Ithaca (NY), Bethlehem (PA), South Orange (NJ) and Blackwood (NJ) Feb 26 – March 1, 2014
We had hoped that by simply slipping beneath the border we would find a hint of Spring. No such luck. There has been no respite from the cold over these past four days. It actually seems that much rawer down here and the fact that the heating in the bus can't seem to keep up with the cold outside, doesn't help. There is no escaping it. My neck and shoulders are in constant constriction, stressed, and as the body works overtime to keeps itself warm, all that I want to do is crawl back into my bunk and sleep. The crappy food and the four or five hours of sleep per night doesn't help matters. The joys of touring in February…ideally we would be making a run along the Gulf Coast at this time of year, but no such luck, its too far away and we've been watching True Detective on the bus and are a little bit scared to venture down there. To make things worse, most of these gigs seem to be in the middle of acres of windswept fields and industrial parks, held captive by the ice and snow. The audiences seem to be feeling it as well. The attendance has been a little sparse at a few of these shows. Everyone seems to be sheltering-in-place, waiting for a robin or two to appear, praying for a crocus to break through the frozen ground, before daring to stick their own necks out of their hidey-holes. I can't blame them. I sort of feel like I should be doing the same.
In Ithaca we played a strange community theater set in the middle of a State/City park, on the outskirts of the city, on the banks of one of the Finger Lakes. In the Spring or Summer this would have been an ideal location to spend a day. This time of year it is a little Gulag-ish, the wind coming off the lake made it unbearable to even go for a walk. It was a very nice sounding little room, the type that we would normally sell-out without too much trouble, but not tonight. But the audience was keen and we had a good show.
In Bethlehem we played The Musik Cafe, a nice, if a bit sterile, venue. It still needs a few years of seasoning. The venue is part of the revitalization of the old Bethlehem Steel Mill site. The old mill remains and looms as a backdrop to the stage through the floor to ceiling glass windows that make up the back wall. The mill is an amazing site. It could be argued that these monstrous ovens, shoots and blast furnaces were the heart that pumped the life blood through the American Century. The steel that came out of these mills is what helped to build America throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. Now they look like the remnants of a long forgotten empire, almost post-apocalyptic…all it needs is for Charleton Heston to coming riding along on his horse….the gig tonight was ok, but a bit formal. The room and stage feel a little distant from each other and the presence of a very large TV crew shooting the performance didn't help with the intimacy. It was a hard one.
Day 3 was in South Orange: a small, tidy little New Jersey town, near enough to NYC to give it bedroom community status. A sold out show, a good audience and a good performance.
Today, Day 4, we were in Blackwood, New Jersey, a town that nobody seems to have heard of, located somewhere near Philadelphia. We were stuck all day on a completely deserted community college campus, not a soul in sight. Not a dog or a cat, I didn't see a squirrel or a bird, it was a vacuum waiting to be filled by the Zombie Apocalypse. The venue itself was a dingy little room with nothing really to recommend it….. and it was a very slight crowd. We tried our best. The audience, small as it was, worked hard trying to keep us on track. It was one of those days that is best laughed about and forgotten, best to keep up a strong front, keep the doubt and foreboding at bay. Tonight we head further south to the Washington area. Maybe we'll find a bit sun, a little bit of warmth, a break of some sort.
Falls Church, VA – March 2, 2014
When I woke up this morning we were just pulling in to Falls Church. The front lounge was toasty, a kind of warmth that only the sun can create. Sixty degrees and sunny, life begins to not look so grim. Jared, Pete and I found a bar that was serving a late Sunday breakfast and watched the Capitals take on the Flyers while we ate our bacon and eggs….not so grim at all. While we were in the bar watching hockey, someone stole and then swapped out the day, the temperature dropped fifteen degrees, the blue skies turned into a snarl of dark clouds and the wind began to do its thing. And then the rain started. Cold, hard rain. We have a day off tomorrow in New York and there is a winter storm watch up and down the east coast, which could throw a large wrench in our day off plans. Sometimes its not easy to catch a break. Despite the rain continuing unabated for the rest of the afternoon, we made it through soundcheck and through the Oscar night red carpet ceremony. Tonight's gig was just what we needed. An excited crowd that didn't give a shit what the weatherman said, they were there to enjoy themselves. We had a very good show, loud and clangy, as I said, just what we needed. Who needs the sun…..
It's a good day up here in the frozen North. An exciting three days of hockey to finish off these Olympic games, with both the men's and women's team bringing home gold medals. The women captured theirs with one of the most thrilling games in international hockey history. The men's team, loaded with NHL superstars and some of the best offensive players in the world, came together as a defensive juggernaught, moving relentlessly through the tournament, towards gold.
But it wasn't all about hockey (well, almost). It's one thing to watch multi-millionaire hockey players doing their thing, but the greatest thrill is watching a young mogul skiier or luger or half-pipe daredevil stand on the podium bursting with joy. Being a parent I can't help but look at it from their perspective: knowing the time, effort and fanatical perserverence with which their son or daughter has persued their passion. And then to see them compete at the highest level, victorious or just falling short, the pride and love and awe that one must feel.
Despite all the politics and corruption and inevitable controversy surrounding any Olympic games, when it gets down to the atheletes, it all becomes worthwhile.
We hit the road this week. We are heading to some of our favourite haunts in the Nort East and a few new towns as well. Check out our tour page to see if we are coming close to your town. Come up and say hello if you see us walking around your streets…..Spring is coming, I can feel it….
A new Cookie Crumbs (volume 12) is now available…read on to find out what its all about, in the words of Cookie Bob: "I was very excited when I first heard that the Junkies would play two shows at Birchmere that would encompass all of Trinity Session and Black Eyed Man. I immediately made plans to attend. It seemed like I hit every traffic jam in each of the eight states I traversed on the drive down, but it was well worth the frustration. Trinity was well-rehearsed and fluid, while Black Eyed Man was less so, yet so very welcome as it contains many of my most favorite CJ songs. Winter’s Song alone was worth the trip. This will be the longest Cookie Crumbs to date, as there was so much good music played over the two days. I’ve included the entire first night’s show plus the BEM set from night two. I had intended to take the Nomad songs that were exclusive to the second night and intersperse them in the first night’s Nomad set, but doing so seemed to interrupt the flow and detract from the overall energy level, so I left well enough alone. Mike is better at set list construction than I am. I had a real good time at these shows and now you can, too. Special mention should be made of the Birchmere staff, who are consistently welcoming, friendly and do their best to be accommodating."
(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.)
The idea of conspiracy sprang to life the instant the third shot found its mark in Dealey Plaza with such dispassionate viciousness. “They killed him!” screamed Abraham Zapruder as the Presidential limousine was swallowed by the shadows of the triple underpass, his index finger finally slipping from the trigger of his Bell and Howell home movie camera. Bent over her broken husband, Jackie sobbed “He’s dead – they’ve killed him – oh, Jack, oh Jack, I love you.”
The enormity of the crime demanded the cold calculation of organized menace.
Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary, made a laundry list of suspects as she was riding on Air Force One back to Washington from Dallas: Lyndon, KKK, Dixiecrats, Hoffa, John Birch Society, Nixon, Diem, Rightists, CIA in Cuban fiasco, Dictators, Communists.
The idea that the President could have been killed by a lone assassin working in isolation was just as incomprehensible as that fact that he had ceased to exist.
Bullet for You sets forth a list of would-be assassins representative of the myriad entities during the early 1960’s that would have greeted Kennedy’s death with relish. In so doing, the lyric of the song strives to convey the tangible animosity that hung heavy in the Dallas air and had many people surrounding Kennedy strongly urging him not to make the trip. It also reflects how the idea of conspiracy, perhaps even the psychological need for it, has persisted to the present day.
Disgruntled Cuban Exiles: The first would-be assassin in the song is a Cuban exile, positioned on a roof top over-looking the motorcade route. Criticism of the President was bitter amongst the exile community where it was viewed that his lack of adequate air support at the Bay of Pigs led to the failure of the CIA lead operation to over-throw Castro. The failed operation was an embarrassment for the young administration and left Kennedy famously vowing to “splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Reportedly, even Robert Kennedy harbored suspicions that the CIA had been involved in the murder of his brother. Click here if you are interested about learning more about the Bay of Pigs.
The Mob: Means, expertise and motive converge on this popular choice amongst conspiracy theorists. It is alleged the Kennedys used mob contacts to have ballot boxes stuffed in Illinois to help secure the Presidency. The mob then grew incensed when Robert Kennedy pursued the organization aggressively as Attorney General once his brother was in the White House. In addition, it is not just conspiracy talk when historians such as Robert Dalleck confirm that Kennedy had an affair with Judith Campbell, mistress also to mobster Sam Giancana, introduced to Kennedy by Frank Sinatra.
Right Wing Extremists/John Birch Society: When the President arrived in Dallas, he was greeted by a caustic full page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News sarcastically addressing him as Mr. Kennedy. The article was financed by John Birch Society member Joseph P Grinnan and accused President Kennedy of being soft on communism and a friend to Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito. The name at the bottom of the ad was Bernard Weissman, a JBS sympathizer who had not formally joined the society because he found that many of its members were anti-Semitic. Ironically, the name at the bottom of the ad was a prime motivator for Jack Ruby to later kill Lee Oswald. Ruby, who was deeply sensitive to anti-Semitism throughout his life, was dismayed that the ad and the subsequent assassination of the President could add to the already strong anti-Semitic environment in Dallas that he faced on a daily basis. Besides saving Jackie Kennedy the pain of returning to Dallas to testify in Oswald’s trial, Ruby reportedly had said he killed Oswald to show the world that, “Jews had guts.” To view the original ad, click here:
Fidel Castro: In the closing months of his Presidency, Kennedy was involved in secret, back-channel discussions with Castro which aimed to find a peaceful resolution to the tension between their two countries. Things had been going so well, according to Thurston Clarke’s JFKs Last Hundred Days, that Castro joked he would be happy to come out publically for Barry Goldwater if it meant keeping Kennedy in office. Despite these overtures, Kennedy had authorized Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA operation that aimed to over throw the Communist government in Cuba and assassinate its leader. Robert Kennedy was directly responsible for running the project. According to Evan Thomas’ Robert Kennedy: His Life, former CIA director, John McCone recalled Robert Kennedy asking him directly if the agency had killed his brother. Later, McCone wondered if RFK’s emotional devastation was caused by personal guilt created by the knowledge that in actively seeking the life of Castro, he may have brought about the death of his brother.
Emasculated Lovers: Published conspiracy suspects range from the plausibly ominous to the scurrilously ridiculous – from well-trained assassins of the Soviet Union to a Secret Service agent who pulls a hand gun out of the limousine glove box and turns to murder the man he had sworn to protect in full view of the First Lady and Governor Connelly. The aggrieved husband whose wife has left him “for a look-a-like Kennedy working in a traveling show” is representative of the most implausible of those theories that themselves conspire to turn catastrophe into carnival.
Lee Harvey Oswald – Killer or Patsy?: In the final verse of the song, two versions of Lee Oswald serenade the listener, vying for their sympathies. Is he the killer standing in the 6th floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, coolly awaiting the President’s arrival? Or is he the down-on-his-luck patsy, innocently sipping a Coca-Cola in the break room as the leader of the free world passes by?
Inspiring and enacting change generates hatred. Palpable hatred. This is a reality for those chipping at the mountain of social prejudice in anonymity and those moving effortlessly through the rarified air of privilege. Through the romantic haze of nostalgia, it is difficult to appreciate from a distance of 50 years just how much President Kennedy was reviled by a broad range of adversaries. He was despised as passionately as he was adored. As Mrs. Lincoln wrote on the back of her note: "There is no end to the list of suspected conspirators to Pres. Kennedy’s murder. Many factions had their reasons for wanting the young president dead. That fact alone illustrates how the world suffers from a congenital proclivity to violence".
Though the assassination provides the context for The Kennedy Suite, this song cycle is not a “Who Done It?”Bullet for You is expository in its treatment of the many conspiracies surrounding the murder of President Kennedy. It is not meant to elucidate or accuse. My belief in conspiracy died with my interest in it. My interest in conspiracy died in this realization:
The identity of the killer is of far less consequence than the consequence of the victim’s destruction. Amidst all the mystery and metaphysical wonderings, that is a truth which is deep, sad, and immovable whether the life taken belongs to the President or a child bent worriedly over his times tables.
Endowing catastrophe with meaning diminishes its power to a point where our survival of its cruelty seems possible. That is the balm conspiracy offers.
Its failure to soothe may be conclusive proof in and of itself that Lee Oswald acted alone.
Welcome to the new year everyone, let’s hope it’s a good one for one and all. If you are unfortunate enough to be hunkered down in the deep freeze covering most of North America, don't worry, I have heard that help is on the way. My sources in Australia tell me that the sun is still up in the sky and is slowly making its way to our side of the planet (yes, I'm advocating a return to the Ptolemaic view of the universe, it’s a new year’s resolution of mine). Have I told you that I hate the cold…? Indeed I do.
A few things of note…we are back on the road at the end of February. The first leg of 2014 starts at the end of February and brings us to the eastern states, where we hope to help with the thaw. There will be another leg in April (not quite sure where this one will bring us just yet) and then another in June (during which it looks like we'll be getting down to the Southern California region). For all touring details please keep an eye on the Tour page.
If you haven't had a chance to check out The Kennedy Suitecd please do so. It's a collaborative effort that we have been working on for a few years now and we are very proud of it. In the words of Sun Media it’s “Ambitious, artful and just plain awesome”. It also made the “Best of 2013” lists in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Sun Media and a whole bunch of other places.
A couple of Latent releases also made some end of year lists. Lee Harvey Osmonds “The Folk Sinner” was number 3 at CKUA for the year and made the Top 20 on a couple of Ear Shots national radio charts as did The Good Family Album. Please check these out if you haven't yet had a chance: if you are in to what we do, you will find a lot to like in these albums.
Keep an eye on this space…we'll be adding info as we build the tour and as we make our way towards our next recording project. Stay warm and stay safe.
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.