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Under the Influence of The Executioner's Song: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of Exit
March 15, 2017
In the summer of 1976, Max Jensen was a promising law student at Brigham Young University with a wife and infant daughter. When a construction job fell through, he took the only job he could find to feed his family — working the late shift at the Sinclair gas station in Orem, Utah. The pay was terrible and the job tedious, but he made the best of it.
On July 19, he spent his afternoon happily building shelves in his daughter’s room. Once the project was finished, he scarfed down a meal then kissed his wife Colleen goodbye before heading to work. It was the last time they’d see each other.
Later that night, just before Jensen’s shift was due to end, Gary Gilmore walked in and demanded he empty his pockets. He complied, then Gilmore instructed him to head to the restroom. Once there, he had Jensen lay face down on the floor he’d recently cleaned and shot him twice in the head. He was killed instantly.
The next day, another young family would be destroyed by the same man.
Like Max Jensen, Ben Bushnell was a college student of Mormon faith with a wife and baby. The couple lived in and managed the City Center Motel in Provo. They liked the time the job afforded them to spend together and the work was mostly pleasant.
On the evening of July 20, Ben worked the front desk. His wife Debbie emerged from the apartment and asked him to run to the store for milk. She also wanted candy and ice cream for her cravings (she suspected correctly that she was pregnant). After she returned to their room, she heard a sound like a balloon pop so she went back out hoping to find children in the lobby. Instead she saw the cold stare of Gary Gilmore.
On instinct, Debbie pivoted back into their apartment and waited until he left. She returned to the front desk to find her husband bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, face down on the floor. A short time later, he died.
For a return of less than $150, Gary Gilmore had taken two innocent lives.
The Mind of a Killer
Hours later, Gilmore was turned over to the police by his own cousin and a media frenzy ensued. What could possibly have driven Gilmore to kill two upstanding young men who had followed his every order? Film producer/screenwriter Larry Schiller was determined to find out. He traveled to Utah to befriend the inmate, who was then on death row demanding to be executed as soon as possible.
In the months that followed, Schiller gained rights to the stories of all the major “characters” in this real-life tragedy. He interviewed everyone from Gilmore himself to the woman Gilmore was in love with to the families of the victims. Armed with those interviews, hours of court transcripts and Gilmore’s personal letters, Schiller commissioned famed author Norman Mailer to craft the “true-life novel” that would become the Pulitzer Prize winner The Executioner’s Song.
This is where U2 first becomes part of the story.
The Executioner’s Song was published in 1979, but it wasn’t until several years later, when the band was writing The Joshua Tree, that Bono read it, along with another American crime story, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. One song that emerged from a jam session was the darker-than-usual “Exit.”
In U2 By U2, Bono explained his intention when crafting the lyrics: “This was my attempt at writing a story in the mind of a killer.” He certainly succeeded. It’s not hard to find the parallels between Mailer’s novel and Bono’s words.
In the first lines of “Exit,” we learn about our killer:
You know he got the cure
In fact, Gary Gilmore did sleep very little, plagued by nightmares since childhood. Nightmares about being executed.
Continuing, “Exit” introduces its protagonist’s capacity for love.
He wanted to believe
Nicole Baker Barrett, the woman who romantically loved Gary Gilmore, may have been his only hope for a normal life, but when she rejected him after he became abusive, his world closed in on him.
His head it felt heavy
When questioned about his state of mind during the murders, according to The Executioner’s Song, Gilmore remembered, “I never felt so terrible as I did the week before I was arrested. I had lost Nicole. It hurt so f***ing bad that it was becoming physical — I mean I couldn’t hardly walk, I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t hardly eat. I couldn’t drown it. Booze didn’t even dull it. A heavy hurt and loss. It got worse every day. I could feel it in my heart … I could feel the ache in my bones. I had to go on automatic to get thru the day.”
He went deeper into black
Also in The Executioner’s Song, Gilmore described his descent into darkness in his own lyrical way:
When asked about the murder of Bushnell, Gilmore talked about his uncontrolled rage: “Sometimes I would feel an urge to do something and I would try to put it off, and the urge would become stronger until it was irresistible.”
Unfortunately, the rage didn’t end with Gilmore’s execution the following year, or the U2 song released a decade later.
Hollywood’s Worst Nightmare
Robert John Bardo was an unemployed janitor in Tucson, Arizona when he began writing love letters to actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who starred in the TV sitcom My Sister Sam. It wasn’t his first rodeo — he’d also pursued singer Debbie Gibson and peace activist Samantha Smith, though unsuccessfully. Schaeffer, just 21 at the time and relatively new in her career, initially answered his fan mail with a kind personal note. He took this as a sign of encouragement and traveled to California multiple times to meet her. He was denied entry at the Burbank studio where she filmed her TV show, so he attempted to obtain her home address.
On July 17, 1989 he roamed the streets of West Hollywood holding up Schaeffer’s photo, asking if anyone knew where she lived. No one would give her residence up, so he hired a private detective, who made a simple visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles and produced the address. Inspired by John Lennon’s killer, Bardo armed himself with a copy of Catcher In The Rye and a .357 Magnum revolver for the trip to her apartment. Once he arrived, he had a pleasant exchange with the actress, who mentioned a postcard she’d sent him in response to his latest correspondence. She told him to “take care” and sent him on his way.
Just moments later he rang the doorbell again and Schaeffer returned, irritated by the repeat visit. She mentioned something about him wasting her time and he shot her twice in the chest. She screamed so loudly that a neighbor across the street heard her and rushed over. There, after Bardo hurriedly walked away, the neighbor found Schaeffer lying in a pool of blood and called an ambulance. She died less than an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Bardo was captured the next day back in Arizona and confessed to the crime, telling his lawyers that lyrics from the U2 song “Exit” gave him the idea for the murder. A clip from Inside Edition two years later shows Bardo’s physical reaction to the song when the defense team plays it during his trial.
No charges were brought against U2 despite his claim and Bardo was convicted of first-degree murder. He’s currently serving a life sentence without parole at Ironwood State Prison in California.
Laid to Rest
In U2 By U2, Bono recalled an injury he sustained on The Joshua Tree tour when caught up in the song’s darkness:
U2 has played the song “Exit” live 112 times. The final performance was during the Lovetown tour in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 14, 1989.
Many fans assumed the band would never play “Exit” again. During a 2007 interview for Phantom FM, then-manager Paul McGuinness admitted the song had been “slightly tainted” by the Bardo connection. But The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 will change that. In fact, in a recent Facebook Live video, Larry Mullen said “Exit” was the song he most looked forward to playing.
In the age-old philosophical battle of “Art Imitates Life” vs. “Life Imitates Art,” it could be argued that “Exit,” perhaps tragically, fulfills both.
(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2017.