I’m calling this mix Assassination Vacation, borrowing the title of the Sarah Vowell essay collection in which she visits various historic sites across America, specifically ones important to the various presidential assassinations both successful and merely attempted. This mix includes a.) songs about various periods of U.S. History b.) elegies to dead famous people of all stripes and c.) songs that vaguely fit in with the assassination theme.
1. Nancy Sinatra – Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
Not necessarily about a famous dead American, although this uncharacteristically haunting, beautiful song was written by Sonny Bono, who is both famous and now dead. This song was featured recently on the Kill Bill soundtrack.
2. Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel #2
Leonard Cohen has a reputation of being a ladies’ man; one that he vehemently denies in the documentary about him that’s out in the theaters right now, I’m Your Man. Of his album title Death of a Ladies’ Man he says, “My reputation as a ladies’ man is a big joke that has caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.” Cohen is one of the cultural luminaries who lived at New York’s infamous Chelsea hotel in the 60s, and in an unusual stroke of indiscretion he admitted this song is about Janis Joplin. “Giving me head on the unmade bed”… I personally can’t imagine the Armani-clad Canuck and the bourbon-soaked hippie queen getting down, but apparently they did. “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception,” classic Leonard Cohen – funny, self-effacing, and beautifully stated.
3. The Byrds – He was a Friend of Mine
One of the lesser-known tributes to JFK. “Though I never met him, I knew him just the same.” This sweet, simple song really evokes the sentiments of a nation who actually had respect and admiration for their president. One can only imagine what that feels like.
4. The Beatles – Rocky Raccoon
There is some debate over the origin of this song, but the conventional wisdom (with which I’d like to agree) is that the Beatles wrote this song about 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson. What does Roky have to say about it? “They might of been hinted at somethin’ like that, but I say all those drunk, they take all those words and they walk into a record company and take out piles of it and give you a little map how to get there and have fun. If it was actually communism, then they could get it. In other words with communism, you know like with that song you know you want a revolution, you know we all want to change the world, and if a communist, if you put in the communist version of that song, the communists would rather chose the Rolling Stones and Beatles for their songs because they want to shoot the Rolling Stones.” Did I mention that Roky Erickson did way too much LSD and ended up batshit crazy, writing awesome songs about vampires and zombies? Just in case you couldn’t tell from the quote. It should be noted, though, that any rumors about Roky Erickson’s death are greatly exaggerated.
5. Neutral Milk Hotel – Holland 1945
Probably the most upbeat song you’ll ever hear about children dying in the Holocaust. The album on which this song appears, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, is purportedly about Anne Frank. This is my favorite song on one of my most-listened-to albums. The juxtaposition of the lines as they change just plow me over. “The only girl I ever loved was born with roses in her eyes/ but then they buried her alive one evening 1945 with just her sister at her side/ and only days before the guns all came and rained on everyone.” Whew.
6. The Dead Milkmen – Beach Party Vietnam
Ahh the Dead Milkmen. Philly punk natives, they are funny and offensive and fantastic. Nothing says summer assassination vacation like cooking hot dogs with napalm.
7. They Might Be Giants – James K. Polk
I could not name this mix after Sarah Vowell’s book, Assassination Vacation, without putting this song on there. The two Johns tell us more about this lesser-known president than we ever learned in high school with their usual sharp turn-of-phrase and remarkable rhyming schemes. There are some amazing videos for this song on You Tube that kids made for their high school History classes. They Might Be Giants – educational as they are fun!
8. Rancid – Black Lung
This is a latter-day Rancid song off of the underrated album Life Won’t Wait. It’s a short punchy little number about the industrial revolution.
9. The Explosion – Points West
If there’s a punker song about Manifest Destiny I don’t know it. It also eludes to problems about how we’re taught history in schools. Also it makes you want to pogo around the room and kick over your furniture.
10. Q and Not U – Wet Work
We’re friends with this band, who after releasing their absolutely incredible album on which this song appears, Power, sadly broke up. They’re a DC-band on Dischord Records. Anyway this song, besides being the perfect mix of punk and dance music, speaks generally but eloquently to current social and legal struggle. “Something beautiful will always surround us but it’s just to easy to erase/ Something beautiful is shot down in every place.”
11. Le Tigre – Hot Topic
Who isn’t mentioned in this song? This feminist electro-trio gives shoutouts to everyone who’s ever influenced them ever. I have not heard of most of them, and I think this makes me a bad feminist. I’d like to think perhaps they padded this song out with the names of their third-grade teachers or something but I think there’s just a lot of feminist scholarship out there I just don’t know about.
12. Devo – Are You Experienced?
A totally transcendent cover of Jimi Hendrix’s song, Devo takes it to places no one could have imagined. They probably describe it best, “Not necessarily beautiful, but mutated.” There was a big legal battle over this song, the estate of Jimi Hendrix did not want them to be able to release the song as a single. What ever happened to free love?
13. Radiohead – Electioneering
One of the more overtly-political Radiohead songs, the sneer in Thom Yorke’s voice while trying to win your vote is classic. And ooh that Johnny Greenwood sure can play that gee-tar.
14. Nirvana – Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
Seattle-native Frances Farmer was a rebellious actress who was accused of being an Atheist and Communist in the 1930s. Apparently her failing to pay a fine resulted in her arrest and her belligerence caused them to give her insulin shock therapy and eventually electroshock therapy which was, oh, just a bit overkill just for being tempestuous. “She’ll come back as fire and burn all the liars, leave a blanket of ash on the ground.” It is clear that Kurt felt a kinship with Frances (although the rumors that he named his baby after her are apparently untrue).
15. The Ramones – Blitzkrieg Bop
Who knew a song about being rained on by mortars in the middle of the night in World War II would eventually be the soundtrack for a moshing can of Diet Pepsi? Like the Neutral Milk Hotel song, the brilliance of this song lies in the how upbeat it is despite the fact that it’s about the saddest thing in all of history. I would also like to register the fact that I fucking hate Pepsi.
16. The Clash – The Right Profile
Montgomery Clift was a matinee idol who had girls swooning in the aisles, but he got into a terrible car wreck (in which Elizabeth Taylor had to stop him from choking on his own teeth! Yikes.) and was disfigured from then on. He died in 1966 from complications of alcohol and drug addiction. Marilyn Monroe once said of Clift that he’s “the only person I know who is in worse shape than I am.” That’s gotta hurt.
17. Serge Gainsbourg – Bonnie and Clyde
Good thing we all know the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, because you’re not going to get it from this song. Even if you speak some French, Serge Gainsbourg’s songs are practically impenetrable because of his liberal use of double entendre and various kinds of wordplay. Even though you can’t understand the words, the playfulness of Gainsbourg’s songs come through (and isn’t it cute the way Brigitte Bardot says “Bunny and Clyde”?)
18. Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Hardin was a 19th century outlaw, a real denizen of the Wild West. He killed more than 40 men in his life, one apparently because he was snoring. Johnny Cash also wrote a song about him called “Hardin Didn’t Run.”
19. Jack Kerouac – Ain’t We Got Fun
Although saucy Jack does send this song out to a “lovely, beautiful, skinny, shapely” Sue Evans, this song is on here because it’s a rarely heard bit of Americana; Kerouac, king of the American beats, crooning and scatting out an American standard. Swoon.
20. Johnny Cash – In My Life
The Man in Black gave us this fantastic cover of what is widely recognized as one of the greatest pop songs of all time, written of course by the Beatles, specifically John Lennon. This song achieves a particular poignancy when delivered by an aging Mr. Cash, who had seen many a famous friend take a permanent assassination vacation.
21. R.E.M. – E-bow the Letter
I have long loved this mysterious song by R.E.M. but I didn’t know until I was making this mix that it’s written about River Phoenix. “This fame thing, I don’t get it/ I wrap my hand in plastic to try to look through it.”
22. The Fiery Furnaces – We Got Back the Plague
I thought it was only appropriate to finish this Assassination Vacation mix with some song about George W. Bush. But I’m never one for being beat over the head with a message, I like it when the message is more subtle, and this brother-sister duo have it down with this song. “And I don’t care if he bombs Babylon to hell/ Except for he’s building Babylon here as well.” And any song that is somehow subtle while referring to W. as “The Plague” is pretty awesome in my book.
For all the songs I included on this mix there were a lot I left out, either for flow or because I didn’t particularly like the song even though it was thematic. Although this is the most commercial mix I’ve ever made it’s also the most complete thematically. I would send it out today but I wanted to put this little “reader” with the CD so I need to print it out and find a way to lay it out in a CD book. Enjoy!
Also I’m thinking of somehow incorporating this Simpsons reference to the assassination of the Lincoln squirrel into the cover booklet somehow.
The Lincoln Squirrel has been assassinated! We’ll stay with this story all night if we have to!”