Scott Garbe is a high school teacher, a theatrical director and a talented musician. I have long been a fan of his concept album The Kennedy Suite which took years to put together and possibly even longer to record. The album imaginatively considers the assassination from a variety of perspectives. Back in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of J.F.K., the album was released, each track recorded by a different artist. Two wonderful concerts were held at the Wintergarden Theatre. I was fortunate to attend the first of these. What follows is a contribution I made to a Kennedy Suite blog that features my review of each song and a comparison of Garbe’s version to the one on the 2013 album.
Track 1: “Origami Peace Corps Mischief Makers”
Perspective: Idealistic Young Americans trying to change the country in the early days of JFK’s presidency
Best Line: Tie between “We’ll be ornaments of your cowardice, lights for more to see”– (what audacity using the metaphor of bulbs hanging on a Christmas tree to illuminate the idea that the horrifying lynchings of Blacks serve as a beacon of injustice and a stimulus for change ) and “If you want to lock us out or in You’ve gotta tie us to your cotton gin and make us!” (cotton gin merges industrialization with the institution of slavery, associated in the U.S. with cotton plantations)
Interpretation: Though Hawksley Workman does a terrific job on this opening number, there’s something about Garbe’s spare instrumentation and vocals that epitomizes the idealistic notions the song embodies.
Track 2: “Bullet for You”
Perspective: Various enemies of JFK who have a motive for ending his life
Best Line: “We shared a mistress Now, every time I take a leak I got you burning in me” (gonorrhea as moral karma puts a new twist on how JFK was infecting the nation)
Interpretation: The Kennedy Suite Singers really make this work because the variety of voices adds to the conspiratorial nature of the hit.
Track 3: “Secret Spy Decoder Ring”
Perspective: A young boy who is spying on his neighbour Lee Harvey Oswald, and sees that the President is in danger but can’t get adult authorities to take him seriously.
Best Line: “A naked bulb illuminates Sifting through the broken crates Butcher paper in his teeth The mousy ex-marine Lifts from a blanket roll A rifle with a scope” (can’t you just see Oswald in the musty garage thanks to the imagery here?; we know all too well that sometimes history pivots on what goes on in such unremarkable environments as this garage)
Interpretation: I love both versions. Garbe carries off the innocence of the paperboy perfectly, but you have to love Marion Nicolle’s rocking drum beat in Harlan Pepper’s version.
Track 4: “The Dallas Youth Auxillary”
Perspective: Three sisters with a huge crush on JFK who have to outwit their Republican father to get the car to greet the President as his plane arrives in Dallas.
Best Line: So many to choose from. “’At least you’re not all lesbians like that Quaker next door’ Ruth said ‘How could we be? When Nixon is the Dick for us three…’” (only in the lyrics of an English teacher does a pun outwit a Republican father) “And our saddle shoes left the ground Young debutantes over the crowd Horn-rimmed glasses turned reflecting On a thousand days of waiting Teenage hearts in palpitation Coming down from expectation Cigarettes all round” (the 60’s fashion references don’t dilute the effectiveness of this portrait of teenage hormones one bit; in fact, they probably add to the hopelessness of it all) “We hope your stay is breath- taking” (another pun, this one prophetic, linking the three sisters to the three fates of classical mythology)
Interpretation: On most listens, this is my favourite song on the album. Both versions are stellar, though what Jessy Bell Smith is able to achieve with the satisfied sigh after the cigarette is a tangible bonus.
Track 5: “Take Heart (Elbow Room)”
Perspective: A Dallas police officer on security detail in the Presidential motorcade who is reeling from the recent deaths of his wife and young daughter
Best Line: “But your black car floats through Dallas like a tomb” (the word “floats” is such an unusual choice to describe the movement of tons of steel but it is the perfect choice to suggest the soul that will soon be floating upwards and the ease with which assassin(s) will be able to track it)
Interpretation: As heartbreaking as Garbe’s vocals are, Reid Jamieson ratchets the pity a notch higher on his version. This is a hard song to stop humming once you’ve heard it.
Track 6: “Parkland”
Perspective: An orderly at Parkland hospital who is called in for an unexpected shift and must take his young son with him.
Best Line: “then through the glass Of the emergency doors we turned to see Blood and roses, guns and grief”(the poetic description of the dying President being wheeled in is all the more powerful because the orderly and his son have just been play acting JFK and Jackie)
Interpretation: Lee Harvey Osmond’s Tom Wilson gives this an edgy feel as does the great electric guitar work of Michael Timmins. The versions are very different but equally effective.
Track 7: “Disintegrating”
Perspective: Jackie O on her way back to Washington after her husband’s murder
Best Line: “Were they killing you? Or were they just missing me? And if you were in my place Would you be…Disintegrating?” (A line of pure paranoia which combines the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories with a wife’s questions about her husband’s loyalty and priorities)
Interpretation: The lyrics and pace make Garbe’s version haunting, but Margo Timmins’ voice is pretty hard to beat.
Track 8: “When Will I Be Mine? (Ruby, Ruby)”
Perspective: Jack Ruby’s post-assassination ruminations, including his plans to kill Oswald
Best Line: “Scratch that, it’s just the Dexedrine talkin’ And the President getting his head shot off, here in Dallas for Christ’s sake” (‘too cruel anywhere’ Jack, but the line encapsulates the complexity of Ruby, struggling with addiction, motivated by embarrassment more than grief and expressing himself in ironic profanity)
Interpretation: It is truly a marvel that a smalltime Jewish mobster’s story can best be portrayed by the country and western genre, but the Good Family makes it happen, led by Bruce Good’s wonderful vocals.
Track 9: “Senior Prom”
Perspective: The detective given the task of escorting Lee Harvey Oswald through the Dallas County Jail and experiencing the memory of his own Senior Prom
Best Line: “If this ambulance were a Fairlane And your black eye was my school ring I would swear it was my senior prom…” (who possesses the kind of imagination necessary to write this line?) but also “The inside of your arm is soft as I lead you, Lee Like a new-born Marxist colt at the county fair (the jumble of this line which might be a nod in the direction of Oswald’s earlier defection to Russia suggests the difficulty the detective is having in keeping things straight; the contrast of the relative innocence of prom night with the cynical world of assassinations might be a case of nostalgia or dementia)
Interpretation: Doug Paisley’s voice is unique enough to pull this off. The dreamy organ and tinkly piano reminiscent of backdrop for a ‘60’s lounge singer works perfectly here thanks to Joby. The song is an absolute triumph of the poetic imagination.
Track 10: “The Truth About Us (The Ballad of Lee and Marina)”
Perspective: Lee Harvey Oswald but merging into the American people as a whole
Best Line: “Every girl and boy can grow up to be the President Or, grow up to be the President’s killer..” (famous and infamous merge here as we see how the desire for celebrity status can distort our aspirations) and “There’s people out there whose jobs depend on our misery” (marketers for one)
Interpretation: Again, a case where both versions are great; Peter Timmins’ drum work on Suite v.2 is really compelling.
Track 11: “Arlington”
Perspective: Murdered JFK as he nears Arlington National Cemetery for burial
Best Line: “Snakes are curling Around the fragile Young ankles Of my country” (Garbe’s admiration for Kennedy is never more palpable than on this line that suggests a patriot devoid of bitterness about his personal loss and focused wholly on the good of the nation)
Interpretation: The album’s most somber track; I think I prefer Garbe’s original; perhaps just because it is sparser which seems to fit here.
Track 12: “Slipstream”
Perspective: RFK’s reflections on what it was like to be trailing behind his older brother
Best Line: “A moment caught in time That was not caught in time” (paradox that still speaks to our obsession with documenting events but our blindness to what is going on)
Interpretation: Martin Tielli’s version is so different from Garbe’s original. Both are worth a listen, but Tielli’s version is growing on me thanks to the cheeky guitar work of Tielli and the bass work of Josh Finlayson.
Track 13: “Reliquary”
Perspective: A creepy collector of human remains associated with the assassination.
Best Line: “In the middle of my reliquary, Got the American Dream in a Jar” (the quote works on many levels but they all point to a great loss—the most inspiring of aspirations shrunk to a sordid, commercial peek a boo dance)
Interpretation: The song speaks of such horrifying behaviours that maybe Garbe’s version is too sober; no one can accuse The Potion Kings of understatement on this tune. The bass line is spooky and the punk rock vocals of Nick Craine work perfectly with Kevin Breit’s feedback guitar and Randally Coryell’s insistent drum work.
Track 14: “White Man in Decline”
Perspective: Third person view of what has played out since the assassination
Best Line: The whole song basically, but especially: “With his microwavable last supper And twelve of his friends He lifts his wife up over his head before the Super Bowl begins ‘Her body broken for you She’ll beat black, she’ll beat blue, Let’s hope our Cowboys come through…’” (not only have we moved from Jesus and his disciples to a Super Bowl party, but the “Cowboys” seems to reference not just the football team but the Cowboys and Indians strain running in American history; the implication is that the land of the first nations has been replaced by a society alienated from nature and immersed in weekly rituals of physical domination and wife abuse) and “What does it profit a man To gain the whole trailer park and lose his very soul?” (a cheap shot but too good to ignore)
Interpretation: You never lose with Sarah Harmer singing, especially here.
Thanks Scott for such great songs that provoke so much thought and enjoyment.