JFK Assassination Song: “The Warmth of the Sun” by the Beach Boys

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

“The Warmth of the Sun” was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, and recorded by the Beach Boys. It was initially released as the B-side of the single “Dance, Dance, Dance” in 1964. Though it may not be immediately obvious, “The Warmth of the Sun” has a strong connection to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. When asked about “The Warmth of the Sun” in an interview in American Songwriter in 2009, Brian Wilson stated, “That song was inspired by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The day he was killed Mike (Love) and I went into my office where I had a piano and wrote a song in his memory. That came quickly.”

In the documentary film I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, which was released in 1995, Brian Wilson had gone into greater depth describing the circumstances around composing this song. Upon hearing the news of JFK’s assassination, Brian went to his office with Mike Love with the expressed goal of writing a song to express their emotions during this trying time. He described it as a “very spiritual night” and considered it a rare event to be able to capture such profound feelings in a song. According to Brian,

JFK got shot to death and so we were a little bit despondent about it. So [Mike Love] called me up and said, “So what do you think?” “Ah, it’s terrible.” And he goes, “Well, do you want to write a song to JFK tonight at your office?” I said, “Sure.” So we met at my office at around 6:00, 7:00 in the evening, just when the sun was going down. Very spiritual night. We had windows. My office had a lot of windows so we had a view–a panoramic view of the city. So we got going. I don’t know… a mood took over. It was like a… something took us over. I can’t explain it. It was like… [plays a bit of the tune on the piano and sings, “that grows into day”] It was a vibration or a mood–whatever you call it–and Mike flipped out. He said, “that song is one of the most spiritual songs I’ve ever heard.” I said, “Thanks.” I said, “Those lyrics are beautiful”–he wrote the lyrics. Whoo. Ya know, I mean, stuff like that happens every 20 years. It doesn’t happen every day that JFK gets shot to death and the Beach Boys can go write “The Warmth of the Sun.”

Though Brian describes his memories of this experience in vivid detail, more than likely this account is not accurate. According to The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studioby Keith Badman, on the evening of November 22, 1963, the Beach Boys performed a concert in Marysville, California, over 400 miles from Brian’s office in Hollywood. Beach Boys concert promoter Fred Vail reports that the group and the venue considered canceling the show, but they decided to go forward with it. He asked the audience to observe a moment of silence before introducing the Beach Boys, and he remembers the concert as being a great success. Vail recalls that Mike Love and Brian had been working on “The Warmth of the Sun” earlier and they completed the song at the hotel after the concert. To add to the confusion, Mike Love remembers it differently. He was quoted in Endless Summer Quarterly as saying that he and Brian had written “The Warmth of the Sun” on the day before the JFK assassination. He related that “there was a very mystical eerie feeling associated with writing the song” that was reinforced when the events surrounding the JFK assassination unfolded the following day.

Whenever this song was written, it’s clear that “The Warmth of the Sun,” has come to be associated with the JFK assassination in the minds of its songwriters and those close to the Beach Boys. In this song Brian was trying to remember the happiness of an earlier time in the face of tragedy (“The love of my life/She left me one day… Still I have the warmth of the sun/Within me tonight”). On a surface level the song is about a breakup, but the first verse and the chorus have a more universal quality that could be applied to an event of any kind, including the devastation caused by the assassination of a prominent political figure. The song laments a great loss and yearns for a happier, more innocent time.

Though it was originally released as a B-side, over time the stature of “The Warmth of the Sun” has increased and it has come to be recognized as one of the finest Beach Boys songs. Perhaps this is because the sentiments explored in “The Warm of the Sun” are some of Brian Wilson’s signature themes, and the song expresses nostalgia just as the Beach Boys music generally has come to represent a simpler, more carefree time. This was not always the case, however, as the Beach Boys were among the most trendsetting bands through the release of their album Pet Sounds. Their star began to fade, however, when the band could not carry through with their follow-up album. In I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who collaborated with Brian Wilson, observed,

As Pet Sounds came to print [Brian Wilson] began work on his next project called Smile. Smile was a record to even explore in greater detail the modular aspects of songwriting. He wanted to explore the innocence of youth–maybe the innocence that America had just lost following the assassination of John Kennedy and our entanglement in a war that a generation rebelled against. Brian decided to go back and explore that innocence of childhood.

Brian would ultimately abandon Smile(though he released a reworked version of it called SMiLE with the aid of Darian Sahanaja in 2004). As the 1960s wore on, Brian was increasingly torn in his effort to top Pet Sounds (not to mention the Beatles). His own lifestyle had changed radically from the days of his youth as the Beach Boys’ fame grew and his mental health was deteriorating. For Brian personally, as well as society in general, there was no going back to a happier, more innocent time following the assassination of JFK.

The Warmth of the Sun
by Mike Love and Brian WilsonWhat good is the dawn
That grows into day
The sunset at night
Or living this way

For I have the warmth of the sun
(warmth of the sun)
Within me at night
(within me at night)

The love of my life
She left me one day
I cried when she said
I don’t feel the same way

Still I have the warmth of the sun
(warmth of the sun)
Within me tonight
(within me tonight)

I’ll dream of her arms
And though they’re not real
Just like she’s still there
The way that I feel

I loved like the warmth of the sun
(warmth of the sun)
It won’t ever die
(it won’t ever die)

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