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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    Gene Clark in Concert: 1985

    Singer-songwriter Gene Clark passed away on May 24, 1991 in Sherman Oaks, California.  The cause of his death was listed as “natural causes” and a bleeding ulcer, but for much of his life he had battled alcohol addiction.

    Clark, who was born on November 17, 1944 — was only 46 at the time of his death.  His death came a little more than four months after appearing with The Byrds at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Gene Clark’s Career

    The Missouri-born Clark is worth remembering just for his work as a founding member of The Byrds from 1964-1966 that led to such works as “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (later covered by Tom Petty), “She Don’t Care About Time,” and “Set You Free This Time.” But there was much more to Clark’s career.

    With The Byrds, Clark’s work was at the forefront of folk, country-rock, and psychedelic rock.  For example, Clark was the primary writer of “Eight Miles High.”

    Yet, after Clark left The Byrds, reportedly over his fear of flying, he created substantial work as a solo artist and with others, such as with Carla Olson and with banjo player Doug Dillard. Considering his entire body of work, it is easy to see him as one of America’s under-appreciated music gems and understand why he still inspires indie musicians like Fleet Foxes.

    Clark only had four major-label solo albums during his lifetime, and he never found widespread success. Rolling Stone magazine never even did an interview with him as a solo artist, although the magazine has heaped much posthumous praise upon the singer-songwriter.

    Despite the alcoholism and the demons that Clark battled during many of those those years, he still made great music, including “Spanish Guitar,” which Bob Dylan has praised. His 1974 album No Other has come to be seen as a classic.

    Gene Clark Live in New York City in 1985

    For a taste of Clark’s post-Byrds work, we are lucky to have this 1985 performance in New York City. The video and audio quality are decent for the time period.

    The video is worth watching for a number of reasons, including the final song.  It is a bittersweet reinterpretation of the Byrds’ reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man.”

    Clark’s Ongoing Influence

    A documentary about Clark, Byrd Who Flew Alone, was released in 2013.  Unfortunately, it seems to be hard to track down. In other recent news, Sierra Records is releasing a new Gene Clark album of thought-to-be lost recordings on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982.

    As noted above, Gene Clark continues to influence a number of musicians today. For example, the Skydiggers recently released an album of Gene Clark songs, Here Without You: The Songs of Gene Clark.

    Finally, if you are a fan of Gene Clark, you may want to sign a petition for him to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

    What is your favorite Gene Clark song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Byrds Release “Mr. Tambourine Man”

    On June 21, 1965, the Byrds helped launch the folk-rock movement with their release of their debut album with the title track of a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Below, The Byrds perform the song on television in the 1960s.

    The Byrds — with Roger McGuinn singing lead as Gene Clark and David Crosby provided the harmony — recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man” in January for their debut album even before Dylan had a chance to record it himself. When Dylan heard what the Byrds did to his song, he reportedly exclaimed, “Wow, man, you can even dance to that!” By the time the Byrds released their album on June 21, 1965, Dylan was in the studio finishing up “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    In this video below from a 2009 webcast, Chris Hillman of The Byrds tells how the band came to reinterpret “Mr. Tambourine Man” and how jazz great Miles Davis helped the band get its first record contract. Check it out.

    “Mr. Tambourine Man” also has been covered by Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Teenage Fan Club, William Shatner, and Kevin Costner. For another performance of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, check out their second television performance in May 1965 before their first album was officially released.

    What is your favorite version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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