The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy

I have probably heard “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers more than a hundred times.  But I never realized that one of the verses is about Robert F. Kennedy until reading an interview with Steve Earle.

In the interview, Earle recounted how the song’s co-writer Chris Hillman explained the Bobby Kennedy connection.  The following verse is about Kennedy.

A friend came around,
Tried to clean up this town;
His ideas made some people mad;
But he trusted his crowd,
So he spoke right out loud;
And they lost the best friend they had.

In another interview from many years ago in The Los Angeles Times, Hillman confirmed the above verse was about Kennedy. Hillman also explained how he and Gram Parsons came to write the song.

Hillman woke up one morning with the opening lines of the song in his head: “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in….”  He immediately woke up his roommate Parsons, who soon came up with the melody for the song.

Parsons and Hillman, who both had recently experienced relationship breakups, completed the song in about thirty minutes.  And they both ended up singing it on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

Bobby Kennedy was not the only person referenced in the song.  Hillman, who still had bad feelings about the breakup of his former band The Byrds, included an allusion to that band’s manager Larry Spector.  Hillman considered Spector a thief, and the man lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo.  Hence the line:  “On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”

Hillman further explained that they wrote “Sin City” as a cautionary tale to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”  Unfortunately, that cautionary tale could equally refer to the tragic young death of Parsons.

“Sin City” remains one of the great collaborations between two great singer-songwriters. While the original recorded by the songwriters remains definitive, there have been a couple of nice covers through the years. Below in a performance from 1989, k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam do the song justice.

Finally, here is a wonderful version by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings (Buddy Miller is also there on guitar).

And that is the story behind the song.

What is your favorite song by the Flying Burrito Brothers? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Song of the Day: Dion’s “Sanctuary”

    Among many hits, many know Dion for is his 1968 recording of Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin and John.” Still, much of the folk music recorded in the 1970s by the rock and roll pioneer remains overlooked. Thus, it was a nice discovery to hear Dion’s recording of another song by Holler called “Sanctuary.”

    Dion’s album Live at the Bitter End, August 1971, which was only recently released in 2015, is full of gems. But “Sanctuary” is one of those songs that grabbed me right way.

    “Sanctuary” is more personal than “Abraham, Martin and John,” where the singer recalls arriving in San Francisco. He contemplates the despair of events going on around the country. Despite the unrest, the singer finds some solace in having “John and Mary/And Sanctuary/ And Telegraph Avenue.” AllMusic concludes that the song is “an utterly poignant, melancholic masterpiece that you can’t believe you haven’t heard more often.”

    “Sanctuary” is a beautiful song about finding some personal peace amidst the turmoil of the world. And it remains timely now more than forty years later.

    There currently is not a separate version of Holler’s “Sanctuary” on YouTube, but you may hear it in this video for Dion’s entire Live At The Bitter End, 1971 album. We have queued the video to start at “Sanctuary” at the 39:10 mark.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Hierarchies of Hate and Healing? Thoughts on “Wind River” from Charlottesville

    The following commentary is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things. Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

    I live in Charlottesville.  That used to be something I said with no small measure of satisfaction.  It is a gem of a town, tucked into the folds of the genteel Blue Ridge Mountains and warmed by the rational light of the University of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate is located on the outskirts of town, presides over Charlottesville like a secular saint, setting a tone of enlightenment and “civic republicanism.”  Rich in culture and community, Charlottesville really is a magical place to call home.  It is sophisticated, but on a human scale.   Most American city governments do not have to trouble with maintaining a page at the municipal website entitled “Awards and Recognition.” The recent list of honors bestowed on Charlottesville is as humbling as it is inspiring:

    But things have changed.  The rioting in August that left scores injured and one young woman dead now mean that other feelings and more painful impressions stir when I mention my home town.

    The events of August 13, 2017, were triggered in part by the City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent park in the city’s historical old town.  The statue will be sold at auction and the park – formerly “Lee Park” – was rechristened “Emancipation Park.”

    In the months after these dramatic Council votes, right-wing racist groups converged on Charlottesville, using the Lee statue (awaiting its fate while litigation proceeded) as a platform to express a grotesque mix of race-hatred, revisionist history, scapegoating, and violence.  Suddenly, the word “Charlottesville” has become a talisman for America’s entrenched racism, political dysfunction, and irresolvable division.  In the days after the riots, AlJazeera offered the mocking lament:  “Charlottesville is America everywhere.”

    Taylor Sheridan’s well-reviewed new film Wind River quietly slipped into Charlottesville’s cinemas in the days before the riots.  Like Sheridan’s previous scripts, Wind River seeks to mix edge-of-your-seat action/drama with earnest commentary on America’s most desolate corners and hopeless populations.

    In Wind River, Sheridan leaves behind the bankrupt dirt-farmers (Hell or Highwater (2016)) and drug dealers (Sicario (2015)) that populate the borderlands of his desperate, parched, and nearly lifeless Desert Southwest.  His new tragic topography is the bone-cracking cold of the impoverished Wind River Indian Reservation in the snow-swept mountain desert of central Wyoming where the latest in a string of murders of young Native American women sets the film’s plot.

    The ensuing investigation brings together the wounded and benumbed game-tracker (Jeremy Renner) and the innocent and unsuspecting FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen).  Sheridan wants them to stand-in for Americans’ posture towards the calamity that is devastating the Native American community generally and Native American women more specifically:  those who know something about it are mostly despairing; the rest of us simply have no idea.  When Olsen’s uninitiated agent arrives at the crime scene poorly navigating the snow-slicked roads and woefully under-dressed for a descending blizzard, Renner’s character ushers her into a new kind of nightmare on his growling snowmobile.

    The film deserves its positive buzz.  It is well-paced and features a couple of near-perfect episodes of breathtaking cinematic tension.  Sheridan’s script is full of sermonizing but delivers some unforgettable lines that land like punches.  And Renner makes a fair bid for a Best Actor Oscar.  The muted, agonized, and vulnerable manhood that he and the Native American actor Gil Birmingham express in several scenes is hauntingly effective.  Above all, the film succeeds as a “blistering expose of violence against Native American women.”

    It is this last feature that created the gnawing link between Wind River and Charlottesville for me.  I fear that the direction I am about to take is dangerous because it risks pitting the victims of unspeakable, historic crimes in an unwinnable contest for “America’s most abused.”  I am sensitive to this risk.  And I want to say as clearly as possible that I am not in the least interested in stirring up some kind of “race to the bottom of American injustice.”  But, upon seeing the film, I could not suppress the chilling realization that, just a few blocks from Charlottesville’s newly renamed Emancipation Park and the disputed statue of Robert E. Lee, another statue stands amidst the traffic at the busy intersection of Main and Ridge streets.  The bronze “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” rises above Lewis & Clark Triangle, just a few yards from the front door of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.

    The statue is now referred to as the “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” because modern sensibilities require us to acknowledge that it prominently features the entwined figures of all three of these protagonists from Lewis & Clark’s “journey of the corps of discovery.”  But the Charles Keck sculpture, commissioned by Paul McIntire, was unveiled in 1919 with the title “Their First View of the Pacific.”  It is fair to assume that the sculptor was not celebrating Sacagawea’s triumph.

    McIntire also commissioned Charlottesville’s now-infamous Robert E. Lee statue.  But, where Lee serves as a painful symbol for America’s still-unresolved racist past, the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue unambiguously depicts and embodies the racist logic of the European genocide against the New World’s Native American occupants.  In the statue Sacagawea crouches, almost animal-like, at the feet of the eponymous Anglo-European conquerors.  Wind River’s poignancy derives from the oppression, and eventual decimation, of Native Americans that flowed inexorably from the westward impulse ignited in America’s breast by Lewis and Clark.  That oppression is anticipated and endorsed – in hardened bronze – in Charlottesville’s “other” statue.

    There have been some critical murmurs aimed at the Lewis & Clark Statue over the years.  One result of the criticism was the erection, in 2009, of a small plague at the statue’s base that seeks to contextualize Sacajawea’s role in the Lewis & Clark expedition by acknowledging her “courage and bravery” and her service as “an ambassador, bridging relations among nations.”  This, the plague tells us, “earned her recognition in the chronicles of American History.”

    But in the intense, still simmering debates over our civic statuary, the Charlottesville City Council did not seriously consider acting against this explicitly racist monument.  Why is that?

    Among all the other confounding complexities that will bedevil our long-overdue reckoning with our dark past, the movie and the statue suggest that we also have to grapple with hierarchies of hate and healing in America.  Despite the current, strong appetite for victories of decency over symbols, some wounds will have to wait, even while some others have contemplated the connection between Native Americans and recent protests.

    Glenn Kenny, reviewing Wind River for the NY Times, concluded that the “film’s ultimate statement” involves “an expanded awareness that the justice done by the good guys in this film is not nearly sufficient with respect to the larger injustice done to Native Americans.”  Add that to Charlottesville’s sins, too.

    Photos courtesy of Russ Miller. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Wonderful Redwood Tree

    On October 2, 1968, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act that established Redwood National Park in California.  The law put 58,000 acres in the control of the National Park Service.  And in 1978, the government added an additional 42,000 acres to the park.

    The law making the area into a national park was a culmination of decades of work by preservationists.  In the late 1850s, loggers were harvesting many of the redwoods.  But by the early 1900’s, a Save-the-Redwoods League started buying up land to preserve the trees, and California began designating areas as state parks.

    Fortunately, we can still enjoy the massive trees at Redwood National Park, as well as see other giants at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national park (one of my favorite national parks).  Sequoia and redwood trees have many similarities, but they also have many differences, such that sequoias are the largest trees by volume while redwoods are the tallest.

    Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree”

    The greatest song about redwood trees would have to be Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.”  The song first appeared on his 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, which is probably my favorite Van Morrison album.

    “Redwood Tree” begins with a boy and his dog looking for a rainbow.  And the song ends with a boy and his father looking for a lost dog, who is never found. But the song is really about memories of youth and what we learn as we age.  The redwood tree of the title provides a protective force.

    And it smells like rain,
    Maybe even thunder;
    Won’t you keep us from all harm,
    Wonderful redwood tree.

    Although “Redwood Tree” was released as a single, it only barely broke into the Billboard Top 100.  At the time, reviewer Stewart Parker in The Irish Times called the song a “simple but tuneful ditty.” Rolling Stone referred to the song as a “beautiful, sensuous cut.”

    Over time, many defenders have praised the song.  The Telegraph lists “Redwood Tree” as one of thirty Essential Van Morrison Songs.  It notes that this three-minute song about childhood is “perfection.”

    Decide for your self as you celebrate the protection of these wonderful trees with a listen to Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.” For a bonus, below is a demo version of the song that appeared on The Genuine Philosopher’s Stone collection.

    What do you think “Redwood Tree” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Meat Loaf: “For Crying Out Loud”

    On September, 27, 1947, Marvin Lee Aday was born in Dallas, Texas. As the boy grew up, his interest in acting and music led him to adopt a new name that, according to some sources, came from a dish his mom made, Meat Loaf.

    I have confessed on this blog about my love of a lot of Meat Loaf’s songs. Of course, his greatest album remains 1977’s Bat Out of Hell. The popular album had several hits that you still hear today, such as “Two Out of Three” and, of course, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” But the song on the album that I loved the most, which apparently is also the favorite of writer Jim Steinman, is “For Crying Out Loud.”

    The song appeared as a B-side to the second single released from the album, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”  The single was released July 31, 1977, and the album would follow on October 21, 1977.

    Before Meat Loaf’s album, the song appeared in a 1975 play starring Christopher Walken called Kid Champion.  Steinman wrote the music for the play, which is about a rock star.  Steinman’s demo version of the song for the play is below.

    Of course, nobody can match Meat Loaf’s chops. In the video below, Meat Loaf performs “For Crying Out Loud” with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 2004. While Meat Loaf’s voice may not be what it once was, it is still pretty amazing in this performance.

    In the video, Meat Loaf introduces “For Crying Out Loud” by saying he had not attempted the song live since 1978 in New York City. I do not know if it is true that so much time had passed, and I can’t remember if he played it when I saw him in the 1990s.

    There is a video on YouTube claiming to be audio of a performance from the 1993, although I did not see the song in any of the posted setlists from that year. Meat Loaf did perform the song more recently in 2013 with a voice that is more wary. But it is clear he rarely plays this great song, and this one from 2004 is pretty amazing. Check it out.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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