"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.
The assassination had a big impact on Garbe growing up. "I had a compulsion to try to grapple with the human element of it." Now the head of drama at a prep school north of Toronto, as a young adult he stopped in Dallas on his way to a teaching job in Mexico. At Dealey Plaza, he went to the famously verdant knoll and he walked through the sixth floor museum at the building with the tragically opportune view. Like meeting a celebrity who turns out to be smaller than you had imagined, the scale surprised him. "The epic pictures in my mind shrank," he says, "and I realized that the window wasn't that far from the street. With a scope, it would have been an easy shot."
In the 1990s, Garbe, still intrigued by the epic event, began writing the songs that would eventually comprise The Kennedy Suite. He was friends with Andy Maize of Toronto folk-rock outfit Skydiggers, and the song The Truth About Us (The Ballad of Lee & Marina) first appeared on that band's 1997 album Desmond's Hip City. The alt-country number, reprised on The Kennedy Suite, explores the notion that society at large was complicit in the assassination. If it takes a village to raise a child, what kind of village raises an assassin?
Between 2001 and 2003, Garbe wrote the rest of the material. Originally he had no clear goal as to the project as a whole, but the concept began to unfold as the songs came one by one. "It was like being an archaeologist," Garbe explains, "where a bigger picture emerges as you keep dusting the dirt away."
Maize took Garbe's demos to Timmins, whose idea it was to bring in guest singers to give voice to the song cycle's various characters: from a paperboy who gets wind of an assassin's scheme to a Dallas police officer to Jacqueline Kennedy. Because it was a Junkies-Skydiggers side project, The Kennedy Suite progressed fitfully. Garbe was patient, but persistent. "Every 18 months or so," laughs Timmins, "I'd get an e-mail from Scott, asking 'so, how are things coming together?'"
Last summer, with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy killing fast approaching, Timmins and friends focused their effort. After 12 years, the album was finally complete.
The Kennedy Suiteis comprised of 15 songs, featuring vocals from the likes of Hawksley Workman (on the brashly hopeful Who-styled prologue, Origami Peace Corps Mischief Makers) and Sarah Harmer (on the bleak, lilting epilogue White Man in Decline, a comment on trailer park heroes and the ugly current political level of America). "Pledge allegiance to the flag," Harmer sings bittersweet, "wrap it in a body bag."
Clips of Kennedy speeches and bits of other archival audio add to the drama. Six separate conspiratorial voices sing the dreamy-jazzy Bullet For You. The Good Family croons When Will I Be Mine from the morose point of view of the fame-seeking Oswald-killer Jack Ruby. Parkland (a reference to Dallas's Parkland Memorial Hospital) first appeared on a 2010 album by Tom Wilson's acid-folk project, coincidentally named Lee Harvey Osmond.
Now that the project has finally reached fruition, and the assassination semi-centennial is about to pass, Garbe feels like a burden has been lifted. "It's just how the world is built," he says. "You never forget a moment like what happened in Dallas, but the sun rises and spring comes. Ultimately we always move forward."
Still, there's a lingering hangover from the tragedy of JFK (and his fellow triple-initialled dreamers MLK and RFK). The early departure of the moon-shooting, ask-notting, civil-righting leader is now a symbol of opportunity lost. Because of that, the Kennedy legacy has captivated artists throughout all mediums. From songwriters – Jim Morrison's "dead President's corpse in the driver's car," in the Doors' Not to Touch the Earth, Gord Downie's "football, Kennedy-style" in the Tragically Hip's Little Bones – to filmmakers (Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field from 1992 follows a Kennedy-worshipping heroine played by Michelle Pfeiffer on a post-assassination trip from Dallas to the President's funeral in Washington), and many more.
Timmins still finds the President's speeches inspirational. "His were pretty forward-thinking ideas, and that was 50 years ago," he says. "You think, if that could happen then, it could happen again."
There was a revived sense of JFK-style hope with the current American President, but the dream hasn't been realized. "Maybe we thought Obama was it," Timmins says, "or maybe he is just the thin edge of that wedge of politicians stepping up their game and becoming true leaders."
The album's White Man in Decline epilogue offers a dispiriting message, but as it fades out, an archived Kennedy speech emerges. It's about a genuine peace – "a peace not merely in our time but peace for all time." Kennedy's words are the last of the record – a light at the end of a 50-year tunnel.