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.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)