The Assassination Blues: Rock’s History of JFK Death Songs
The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Brian Wilson and Mike Love met up and, in a half hour, wrote “The Warmth of the Sun,” triggered by the events of that day. But as Bob Dylan’s new epic “Murder Most Foul” shows, that Beach Boys song was the first, but far from the last, pop song recounting, or ruminating on, Kennedy’s death on November 22nd, 1963.
Across decades, artists, and genres, Kennedy’s murder has brought out an array of reactions, reflections and indignation in the pop world – sometimes courtesy of musicians who were born a decade or more after his death. Here’s a history of pop’s chronicling of the assassination.
The Beach Boys, “The Warmth of the Sun” (1964): As Wilson wrote in his memoir, “When the shooting happened, everyone knew instantly. … I called Mike and he asked me if I wanted to write a song about it. I said sure. It seemed like something we had to think about, and songs were the way I thought about things.”
Recorded two months after the assassination, “The Warmth of the Sun” never mentions Kennedy, Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald or other touchstones that pop up in nearly every other JFK song that followed. Instead, it’s a song about loss, be it daylight or a great love. In that way, it’s telling of the way in which so many were processing Kennedy’s death; it’s as if the details of his killing were too much for everyone to handle at the time. The group’s wash-away-the-blues harmonies are themselves a healing balm.
The Byrds, “He Was a Friend of Mine” (1966): Bob Dylan cut a version of this traditional ballad for his first album (and didn’t end up including it). For their Turn! Turn! Turn! album, the Byrds revived the song and lent it their own gothic harmonies, and guitarist and co-leader Roger McGuinn revised the lyrics, part of which now read: “He was in Dallas town/From a sixth-floor window/A gunman shot him down.”
“The day of November 22, 1963 I was working for Bobby Darin’s TM Music as a songwriter in the Brill Building,” McGuinn tells RS. “We didn’t get news there and it wasn’t until evening when I returned to my apartment that I heard the tragic details of Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Being a huge Kennedy supporter I went into a deep depression. Bob Carey of the Tarriers was a close friend and we hung out that night. I borrowed his guitar started playing the old folk song and gradually came up with new lyrics.” Out of respect for Kennedy, McGuinn says he purposefully waited a few years before he recorded it.
The song would also play a key part in Byrds history the following year when the band performed the song at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Before it was played, David Crosby, to the irritation of McGuinn and Chris Hillman, told the audience that Kennedy was “not killed by one man” but instead by a conspiracy. That would be among several last straws for the other Byrds, who fired Crosby a few months later.
Phil Ochs, “Crucifixion” (1967): Coincidently, the first epic ballad about Kennedy came from Dylan’s friend and rival from the Greenwich Village folk days. Ochs was better known for his almost journalistic style of songwriting, but Kennedy’s death affected him so deeply that his song about it, “Crucifixion,” transcends minute-by-minute detail in favor of an allegory about “the nature of hero slaying,” as he said onstage in 1973. Even though he never once sings the word “Kennedy” in the song, it’s clear that lines like “They say they can’t believe it, it’s a sacrilegious shame/Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?” are about the late president.
Ochs’ first version of the song, lathered with orchestration and electronic effects, appeared on his 1967 album Pleasures of the Harbor. But his later, unplugged renditions were starker and more impassioned – the loss of a leader transformed into a Homer-like folk odyssey.
Misfits, “Bullet” (1978): On one of their first recordings, Glenn Danzig and his early-punk bros didn’t mince words right from the start: “President’s bullet-ridden body in the street/Ride, Johnny ride/Kennedy’s shattered head hits concrete/Ride, Johnny ride.” In its roughly minute and a half, the song expresses rage, sympathy for Jackie Onassis, and a revenge fantasy against Texas that involves masturbation. Given that punk often disregarded or mocked the legacies of the Sixties, it’s revealing of Kennedy’s legacy that “Bullet” exists at all.
Lou Reed, “The Day John Kennedy Died” (1982): Rarely did Reed let his guard down as much as he did on this thoughtful track from The Blue Mask. With his band playing and strumming respectfully behind him, Reed dreams of all the things he would do if he were the leader of the free world, which includes being able to forget that day in 1963. He goes on to detail where he was when he heard the news (“upstate in a bar,” watching a football game on TV that is interrupted by the breaking news) and how “a guy in a Porsche” confirmed that Kennedy was dead. Not surprisingly, it’s the least scabrous and most reflective song on the album – a sign that Reed, no stranger to chaos, was truly rattled by that brutal murder.
Pearl Jam, “Brain of J.” (1998): One of the band’s occasional forays into political commentary, followed soon after by “Bushleaguer,” “Brain of J.” isn’t so much about Kennedy’s death as its implications. It’s not just that “the whole world will be different,” as Eddie Vedder sings, but that the assassination will suppress future protest: “Now they got you in line/Stand behind the stripes.” In spittle-filled Pearl Jam tradition, the song revs up full speed from the start, slouches into a mournful midsection, then gets all riled up against – as if memories of Kennedy’s death suddenly volt anew through Vedder’s own brain.
Tori Amos, “Jackie’s Strength” (1998): Another song not entirely devoted to the events of November 1963 but informed by them, starting with an image of Amos’ mother setting young Tori down “on the front lawn” and praying for the new widow. In a 1998 interview with RS, Amos said the song also emerged from her own thoughts on marriage: “I saw Jackie as a bride and I used to think I would never be a bride. I started to look to Jackie and how that woman held the country together after she watched her husband get cut down right in front of her.” Eerily, the song, pulled along by Amos’ church-service piano and breathy delivery, praises “Jackie’s strength” – and arrived a year before John Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash.
Postal Service, “Sleeping In” (2003): Ben Gibbard seems to side with the Warren Commission on this track from the band’s lone album. Gibbard wants to stay in bed and imagine a better world, one in which people cure diseases, treat everyone with respect and all come to the realization that JFK’s death was the result of “just a man with something to prove, slightly bored and severely confused/He steadied his rifle with his target in the center and became famous on that day in November.” (David Crosby would beg to differ.) But what better band to capture the wistfulness of the moment than this one, with Jimmy Tamborello’s synths gently pulsating around Gibbard?
Eminem, “Public Enemy #1” (2006): Eminem’s contribution to the 2006 Shady Records compilation Eminem Presents: The Re-Up captures his state of mind during a tumultuous period of his life and career, which included a rehab stint and thoughts of retirement. In “Public Enemy #1,” he wonders if the FBI is after him and says he’s going to record as many songs as possible before he’s taken out by someone.
Those thoughts lead him to 2pac’s murder as well as the 35th president: “Like the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in broad day/By the crazed lunatic with a gun/Who just happened to work on the same block in the library book depositor … Shots fired from the grassy knoll/ But they don’t know, or do they?” Although it’s barely two minutes long, it’s one of Eminem’s most intense songs from that era; a grim, paranoid death march. But it does make one wish for a conversation between him and David Crosby, if not Ben Gibbard.
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