JFK Assassination Song: “The Day John Kennedy Died” by Lou Reed

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 Day John Kennedy Died” was written and recorded by Lou Reed and included on his 1982 album The Blue Mask. Released just before Lou Reed turned 40, this album was among the most acclaimed of his career. The instrumentation was relatively spare, as Reed led a stripped down guitar-bass-drums band with few overdubs. Actually, the album features twin lead guitars with Lou Reed and David Quine separated in the mix to great effect. Dispensing with the decadent “Rock N Roll Animal” persona that he had adopted in the 1970s, the songs on The Blue Mask were more direct and personal than on previous Lou Reed albums.

Lou Reed begins “The Day John Kennedy Died”, the second-to-last song on the album, by describing an idyllic dream he had. In his dream Lou Reed is president of the United States and uses his position to create a just and fair society. Key to this vision is forgetting that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. This event, the song implies, negates the possibility of achieving the sort of utopian society Lou Reed envisions.

As if awakening from the dream, Lou Reed goes on to describe his own memory of the JFK assassination. He recalls where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news, and though television had yet to become such a ubiquitous presence in American life, Lou Reed first heard the news on TV. “I remember where I was that day, I was upstate in a bar/The team from the university was playing football on TV” Not wanting to believe the news, he ran into the street where others were gathering. Any chance for reassuring news was ended when a car horn blared and a person in a Porsche reported Kennedy’s death. Lou Reed tries to reconcile this news with his dream but the final image he relates in the song is of the president being shot in the face.

Lou Reed’s recall of details surrounding the moment he heard the news of JFK’s assassination in “The Day John Kennedy Died” signals that this is a “flashbulb memory,” a vivid recollection etched deep in a person’s memory when encountering a shocking event. Flashbulb memories were first described in a 1977 paper by Roger Brown and James Kulik in the academic journal Cognition. Brown and Kulik argued that flashbulb memories were formed by a distinct mechanism in the brain, and they pointed to the Kennedy assassination as the prototypical event bringing about memories of this sort. In recent years, other researchers have called into question some of Brown and Kulik’s assertions but the basic idea of flashbulb memories as a distinct type of memory in response to shocking events has been widely accepted.

Of course, Lou Reed may or may not be describing his own personal memories of hearing the news of the JFK assassination. His recollection is meant to be more broadly applicable so as to resonate with the audience who have their own memories surrounding that event. Similarly, the disillusion Lou Reed describes in this song is likely shared by many listeners. In his book The Kennedy Assassination Peter Knight reports that in 1963 75 percent of the public believed that the government was trustworthy, but within a generation an equal proportion of the population distrusted the government. Though many events conditioned this attitude (the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other scandals), the assassination of President Kennedy and the way its investigation was subsequently handled proved to be a watershed event in American history in terms of how people have come to regard authorities in recent years.

The Day John Kennedy Died
by Lou Reed

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Oh, the day John Kennedy died

I remember where I was that day, I was upstate in a bar
The team from the university was playing football on TV
Then the screen went dead and the announcer said,
“There’s been a tragedy
There’s are unconfirmed reports the president’s been shot
And he may be dead or dying.”
Talking stopped, someone shouted, “What!?”
I ran out to the street
People were gathered everywhere saying,
Did you hear what they said on TV
And then a guy in a Porsche with his radio hit his horn
And told us the news
He said, “The president’s dead, he was shot twice in the head
In Dallas, and they don’t know by whom.”

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I was young and smart and it was not a waste
I dreamed that there was a point to life and to the human race
I dreamed that I could somehow comprehend that someone shot him in the face

Oh, the day John Kennedy died