“You take the window, I’ll take the knoll, and I’ll be in the headlines before you…” – Bullet For You, from The Kennedy Suite (2013)
It wasn’t the iconic assassination that drew Michael Timmins to The Kennedy Suite song cycle, it was the fluid music, the carefully drawn characters and the intertwined stories by songwriter Scott Garbe. “It could have been about Louis Riel,” says Timmins, the Cowboy Junkies guitarist who helmed the recording and production of the concept album set in November of 1963.
The Kennedy Suite album, long rumoured upon and more than a decade in the making, was the passion project of Garbe, a drama teacher and amateur musician whose graceful fixation with John F. Kennedy reflects pop culture’s unabated fascination with a brutal event that took place a half-century ago. This album that would not die will be performed in full at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre on Nov. 22 (the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy killing) and Nov. 23.
“I fell in love with the songs,” Timmins told The Globe last week. “They were so strong, the Kennedy thing didn’t matter.”
It does matter, though, the Kennedy thing.
America’s 35th president was its most telegenic, most idealistic, most inspiring. He was a man with a missile crisis, and the recipient of a bombshell’s breathy birthday wishes. He was the dashing commander-in-chief who accompanied the most famous First Lady ever to Paris. And his court compared to that of Camelot.
Kennedy believed in the significance of the arts, particularly the written word – “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” he said at Amherst College, upon receiving an honourary degree there in 1963 – and his appreciation for high culture naturally had specific appeal to the artists themselves. Less refined Washington politicians may have resented the Harvard-educated President’s more urbane ways – “All that Mozart string music and ballet dancing down there,” a Tennessee congressmen told newsman David Brinkley, “he’s too elegant for me” – but the sophisticates dug the man’s élan.
Sadly, art met politics in the most gruesomely graphic way in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza. Kennedy is the star of arguably the most-watched film in the history of celluloid, a documentary thriller shot by the incidental auteur Abraham Zapruder. And now, 50 years after his death, Kennedy is the titular inspiration for The Kennedy Suite, a dramatic album of poetic folk-rock that weaves a meticulous narrative around the events that unwound on Nov. 22, 1963, as told through the thoughts and actions of a curious cast of characters whose lives were affected by a small bullet-shooting man. With The Kennedy Suite, Garbe (with help from members of the Junkies, Skydiggers and other guest singers and players) has created a piece of music as vital as any work that might have been found in the Texas School Book Depository.
I’m sitting with Timmins and Garbe in the kitchen of a house owned by the Cowboy Junkies, the Juno-winning shoe-gazers fronted by Margo Timmins, sister to Michael. It’s a bungalow in Toronto’s west end, with its main entrance hidden – back and to the left – from a very busy street. There’s a studio in the basement (where much of The Kennedy Suite was recorded), but the main floor is as much a home as any other, save for a kick drum in the living room and a platinum-CD commemoration for 1988’s The Trinity Session in the bathroom.
There’s also a reprint of a cardboard poster welcoming the Kennedys to Texas in 1963 on the kitchen table, right next to The Torch is Passed, an old large-format book of photographs documenting Dallas’s worst day. Garbe, born in 1964, had first come across it as an inquisitive child on a bookshelf at home. He already read PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WW2 and the JFK-penned Profiles in Courage, but his parents hadn’t told him that his hero had been assassinated.
“It was horrifying for me, because when you’re young you don’t think about your life ending one day,” Garbe says, recalling his younger self seeing photographs of the motorcade calamity. “That someone so powerful and so courageous could have his life come to an end so quickly, right before your eyes, was shocking to me.”
It was shocking to all, for the same reasons the explosion of a space shuttle horrified us. It gives rise to a sudden sense of fallibility and vulnerability, things majestic so easily being brought down – a $12 deadbolt rifle takes out the world’s most powerful man.