abundance of cash, probably a vacation spot for well-to-do Chicagoans. It was a pleasant spot to spend a day and to try and regather some strength. This is our second time at the Saugatuck Art Center, which is a functional room, not great sounding, not terrible sounding, but it was sold out which always helps to lift the spirits on stage. Last night we started playing Take Heart off of The Kennedy Suite. It's a delicate, tricky little number, which I think we did a good job of tonight. We also plan to add in Disintegrating to the set one of these nights. The audience was a bit tentative tonight, there may have been a few weekenders out for the evening who were a little puzzled as to what they were listening to….all-in-all a pretty good night.
Chicago is always a favourite stop. It's without a doubt one of the countries great cities. Tonight we were in a new venue for us, The City Winery. We have played The City Winery in NYC a few times over the past few years and its always a relaxed and enjoyable gig, so when we go the invitation to try out their new location we jumped at the opportunity. The venue is in the old meat packing district which is just west of the downtown core. The area is filled with some beautiful century old brick warehouses that are being refurbished and retro-fitted for modern day uses. This is what Chicago and all great cities do best…incorporate their past in to their present, build on their strengths. It was a two show night, which is always tough. The first show was a little rough, the audience a little pre-occupied with their dinner. The second show we relaxed a bit and let the music take us for a bit of a spin. Rahm Emmanuel (current mayor of Chicago, ex-chief of staff for Obama, ex-Clinton advisor, etc..) was in the audience for the first show and he came backstage afterwards to stay hello. Apparently he and his wife have been fans for a long time and they have seen us at various locations over the years. It was a pleasure to meet him, his wife and his friends. It never gets old finding out whose listening to your music, musicians generally work in a vacuum and occasionally one gets a glimpse at how music has the ability to cross so many different types of boundaries. We started playing Disintegrating tonight…its a tricky little number and needs some time to mature.