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.
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