The Ballad of R. Budd Dwyer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When the Pennsylvania state treasurer killed himself on camera in 1987, he had no idea his death would be immortalized by rock bands.
By J. Bennett
R. Budd Dwyer was having a rough day. It was Jan. 22, 1987, and Dwyer, the state treasurer of Pennsylvania, had recently been found guilty on 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. He was due to be sentenced the next day, and he faced up to 55 years in prison. Despite key testimony against him, Dwyer professed his innocence, even seeking a pardon from then-president Ronald Reagan.
Dwyer asked his press secretary, James “Duke” Horshock, to set up a press conference for 10:30 a.m. on the 22nd. He didn’t tell Horshock what he planned to talk about, but it was widely assumed that Dwyer would be announcing his resignation. When reporters gathered in Dwyer’s office, he appeared agitated. He read from a rambling 21-page statement, reasserting his innocence and airing grievances against the criminal justice system. Photographer Gary Miller described the scene to PennLive as a “long-winded, sad event.”
Dwyer then handed out copies of his statement’s final page, which was littered with grammatical errors and concluded with the following lines: “Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress. Joanne, Rob, DeeDee — I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”
As the reporters were reading the handout, Dwyer produced a large manila envelope from which he removed a .357 Magnum. He repeated his warning to leave. As some people ran for help and others tried to approach Dwyer, he said, “Don’t, don’t, don’t … this will hurt someone. Sit down.” Then he stuck the gun in his mouth and fired a single shot. He died instantly.
A few local TV stations broadcast the graphic footage to lunchtime audiences across Pennsylvania. WPVI in Philadelphia aired the footage on its 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Action News without warning viewers. Other stations edited the video but included the full audio, sections of which were quickly sampled by English electronic band Cabaret Voltaire for its 1987 song “Don’t Argue.” (AllMusic called Code, the album on which the song appears, “the closest thing CV ever made to a party record.”)
The sampling of Dwyer’s final moments didn’t stop there. Marilyn Manson incorporated snippets on his aptly titled 1994 single “Get Your Gunn.” Alt-metal band Faith No More beat him to the punch with its 1992 B-side “The World Is Yours,” as did German thrashers Kreator with their 1992 song “Karmic Wheel.”
Not content to merely sample, some bands wrote entire songs inspired by Dwyer’s dramatic suicide. In 1988, Chicago noise-rock band Rapeman — led by guitarist-vocalist Steve Albini, who would go on to produce albums for Nirvana and PJ Harvey — released an EP titled Budd. The lyrics to the title track reference Dwyer’s demise.
Perhaps the best-known pop culture reference to Dwyer’s death is Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot,” which was a minor hit in 1995 when it reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart while the accompanying video haunted MTV. In a surreal twist, the song’s writer, Filter frontman Richard Patrick, spent many an interview explaining that the song was not about Kurt Cobain’s suicide but rather about Dwyer’s.
In 2010, filmmaker James Dirschberger released Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, a documentary that hinged on an interview with disbarred and imprisoned former attorney William T. Smith, who had testified at Dwyer’s trial that the state treasurer had accepted a $300,000 bribe in exchange for helping a company called Computer Technology Associate get a lucrative contract. In the movie, Smith claims he perjured himself to secure his own plea bargain. “[Dwyer is] dead because of me,” Smith says. “To the day I die, I’ll regret that I did it.”
The documentary led directly to at least one more Dwyer musical reference. In 2013, the New Jersey metal band Fit for an Autopsy released the song “Thank You, Budd Dwyer.” In a press statement, the band — sounding more certain of the truth of Dwyer’s case than history can probably ever be — explained, “This song is our homage to Budd Dwyer, a PA politician who committed suicide … one day before he was to be wrongfully sentenced for accepting a bribe.”
- J. Bennett, OZY Author Contact J. Bennett