A shot in the dark
Folk opera a surefire hit
American president John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. It is a surprising thing to create a music album and produce a so-called “folk opera” based on the assassination in Toronto, 50 years later. Luckily, the story and the music that make up The Kennedy Suite are worthy of at least this effort and could lead to more.
“I immediately fell in love with the whole piece and said let’s do something,” said Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies fame, who was given a demo of the songs that make up The Kennedy Suite by Andy Maize of the Skydiggers back in the early 2000s.
“I played it for the band and they were very into it. We didn’t know what the end game was; we just started it without knowing where it was going to go.”
Now we know, a short decade later. This month, in addition to the release of an album featuring a number of special guests, such as Sarah Harmer and Hawksley Workman, Cowboy Junkies is also mounting a stage production at the venerable Winter Garden Theatre on Nov. 22 and 23. The album is scheduled for release on Nov. 12.
“It’s a bit of a monster,” Timmins confesses. “There are lots of moving parts and people. The big question was how to do it and not lose a fortune on it. We’ve never done anything to this scale; it’s exciting.”
The songs are written by Scott Garbe, a King City teacher who’s long been obsessed with the Kennedys. He listened to his parents’ records of JFK’s speeches, read PT 109, and when he realized Kennedy had already been assassinated. He was devastated.
“I saw a spread of photos of the assassination in a commemorative book, and it was like it was happening right in front of me,” says Garbe. “It was the first time I remember having a sense of what death was. He was this big hero, such an important person. Ever since that time, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on.… Years later, I started to write about it as a way to wrestle with those ideas about mortality, vulnerability.”
The Kennedy Suite consists of 15 songs, each from a different person’s perspective. Some are funny, some are dark, some offer powerful political commentary and some, such as “Take Heart,” sung wonderfully for the album by Reid Jamieson, are enough to move one
We just started it without knowing where it was going to go.”
to tears. Despite the decades that have passed, there is little doubt of the story’s continued relevance.
“It has that element of hope that reflects, in some ways, Obama coming into power,” Timmins explains. “It was somewhat relevant, and now more so than ever with more partisan politics, the black and white divide, and the violent culture hasn’t subsided and that sort of hatred within the culture. So, in some ways, a lot of things that were exploded with the assassination are still present today, maybe even more so.”
The band might not be able to stage the production outside the city, but there is a chance a certain deep-pocketed someone could catch the show and push the phenomenal project even further.
Many guest vocalists joined Cowboy Junkies on ‘The Kennedy Suite’