JFK Assassination Song: “Oswald Defence Lawyer” by The Fall

November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is the third post in a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.

In 1988 the British group The Fall released the album The Frenz Experiment, which contained the track “Oswald Defence Lawyer,” written by Steve Hanley and Mark E. Smith. The Oswald mentioned in the title is Lee Harvey Oswald, accused of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Oswald never had legal representation, however, as he was gunned down by Jack Ruby two days after the JFK assassination, before he could secure the services of a lawyer. This song would seem to refer to On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald, a mock trial produced for television in 1986 by London Weekend Television. Two other dramatizations, both titled The Train of Lee Harvey Oswald, had been produced in the United States in the years after the JFK assassination. The first The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald was released in 1964, just months after the assassination, but was suppressed (or so the film claims in its opening title sequence) and not seen again for many years (it’s now available on DVD from Something Weird). Another film called The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald was a made for TV in 1977, during the investigations by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald was more ambitious than either of these films. Though filmed in London, the judge and jury were from Texas and flown in for the event. The people taking the stand were actual witnesses from the case and the lawyers for the defense and prosecution were well known American attorneys.

The attorneys in On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald were a study in contrasts, highlighted in “Oswald Defence Lawyer.” Defending Lee Harvey Oswald was Gerry Spence, a successful attorney who has never lost a case and is best known for his involvement in the Karen Silkwood case. Spence was folksy in his cowboy hat (“buckskin hat” in the words of The Fall), while “His opposite is vain”. The prosecuting attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, made a point of stopping the proceedings to make sure his name was pronounced correctly. When Bugliosi made clear that “the G is silent” Spence joked, “That’s the only thing that’s silent about Mr. Bugliosi.” Throughout the trial Bugliosi spoke quickly and was all business but The Fall were having none of it. “His mouth is in his brain” they said of the prosecutor.

In the absence of an actual trial, the public had to content itself with the findings of the Warren Commission, a group of high government officials formed a few days after the assassination and issued their final report in September, 1964, less than a year after the event. The Warren Commission came to the conclusion that Oswald had acted alone in the assassination of JFK. The prosecution in On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald relied heavily on the Warren Commission report, but in doing so “The prosecution lawyer/Turns himself to butter” according to The Fall. But Bugliosi was passionate about the subject and spent the next 20 years working on a 1600+ page tome called Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) confirming the findings of the Warren Commission.

The Fall take issue with several aspects of the Warren Commission’s findings, particularly in their explanation of the shots fired by Oswald. According to the Warren Commission, Oswald’s first shot missed his target but Oswald’s second shot hit his target and then some. This shot, which supposedly hit both Kennedy and Gov. John Connally, who was riding in the seat in front of JFK, has come to be known by conspiracy theorists as the “Magic Bullet Theory” because of the strange trajectory the bullet would have had to have taken to have had the effect suggested by the Warren Commission. The “theory of zigzag bullet line” and  the “theory of triangle bullet lines/Turning in circles twice”, is how “Oswald Defence Lawyer” mocks the Warren Commission’s description of Oswald’s second shot.

from Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedyby Jim Marrs

The Fall also express skepticism about the idea that Oswald fired the shot that struck JFK in the head. Oswald was shooting from behind Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, but conspiracy theorists argue that the shot that hit Kennedy in the head must have been a frontal shot because its impact caused Kennedy’s head to move back and to the left. The head shot was most likely fired by another gunman placed on the “Grassy Knoll”, which would have been a frontal shot from the right. The Fall would seem to support the idea that the head shot was not fired from the rear with the line “Then incredible, marvelous, exiting back of mind”.

The Fall also contest what the Warren Commission regarded as an incriminating piece of evidence, a backyard photo of Oswald holding the rifle used in the assassination. Conspiracy theorists suggest that the photo was altered, putting a picture of Oswald’s head on someone else’s body (“Cheap rifle photo touched up/Drawn on sky/Oswald’s head added on a commie tie”).

At various points throughout the track, The Fall express their disgust with what they clearly regard as a sham with the lines “Embraces the scruffed corpse” of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, suggesting that these historical figures, both of whom died many years before the JFK assassination, would be rolling over in their graves. With his folksy manner, Gerry Spence invokes a sort of rustic image consistent with these American icons, and also taps into the sort of outrage that they represent. Mark Twain was a satirist who was strongly anti-imperialist. Perhaps The Fall believed that Kennedy was assassinated because he was about to scale back American involvement in southeast Asia, though this is not explicitly stated in the lyrics. Walt Whitman was a  champion of American democratic ideals, which The Fall perhaps believed were subverted by the JFK assassination (“CIA shit flying over head fast”). Perhaps the greatest disgust in this song is expressed toward the jury in this mock trial, drawn from a public that was far too willing to accept a simplistic and illogical explanation of the assassination, a “jury made up of putrid mass” in the words of The Fall. At the end of On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Oswald Defence Lawyer
by Steve Hanley and Mark E. Smith

How could he cope with a flash in my past?
Through my vid earphone amp I had to tap
I relate the tract
Oswald Defense Lawyer

Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of the Mark Twain
Oswald Defense Lawyer

How do you think that jury made up of putrid mass
Embraced theory of triangle bullet lines
Turning in circles twice
Then incredible, marvelous, exiting back of mind?

And Oswald’s Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Mark Twain
Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Walt Whitman
Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Mark Twain

Decent lawyer fishes in buckskin hat
Raccoons drown beneath his embarking mass
When he sees CIA shit flying over head fast
Goody goody looks up
In cloudless sky enhancing theory of zigzag bulletline

Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of the Mark Twain
Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of the Mark Twain

He’s liberal and insane,
He’s caught the good news horse
His opposite is vain
The cardboard fake in the witness stand
He’s got an interview in Spin magazine
He loves the magazine
His mouth is in his brain
The prosecution lawyer
Turns himself to butter

Oswald Defense Lawyer
Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Walt Whitman
Oswald Defense Lawyer

Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Walt Whitman

Oswald Defense Lawyer

Cheap rifle photo touched up
Drawn on sky
Oswald’s head added on a commie tie

While Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Mark Twain
Oswald Defense Lawyer
Embraces the scruffed corpse of Walt Whitman

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