The Late Great Johnny Ace
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The song initially sings of the rhythm and blues singer Johnny Ace, who is said to have shot himself in a game of Russian roulette in 1954 (eyewitness accounts say otherwise). Simon goes on to reference former Beatle John Lennon, who was murdered on December 8, 1980, as well as referencing John F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1963, the year Beatlemania started. In an interview for a Cinemax special promoting Hearts and Bones, Simon remembered that Ace's death was the "first violent death that I remember", and noted that Kennedy and Lennon became the "Johnny Aces" of their time with their subsequent murders.
The album version features a sad one-minute coda composed by Philip Glass, performed with strings, clarinet, and flute; the aria resembles Glass' own Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi. This reflects the sad mood of the song.
The 2004 reissue of Hearts and Bones also contains a solo acoustic demo of the song.
The song was first performed live by Paul Simon during the Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park in September 1981. Near the end of the performance (possibly in response to Simon mentioning John Lennon's death less than a year before), an audience member rushed the stage, causing Simon to pull away from the microphone. The man was quickly pulled away by security and was heard yelling "I gotta talk to you, I gotta talk to you." Simon was clearly shaken—especially as the lyrics deal with assassinations—but he continued the song without a break. The performance was included in the subsequent video and DVD releases of the concert but was omitted from the live album.
In an interview on Late Night with David Letterman on May 20, 1982, Simon discussed the Central Park experience with Letterman. Asked to sing the song and using a spontaneously loaned guitar, Simon performed from his chair instead of taking the stage. Halfway through, Simon stopped the song when one of the strings on the guitar got caught and almost broke, and the director quickly took the show to commercial. Simon jokingly observed that he had stopped the song at almost the same point as when the man in Central Park jumped on stage and said he doubted whether he should ever do the song again. However, he ended up finishing the song when the show returned from commercial.
He later performed the song at Wembley Stadium, London on June 19, 1982, on the Simon and Garfunkel Tour; also at Osaka, Japan on August 5, 1982, and he performed it again on television on Saturday Night Live on November 22, 1986, an appearance which also included "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This was in response to the 23rd anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. He also performed the song on the 2000 "You're The One" tour, preceding it with part of the Johnny Ace hit "Pledging My Love". This is featured on the DVD recorded in Paris.