1987 Week: Televised suicide of R. Budd Dwyer inspires morbid music memorials

Screenshot from 'An Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer'

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

It was a snowy, blustery mid-morning on January 22, 1987 when R. Budd Dwyer began a press conference in the Pennsylvania Capitol Building, where he served as State Treasurer, almost to the day, for six years. Those gathered in attendance expected the Republican to announce he was resigning from his post following a conviction of bribery for which he was to be sentenced the following day.

Instead, they were firsthand witnesses to one of the most ghastly news stories ever.

Almost 30 minutes into a speech where the 47 year-old married father of two defended himself as an innocent victim of a corrupt system, Dwyer opened an envelope from in his briefcase which revealed a .357 Magnum revolver. No one knew what he planned to do with the gun, imploring him to put the gun down. Following several tense moments, he put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet exiting from the back of his skull had killed him instantly.

Dwyer’s death by suicide was broadcast on noon newscasts around the state and beyond. Many children saw it take place as they were home from school with a snow day. The news media as a whole had no protocol in place to deal with such a shocking turn of events, but those who showed the complete and disturbing footage — which ended with the politician slumped on the floor with blood and brain matter splattered on the wall behind him and blood pouring from his nose and mouth — would see if heavily copied and traded among those who desired to see such a macabre display.

Philadelphia area newspaper the day after Dwyer killed himself.

These days, the clip is widely available across the internet, and while Vanyaland has no intent to showcase the gruesome scene, it is worth noting those who were inspired by it in the world of music. The most well-known is Filter, who had a breakout single with the 1995 industrial classic “Hey Man, Nice Shot,” which, while widely thought to be about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who had taken his own life the year prior, was actually about Dwyer.

“This song was so controversial, and I literally was, ‘What did I do?’” Filter frontman Richard Patrick told the radio station KLAQ in 2012. “That was the tragedy of the song coming out after he killed himself. The problem was the song was written in ’91. The sad thing is that my label, Warner Bros. or someone put it out and said, ‘It’s a song about suicide,’ so DJs in Seattle said, ‘No, this song is about Kurt Cobain’ and they kept repeating it over and over and over and that’s the problem when you say it over and over, whether or not it’s the truth or not, it’s just the truth. I had to finally go on and say, This song, if anything, it was inspired by R. Budd Dwyer.'”

Patrick claims he obtained the footage while touring as a member of Nine Inch Nails on Lollapalooza 1991 and detailed how it gave him the impetus to compose the track.

“It was like, really sick… me and my stoner buddies were like, ‘Oh dude, you gotta check,’ you know, just like morbid punk rockers that we were back then. It was so intense. I’m from the suburbs, I don’t remember seeing people being killed — I didn’t see a lot of things like that when I grew up. When you’re 22 and you get this footage, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You can see anything on the internet, but back then, we were just watching it out of the fascination of like, ‘God, we all gotta die. Every one of us is gonna die.’ There’s like a morbid curiosity with all that. So I watched it and I was like, ‘Hey man, nice shot,’ and the next thing I knew I had this song written.'”

While the single continued to gain popularity, criticism of the band intensified with Filter hearing from the family of Dwyer and their understandable displeasure at their tragedy being the influence for a hit song.

“R. Budd Dwyer’s widow contacted our publicist and said, ‘How could you bring this back up? How could you do this?'” Patrick recalled. “The reality was, ‘Your husband got on live TV, which was broadcast live in many different states — including Cleveland, where I grew up — held a press conference that he knew was going to be gonna be on live TV and shot himself in the head.’ And this is what society has done; an artist has written a song that was loosely inspired by an event like that.”

“It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Hey R. Budd Dwyer, hey man, nice shot.’ I’m just kind of talking about a phenomenon of someone going to the extreme to make a point — and that was what the whole song was about; ‘Hey man, nice shot — you’ve made a point.’ If anything, you certainly have made a point that people can, you know, kill themselves — essentially. ‘Cause I don’t think anyone remembers that he was trying to say he was innocent, they just remember he killed himself.”

Marilyn Manson also used Dwyer’s death in quite a different manner for his band’s 1994 debut single “Get Your Gunn,” which while about David Gunn, an OB/GYN doctor murdered by an anti-abortion activist the year prior, featured audio clips — including the gunshot — from Dwyer’s press conference. Manson said Filter took the genesis of their song from him.

“Strangely, when I was doing that song, I sampled an audio piece from the guy shooting himself on television [Dwyer] at the same time as Rich Patrick from Nine Inch Nails — he was there when I did that and he wrote ‘Hey Man, Nice Shot’ about the same thing,” Manson told the Phoenix New-Times in 2013. “He thought it was just so exciting when he was standing there when he heard me play it; he wouldn’t have even heard it if I didn’t play it. That’s just because I don’t like him very much. He bothers me.”

Before either Manson or Filter appropriated Dwyer’s death for their material, Faith No More added audio from the press conference to the song “The World is Yours,” which was an outtake from the band’s 1992 Angel Dust sessions. It wouldn’t be released though until the bonus disc for the greatest hits collection Who Cares A Lot? in 1998.

Somewhat lesser known, two acts have used associated imagery from Dwyer’s suicide. Crossover thrash outfit Neurosis used a black and white still taken right as Dwyer was putting the gun in his mouth for their debut LP Pain of Mind, which came out the same year as the incident. And Pennsylvania-born alternative rock band Camp Kill Yourself, better known as CKY, took an artist’s painted rendering of the suicidal act in progress for the cover of their eponymous 1999 debut release. Both albums would later be reprinted with alternative, less controversial cover art.

Featured photo screenshot taken from the Eighty Four Films documentary ‘Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer’