Jack Ruby fatally shoots Lee Oswald on Nov. 24, 1963.
I will never forget watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television on November 24, 1963 (in a way, the first reality TV show).
It was just two days earlier after my second grade class was let go early at James Madison Elementary in Virginia, MN and while I was walking home my classmate Barb Williams told us why. She pointed to her head holding an imaginary pistol, and said, "The president was shot in the head." I walked home that day and found my mother tuning into our yellow box Sylvania TV wiping tears from her eyes. It was not only the darkest period in American history, but for the first time the concept of evil entered my 8 year old mind and soul.
We all followed the news reports on television in our house, as my parents' friends would come over and call talking about the tragedy as normal life around the house stood still. It was reported that Lee Harvey Oswald, the supposed lone gunman had been captured at a Texas movie theater later that afternoon, and while funeral arrangements for the president were underway, Oswald was going to be transferred from the city jail to the county jail, and that transfer would be broadcast live on television two days later. Mom and I sat on our living room couch soon to see history being made before our eyes. The moment the nightclub owner Jack Ruby jumped in front of Oswald and fired the fatal shot as he was being led out of the basement hallway was forever emblazoned in my mind along with millions of other Americans.
Through the years after that, I was always fascinated by the name Jack Ruby, as it had a bit of a poetic quality to it (his real name was Jack Rubenstein.) Like many others, I accepted the Warren Commission's theory of Oswald as the lone gunman. It wasn't until Mark Lane's book Rush to Judgment came out disparaging those findings, that I resumed my lifelong fascination with those dark days in American History. It is a rabbit hole from which there is no end.
In 1982 my mom, dad, and myself flew down to visit my sister Jackie who was living in Austin, Texas with her family. While in the Dallas airport on our way to rent a car, I picked up a copy of Best Evidence by David Lifton. Lifton was a young physics student at UCLA and whose basic premise was that if JFK was shot from behind, why was his head propelled backward. I read the book overnight, and was so frightened by his theory, that I thought for sure whoever put those books for sale at the airport, must be following whoever bought it, to find us to meet our untimely end. Conspiracy theories have a way of doing that to people.
Through the years I read another dozen or so books on the subject developing my own theories on the assassination. In 1992, I read an article about how Jack Ruby's brother was selling off some of Jack's artifacts and belongings to pay off a tax lien, including his cavanagh hat. As a songwriter who was always interested in the subject, the words came to me from the top floor of what Leonard Cohen calls the "Tower of Song" and dropped in my lap quickly, "Jack Ruby, Jack Ruby in a cavanagh hat, who ever taught you to shoot a pistol like that" I immediately added, "You snuck in the basement and stood in the back, Jack Ruby, Jack Ruby, in a cavanagh hat." I was off and running.
I spread out my dozen or so books on my apartment floor, and started studying each to put together the details of Ruby's life to work into the song. I stayed up all night and by 9am the next day it was nearly finished. I needed one phrase so I called my buddy, journalist David Carr (who eventually ended up working at the New York Times for ten years) who was working at the Twin Cities Reader asked him and he filled in the line with "stock in trade." The song was now complete.
Not long after my other good buddy, comedian Tom Arnold (now married to Roseanne Barr) was going to be hosting Farm Aid V in Dallas, Texas in a few months. I had written and recorded a song called Ferris Wheels on the Farm, and sent it to Tom, who forwarded it to Willie Nelson to see if he'd like me to perform it at the concert with both fingers crossed. Tom called back, and probably as a favor to Tom, Willie invited me to play two songs at the show. Now, I also had this hot new song called Jack Ruby. What would Woody Guthrie do?
I arrived in Irving, Texas where the stadium is located with my guitarist Emmanuel Kiriakou. We witnessed a great soundcheck the day before, both watching Paul Simon rehearse The Boxer with Willie's band (to no avail) and to run out of the tunnel where the Dallas Cowboys enter games, and run down the field like them. Now this was a huge show that included Willie, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Simon, Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynrd, and a couple of dozen other acts. We took the stage around noon, and played our first song Slow Justice (I had recently changed the last verse of that to "Someday those in Congress will have to swallow a bitter pille, they believed Clarence Thomas, but I believed Anita Hill" after the Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) We then broke into the chords and tore into Jack Ruby, loud enough to hear it at Dealey Plaza. We actually received a great round of applause by the 20,000 unsuspecting Texans. My Austin buddy Tom Latimer took a photo of two Dallas cops looking up at the Jumbo-tron suspiciously and looking none too happy about this Yankee's song being performed right here in Dallas County, just miles from where the assassintion occurred. It might have been one of the balliest moves of my career, but I lived to tell the story.
Paul Metsa is a Duluth based musician and author and performs at the Black Water Lounge every Wednesday from 6-8 pm