When I was eleven years old my older brother John arrived home with the album Jesus Christ Superstar under his arms. I still have a memory of him walking in to the kitchen and pulling it out of the bag and announcing it's arrival. I must have listened to that album a hundred times and to this day I can still sing every song (which is saying something because I can't even remember the words to my own songs).
Ours was a Roman Catholic household and although we weren't very strict Catholics we still attended Mass on Sundays and had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the church at an early age by the nuns that were our grade school teachers. At first I was shocked by the album title, the idea that someone could meld the words Jesus Christ and Superstar was outrageous, approaching blasphemy, was tempting the wrath of God and his mighty lightning bolt (I got God and Zeus mixed up a lot back then). And then I was hooked in by the songs, the word play and melodies. But ultimately I kept delving deeper into the album because I was intrigued by how this piece of music took the iconic event of our civilization (the crucifixion) and the main players (Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the Apostles) and humanized them. Jesus became a young man fueled by a cause, but also blinded by ego and filled with doubt; Mary, who had been marginalized in the Bible teachings, became a confidant, a source of comfort and an important part of Jesus' inner circle; Judas, who had personified the word “treachery”, became another young man conflicted by doubt and driven by confusion; Herod was shown to be the psychotic sociopath that he probably was; and even the ultimate evil-doer, Pontius Pilate, had a slightly more humane and shaded light shone upon him. In other words all of the people in this great passion play became human, they were not the good vs evil, black vs white cardboard cutouts that I had been taught. This may not seem to be that revolutionary in 2013, but in 1971, inside the mind of an eleven year old, in a Roman Catholic household in Montreal, Quebec it was pretty mind expanding. I was hooked….and by the way, the band on the album was rockin'.
When I was first handed the demo for Scott Garbe's The Kennedy Suite, I had some of the same reactions. At first I was intrigued by the title and premise: the idea that someone would attempt to write a song cycle around one of the most iconic events of the 20th century. And once I began to listen I was struck by the intelligence of the lyrics, the way they blend and blur history and fiction, the way they play upon some of the mysteries and controversies surrounding the event, the way they easily bounce from the macabre to the enlightened, from black humour to empathy and pathos. And eventually what kept me hooked was the humanity of the whole thing. The way the songs took this catastrophe, an event that has been twisted and poked and prodded and until it has lost all sense of the actual horror and suffering that it entailed and scaled it back down to a simple human tragedy. The assassination and subsequent funeral may have been played out in front of the entire world, but ultimately it is about loss and grief and the horrible randomness of colliding worlds.
The Kennedy Suite is filled with acute insights into the human condition, black humour, profanity, moments of pure empathy, historical details, cultural references and self-referential asides. Each song is written from the perspective of someone, real or imagined, that had a connection to the events of Dealey Plaza on Nov 22, 1963. JFK, RFK, Jackie, Ruby and Oswald are all represented as are; three sisters giddy with anticipation for the Kennedys’ arrival at Love Field; a motorcycle cop riding in the motorcade determined to protect the Presidential couple to make up for his own failure to save his own family; a police detective assigned to escort the suspect Oswald but caught up in a delusional reverie about his Senior Prom and many other assorted characters. In order to do justice to Scott's vision we decided to call on a number of our friends and collaborators in the Canadian music scene. The Junkies along with Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers) took Scotts demos and recorded our own versions. We then invited more friends to join us and to add their voices and talents. Margo took on the role of Jackie Kennedy on board Air Force One returning from Dallas with her husbands body; Jason Collett is JFK singing from the horse drawn caisson making its way through the streets of DC to Arlington cemetery; Bruce Good does his turn as a profane and nasty Jack Ruby sitting in his club and contemplating killing Oswald; and Sarah Harmer performs a delicate, yet searing epilogue to the Suite. Many others joined us as well, including Hawksley Workman, Doug Paisley, Martin Tielli, Jessy Bell Smith, The Screwed, Harlan Pepper, Lee Harvey Osmond, The Potion Kings and Ivy Mairi.
The Kennedy Suite is an examination of a world changing event and the human toll that the assassination exacted. It is also a cutting look at our present day culture and times: it holds up a mirror to the circumstances, people and events of November 22, 1963 and reflects back a strikingly recognizable image, half a century later.