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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    Kmart Layaway Good Samaritans Pay It Forward

    Around the country, some people are paying off Christmas layaway accounts for people they do not know. In a cool act of random kindness, Good Samaritans are going to Kmarts and anonymously paying off a customer Christmas layaway account or two for random strangers. In one case, a woman in Indianapolis paid off the layaway accounts for 50 people, saying she wanted to do something nice in memory of her husband who had just passed away. Other individual acts are on a smaller scale but still make a gigantic difference to the aided family. The acts of kindness began in Michigan and has spread to many other parts of the country. While the Good Samaritans have appeared in other stores, most have occurred in Kmarts, apparently because of that chain’s history of offering layaways. I know what our cynical readings are thinking, but Kmart officials deny any involvement.

    The story reminded me of the film, Pay It Forward (2000), which starred Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, and Helen Hunt. In the film, a teacher played by Spacey gave an assignment to change the world, and in response, Trevor McKinney (Osment) developed his “Pay It Forward” plan. Under his idea, a person does a good deed for another and then asks that person to “pay it forward” to three other people who need help. If the plan works, the good deeds in the world will multiply exponentially. The film follows a reporter investigating the effects of McKinney’s idea while McKinney, his mom, his grandmother, and his teacher all struggle with their own problems.

    The film got mixed reviews from critics but did better with audience members as shown by the 40% critic rating and 82% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the film has some flaws, it is a decent entertaining movie that also addresses some serious issues. I suspect many went to the film expecting either an uplifting happy movie or a light romantic comedy and did not get what they expected. While the movie is ultimately not a downer, it does pull at the heartstrings. The movie was based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and there is now a Pay It Forward Foundation inspired by the book and film.

    The Kmart holiday Good Samaritans do not appear to be asking anyone to pay their good deeds forward, but anytime someone does an act of kindness it involves a leap of faith that the deed will somehow make the world a little better place. And anytime someone else does an act of kindness it reminds us all that we should aspire to be better people too.

    While speaking of layaway and good things, let’s do a good deed and listen to the best song about layaway, the 1972 song “Lay Away” by the Isley Brothers. Like the Kmart Good Samaritans, the Isley Brothers are putting some love on layaway.

    Bonus Song of “Calling All Angels”: If you have seen the movie Pay It Forward, you probably recall the powerful use of a song at the end. I did not want to ruin the ending of the film for those who have not seen it, but you may see the ending along with Jane Siberry singing her song “Calling All Angels,” which she recorded with k.d. lang. Warning: If you have not seen the film, the link at the song title shows the movie ending. You may hear the song without ruining the ending here.

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