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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    RIP Chris Ethridge of the Flying Burrito Brothers

    Chris Ethridge is standing on the left.

    Chris Ethridge, bassist and founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers passed away earlier this week in Mississippi. Ethridge was a long-time collaborator with Gram Parsons, also playing with Parsons in the International Submarine Band and co-writing some of Parson’s solo songs. While with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Ethridge played on Gilded Palace of Sin (1969), an album Rolling Stone magazine lists as one of the top 200 albums of all time. He also co-wrote “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy),” a song we previously discussed on Chimesfreedom. In this performance of “Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise),” you may see Ethridge playing bass in the background (with a black beard wearing a Nudie suit).

    Ethridge also played as a session musician later in his career, playing with such artists as Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, and Jackson Browne. He also toured with Willie Nelson for eight years. Ethridge learned he had pancreatic cancer in September. He was 65. RIP.

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

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    Great Song, Bad Name: Hot Burrito #1

    Gram Parsons (1946-1973) created a lot of great music in his short life. His work as a solo artist and with bands such as The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers greatly influenced the country-rock and alt-country movements. He helped Emmylou Harris start her career. He was friends with Keith Richards and supposedly influenced some of the music made by the Rolling Stones.  And he helped create the wonderful strangely named song “Hot Burrito #1.”

    Burritos
    Once upon a time you let me feel you deep inside

    “Hot Burrito #1” appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) album.  It was written by Parsons and the band’s bass player Chris Ethridge.

    “Hot Burrito #1” is a great song with a horrible name.  The song, of course, has nothing to do with burritos, and the band’s use of the word “burrito” was not limited to the one song. The band liked to play around with the “burrito” theme, naming their next album Burrito Deluxe. And yes, there is a “Hot Burrito #2.”

    Reportedly, the original use of “burrito” came from bassist Ian Dunlop, who had been in the International Submarine Band and then started a group called “The Flying Burrito Brothers” before Parsons and Chris Hillman borrowed the name for their band.  Dunlop still makes music and also is an artist.

    At one point, Parsons and Hillman had a house in San Fernando Valley that they called “Burrito Manor.”

    Versions of “Hot Burrito #1”

    “Hot Burrito #1” has been recorded and covered by other artists, including Raoul Mao, The Black Crowes, the Cowboy Junkies, and Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket. The song has been covered around the world, including a version by Japanese band Ma’am.

    Elvis Costello recorded the song, but apparently he did not like the name so he renamed it, “I’m Your Toy.” Even though “Hot Burrito #1” is an odd name for a song, “I’m Your Toy” is not really better. Similarly, Jose Feliciano renamed the song with the forgettable title, “Not That Kind of Guy.”

    One sign of the greatness of the song and the melody from Chris Ethridge is that it holds up well no matter who sings it. But it is especially powerful in the Parsons version.

    The song starts out with the singer speaking to a former lover, telling her how she will miss him (“You may be sweet and nice / But that won’t keep you warm at night”). Then slowly you begin to hear the aching desperation in the singer’s voice and in the lyrics (“But I don’t want no one but you / To love me, no I wouldn’t lie”).

    The A Side

    Interestingly, even though we know “Hot Burrito #1” as a classic song, it was not released as a single, only appearing as the B side of the only single at the time, the less memorable “The Train Song.” “The Train Song” was recorded after The Gilded Palace of Sin was completed but released as a single.

    While numerous cover versions of “Hot Burrito #1” are now on YouTube, the A side is not available there at all (you may hear a clip of The Train Song on Amazon). It just goes to show that you cannot judge a song by its initial release, or by its name.

    Do you like the song? What is your favorite great song with a bad name? What other songs have cover artists renamed? Drop a comment.

    Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that “The Train Song” appeared on The Gilded Palace of Sin. Even though the song was released as a single to promote the album, it was recorded after the album was completed. The single “The Train Song” did eventually appear on Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Brothers Anthology 1969-1972 (2000). September 2013 Update: A live version of “The Train Song” is now on YouTube.

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