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. 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. The song was first performed live by Paul Simon during the Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park in 1981. Near the end of the performance (possibly in response to Simon mentioning John Lennon’s death), 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 release of the concert but was omitted from the live album.
The album version features a sad one-minute coda composed by Phillip Glass, performed with strings, clarinet, and flute; the aria resembles Glass’ own Pruit Igoe from Koyaanisqatsi. This reflects the sad mood of the song:
[via Nico Muhly]