Having written a column about the Kennedy assassination, I was reminded of this blurb I wrote a while back about a relevant song, and once again dredge up an entry from the archives.
Attached is a live clip from a CTV morning show that used to be on five times a week, called “Canada AM”. This was the program that unexpectedly introduced me to one of my favourite songs, one morning during the first summer I ever worked in a suit and tie; I was striving to excel in a student position I snagged at a Bay Street firm during the months between second and third year at law school. It was my introduction to the Tower People and their frenetic ways. I won’t claim to have enjoyed that job – but the money was good. You sure didn’t earn that kind of coin painting houses.
I was just doing up my tie before trudging down to King and Bay for another long shift at the firm then known as Torys, the TV on at about 7:30 in the morning in July or August of 1991, when almost subconsciously, I started hearing words coming out of the goggle box that had very powerful associations – it stopped me dead in my tracks. What? Did I just hear that? In a popular song sung on a morning show?
I did. A group unknown to me then, the Skydiggers, had incorporated a slew of words and phrases of huge emotional significance, familiar to everybody of my generation, into a four minute song that was now being performed live for Dini Petty. It’s a very good piece of song writing, too, but it’s also an oblique history lesson – every line has meaning, you could use it as a teaching aid for high school kids, yet there’s nothing boring and preachy about it, nothing false. This wasn’t Billy Joel doing We Didn’t Start the Fire.*
Maybe you have to be of a certain age, and to have been a student of modern American history to boot, for this one to really grab you. For a kid growing up in the immediate reverberation of the event, pink pillbox hats, something bought from an Italian mail-order outfit, the name Marina, exhumations, and something buried deep in the leg of someone named Connelly have enormous resonance. Then there’s a ship being turned back from American shores, leaving its passengers to their fate in the death camps; the first colonists starting out hoping for more than shoot-outs at the O.K. Corral; chairs being busted over somebody’s nose; Manifest Destiny; Camelot; all of it. Wrapping all of that into four or five scant minutes of song is, truly, something of an intellectual tour de force. I’ve always found it amazing that it took a Canadian band to write what I think is the most perceptive and trenchant critique of American culture in the annals of popular music, and quite possibly political science, which I studied for seven years without hearing anything more perceptive than this.
This is the very performance I saw that morning 23 years ago.
*My bro’ Mark came up with satirical lyrics for Joel’s song, which eschewed any particular point of view in favour of simply listing things that had happened when he was young:
Dropped the H-bomb –