The School Shooting That Inspired Elton John’s Song, Ticking

There was a time in the history of America when mass shootings, particularly senseless and shocking school shootings, were not so commonplace. The 1960s was a time of peace, harmony, hope, and free love, punctuated by protests that espoused the sanctity of human life and strongly denounced war and violence. Make Love — Not War. Perhaps that era is best epitomized by that famous uplifting Coke commercial of teenagers coming together to sing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Things were groovy, man. But one horrific event in 1966 — long before the heartbreaking tragedies at Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Virginia Tech — shattered that innocence and inspired a famous music artist and his talented lyricist to write a song about it.

When Elton John sat down to perform this song at a concert in Exeter, England in July of 2003, he turned to the audience and introduced it this way: “We’re going to do a slightly more serious song now. This song was written for an album in the early 70s called Caribou [released in 1974]. It’s a song that deals with violence in America in about the year 1973. When Bernie [Taupin] wrote the song, we thought things would get better — not worse. Well, here we are 30 years on, down the line, and things have gotten worse. And so the song is more relevant [now] than when it was written and its called Ticking.”

It has been suggested that Bernie Taupin wrote Ticking as a response to the movie “Targets” [or “Before I Die” released in 1968], a thriller directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The film focuses on Bobby Thompson, a seemingly normal, quiet young man, who is a Vietnam vet and gun collector, and works as an insurance agent. One morning he just snaps and proceeds to kill his wife, his mother and a delivery boy. Then he climbs on top of an oil storage tank adjacent to a freeway and begins shooting at passing cars. The police begin closing in on Thompson and he makes an escape, finding his way to a drive-in theatre. The gunman shoots the projectionist and then begins shooting at the patrons. Thompson is finally captured by the police after being subdued by an aging actor, played by Boris Karloff. (Yes, of Frankenstein fame.)

Bogdanovich’s film is based on the shocking and horrific University of Texas tower shooting (also referred to as the University of Texas Clock Tower massacre) in Austin, Texas. On August 1, 1966, 11:25 am, Charles Whitman (1941–1966) climbed to the observation deck (28th floor) of the Main Building tower and opened fire, targeting people on campus and a nearby city street where students hung out. The shooting spree, that lasted about 90 minutes, killed 18 people and injured 31 others. Whitman was shot and killed by police that afternoon. Up until then, this was considered the deadliest mass shooting in American history [today, it ranks as the eighth deadliest mass shooting].

Sadly, in the context of increased gun violence and far too many tragic mass shootings in America, the backstory and details seem all too familiar today: Whitman was a seemingly normal young man, 25 years old, a intelligent (IQ of 139), an Eagle Scout, who joined the Marines. He did very well in the military, earning a Good Conduct medal, a Sharpshooter’s Badge, and a Marine Corps Expedition medal. In 1961, he earned a scholarship to study architectural engineering at the University of Texas. There he met and married his wife, Kathleen Frances Leissner (1943–1966), an education major. Doing these years, Whitman struggled with a gambling addiction. His grades suffered, he lost his scholarship, and he was ordered to active duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In 1963, he was court-martialed for gambling, usury, possession of a personal firearm on base, and threatening another officer. He was demoted and eventually honorably discharged at the end of 1964. Whitman returned to the University of Texas to complete his architectural engineering degree. He worked as a bill collector, bank teller, and traffic surveyor. But Whitman’ marriage began to crumble as he became violent and sought help for what he described in his daily journal “overwhelming violent impulses.” He was losing himself, overwhelmed by frequent “unusual and irrational thoughts.” Whitman even sought help, meeting with a psychiatrist at the university clinic to complain that he was haunted by a morbid fantasy of shooting people with a deer rifle from the top of a tower. Those red flags, unfortunately, were missed.

At some point on July 31, 1966, Whitman just snapped. At 6:45 pm, he began typing up a suicide note. He began: “I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.” Soon after midnight he drove to his mother’s house and stabbed her in the heart. He returned to his house, to kill Kathleen, by stabbing her three times in the heart as she slept. In the morning he visited several stores to fulfill his lethal shopping list: at a hardware store, he purchased an M1 carbine (a lightweight semi-automatic rifle) and carbine magazines; at a gun shop, he purchased more carbine magazines and boxes of ammunition; and at Sears he bought a Sears Model 60 12-guage semi-automatic shotgun. Whitman returned home and placed these items along with 6 more guns, supplies (food, coffee, aspirin, water, knives, binoculars, radio, toilet paper, razor, and deodorant) into a footlocker and placed it on a hand truck. He drove to campus and reached the Main Building at the University of Texas at 11:25. Before reaching the observation deck, Whitman killed 2 employees and injured another one. The first shots rang out at 11:48 am. Initially, people mistook the sound of gun shots for construction noise, since there was construction site nearby. Four minutes later, a history professor realized that these were actually gun shots. Soon after police began to arrive. Eventually they made their way up to the top of the building, and one brave officer rushed at Whitman and shot him at point-blank range, killing him instantly. The time was 1:24 pm.

Let us now return to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s song, Ticking. Although John and Taupin are best known for their top-40 hits, their genius is most often found in what DJ’s refer to as “deep cuts” — the songs that are neglected by radio stations, and appreciated by true aficionados. Ticking is no exception: it is an example of Taupin’s brilliant storytelling that is heightened by Elton John’s haunting melody and searing vocals. The title is a reference to the ticking of the clock of the proverbial “ticking time bomb.” The phrase, that appeared as early as 1893, means a person or situation that will likely become harmful or very dangerous in the future. The story begins with Taupin taunting us with a wonderful juxtaposition of the past and the present: we are presented with the image of a child who was a very good student and flash forward to the moment that his parents are notified of their child’s death. It immediately begs the question: what happened here?

Taupin then leads us through the life and qualities (namely, the ones law enforcement profilers recognize: narcissistic traits, paranoid ideation, and passionate hatred) of the troubled protagonist, taken right out of the news stories we have come to read in the wake of most of the most disturbing mass shootings. We learn that he is “a male caucasian” who seems to be a normal person, a quiet child, a good student, not competitive, obedient, grown up straight and true blue, repentant.” We get a sense that he has been brought up by a pious, and perhaps overbearing mother: “Grow up straight and true blue / Run along to bed… Don’t every ride on the Devil’s knee / Pay your penance well, my child, fear where Angels tread… Now you’ll never get to Heaven.” But the young man has felt alone, isolated and haunted with “strange notions in his head,” perhaps paranoia, that others “mean to do [him] harm” since childhood. At some point “his brain just snapped” and the troubled young man storms into a bar in Queens, the “Kicking Mule,” and kills fourteen innocent people. The police are called in, and soon after, the media descends on the scene and begins reporting: the scene is sealed, schools are closed and children are sent home. [Presumably, this is the time when politicians who value guns — and gun lobby money — more than human lives broadcast their two futile, trite messages: our prayers go out to the victims and thanks to the first-responders.] The police surround the bar, pleading for the gunman to surrender and come out with “hands held high.” As soon as he does, the police shoot him: “But they pumped you full of rifle shells as you stepped out the door / Oh you danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law.” Although the song conveys that justice is quickly served; it leaves you with a haunting image — a mother’s admonition coupled with the ticking of the clock. The suggestion here is that there is alway another time bomb in the making: when will the next one explode? Hear it. Ticking. Ticking. Ticking…

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