The phone number was not saved, nor was it one I recognized immediately. “Williamsburg, Va.” was the only indicator, which thankfully wasn’t the dreaded “Scam Likely”—so I picked up. The voice on the other end answered flatly, with a Southern drawl, and at a much slower pace than I, a New Yorker, was used to. “Hi, Fred, this is John.” The soft-spoken individual was polite, well-mannered, and measured in his responses—far from jovial and not quite friendly yet still inviting. It was hard to believe I was speaking with the recently released John Hinckley Jr., would-be assassin of our 40th president, Ronald Reagan.
Initial impressions aside, let’s recall how we all came to know his name in the first place. On March 30, 1981, Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, shooting his .22 Caliber Röhm revolver six times at Reagan as he left an AFL-CIO conference at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. Shots hit Officer Thomas Delahanty and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, wounding both; mortally wounded Secretary of State James Brady in the head above his right eyebrow; and ricocheted off the presidential state car and into Reagan’s chest. When Hinckley was finally wrestled to the ground, he was still pulling the trigger on a now-empty gun. Obviously, the president survived the attack, but Brady’s wound left his entire left side paralyzed until his death in 2014, which was ruled a homicide after his passing. Following a swift trial in 1982, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a controversial opinion that led to the revision of laws dealing with the mentally ill on a state-by-state basis.
Soon thereafter he would follow through on his plan...“the greatest love offering in the history of the world.”
Hinckley’s attempt on the life of Reagan was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which a loner drives the NYC streets hoping that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” In the film, the protagonist Travis Bickle plots to assassinate a presidential candidate, abandons that idea, and eventually saves a child prostitute, played by Jodie Foster, from a local brothel by going on a killing spree. Heralded as a vigilante hero in the papers in the days following, Bickle eventually gets the girl he wooed in the first portion of the film—a darkly ironic twist to a hyper-violent and nihilistic film.
“I mean, it’s no secret that I really, really got fixated on Taxi Driver and in some ways it led to my crime,” confirms Hinckley, who saw the film 15 times. “I was so fixated on that movie. Travis Bickle was the antihero and kind of a loner who was looking for love, and I was kind of the same way. But also Taxi Driver was very typical of movies of that time, even though that was the one that stood out for me.”
John Hinckley’s motivation for the crime was later revealed to be a case of erotomania, where an individual holds the unfounded and delusional belief that another person of higher stature or social class is infatuated with them—in this case, Jodie Foster. Hinckley stalked her at Yale after reading in a magazine that she was a student there. After multiple calls, poems, and love letters were left unanswered, Hinckley began to conjure alternative ideas about how to garner the attention of the film star. Taking a cue from Taxi Driver, he began to stalk then president Carter with the intent of assassination, showing up at three of his rallies, including one in Dayton where he reportedly got “very close” to the Commander-in-Chief and changed his mind at the last minute. Soon thereafter he would follow through on his plan with new president Ronald Reagan, deeming the act “the greatest love offering in the history of the world."
In the 41 years that have passed since that fateful gray day, Hinckley has publicly apologized and is now deemed no longer a threat by the court system, and has been given an unconditional release. On the straight path toward self-care, Hinckley claims that he wants a peaceful existence without drama and has refocused on his passion, writing music—a pursuit he initially abandoned after years of following his dream into his 20s. With reportedly thousands of songs written, Hinckley began to record and release the tracks, 30-plus of which are currently available on streaming services. The release of the songs came with instantaneous buzz, more than likely connected to his infamy, and as a result his minor profile has led to a singular aim: to make his passion public via a series of live gigs. An interesting choice for a man who claims to want a quiet life.
Hinckley’s musical backstory reads as generic as any other child born around the counterculture ’60s—the Beatles were the through-line in his rock ’n’ roll fandom, leading to the Who, Kinks, Stones, and on and on. Foundational bands such as these, along with the Laurel Canyon scene of the ’70s and country music from his home state of Texas, helped form his tastes and songwriting after he got a guitar at 10 years old. “It was through the Beatles that I learned to write songs—those early Beatles songs were simple little love songs, upbeat,” recalls Hinckley. “I really liked Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eagles, and James Taylor, all that stuff. I got into some country—especially Hank Williams Sr. He was just fantastic. He wrote so many great songs. Willie Nelson was big in Austin in the early ’70s. But I never came in contact with Roky Erickson or anyone like that.”
After a few failed attempts at starting bands, including some public performances with college buddies, Hinckley moved to L.A. to pursue a career as a songwriter. It was 1976, and Hinckley was 21 years old when he started pushing his demo around town. “I had the notion of making it in L.A., like a lot of others,” says Hinckley. “I remember pitching my songs, just walking into a couple of places—one was United Artists. I just went in cold and gave them a demo, but of course it went nowhere. I may have gone into Capitol Records, that famous building at Hollywood and Vine, and just gave them a demo. Just dropped it with the receptionist. I’m sure they didn’t listen to it.”
At the time, Hinckley was swallowing up the work of the beat poets, specifically Charles Bukowski. Despite coming from an admittedly upper-middle-class family and claiming to have no sustained interest in drugs or alcohol, Hinckley latched onto the writer’s dark stories of life on the skids. “Bukowski was a good poet and a good short-story writer. He just wrote the nitty-gritty of life and the way life really is. He wrote in simple sentences, kind of like a Hemingway,” states Hinckley about his favorite poet. “Growing up, my family was what I’d call upper-middle-class. My father made a good living and we always had a nice house and everything we needed. I went to really good schools. But in the ’70s, I kind of got estranged from my family and went off on my own. I was not living the exact lifestyle that Bukowski was, but when I was out of school, I was living in kind of run-down apartment houses and amongst the lower classes. And I just kind of related because he wrote about the working men and women of the world and living on the edge.”
In the wake of the assassination attempt, Hinckley was transferred to psychiatric care at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. For decades, starting on Aug. 18, 1981, it would be just him, his guitar, and his radio. That radio, and a local indie station that caused major waves in the mid-Atlantic during the ’90s, played a crucial role for Hinckley. WHFS, located between Washington and Baltimore, thrived on alternative rock programming from the late ’80s on, becoming the place to hear everyone from R.E.M. to New Order and the Cure. “I didn’t have access to a lot of the music, so maybe that’s why I kind of got stuck in the ’60s and ’70s, because that’s when I was a free man,” hypothesizes Hinckley. “But I would listen to DC 101, which was and I guess still is their best rock station. And there was an indie music station out of Maryland that I listened to a lot, too, WHFS. I got into bands like Magnetic Fields, Sebadoh, and Neutral Milk Hotel—Nirvana somewhat, and some of the grunge stuff. I liked Stephen Merritt a lot. I think the best Magnetic Fields album is Get Lost.”
During this time, Hinckley was turning to the guitar not just for court-ordered therapy, but for personal solace as well—when he could. Chaos would reign in his ward, causing focus to be a hot commodity, but the moments that he did have to himself were spent creating and writing songs. “When I just wanted to get away from all the commotion, I would just go to my room and play my guitar and get into my music,” recalls Hinckley. “In the ’90s and the 2000s, I was in music therapy. I had several music therapists who would sit with me and we would play guitars together and sing. So that was very helpful. I think they helped make me a better musician and probably a better songwriter, too.”
Hinckley claims to stay careful with his listening habits and his songwriting, though, avoiding “downer” songs at all costs for his own peace of mind. “I have not written a lot of downer songs because I don’t really like downer songs,” he says. “That’s why I never could get into Nirvana that much, because Kurt Cobain had so much angst going on in every song and I just kind of wanted to get away from that. I could detect that. That’s one thing I haven’t brought up, is all through the later seventies, I was starting to have mental health issues. So, from then on I didn’t really want to hear downer stuff because I had that going on in my own life.”
“I never could get into Nirvana... Kurt Cobain had so much angst going on”
According to Hinckley, his desire for a positive mental attitude is a focus in his work; themes like love and redemption are central to his songwriting. “I always tell people that if you want to get to really know me, listen to my songs, because that is where I express myself the best,” he says. ”My songs are about overcoming hard times and getting to the place where I am now, where I have a good frame of mind. I got my full unconditional release last Wednesday, so I’m a free man now. That’s a great feeling.”
But how can the public be assured that the man who took another man’s life and wounded three others is no longer a danger to those around him? When asked whether he presents a danger to an audience, Hinckley is quick to reassure me that he is no longer the person who was hospitalized, and adds that he also wants to feel safe at his own events. “At any concert that I would give, we would have adequate security for the audience, not just for me,” Hinckley says pointedly. “I don’t present a danger, and I think that any concert that I would do would be quite secure for everyone.”
While Hinckley’s insanity plea was a rousing call to arms for reform in handling the mentally ill, his time under the watch of caregivers for more than four decades without incident is something that cannot be discounted. Yet the confines of a controlled environment such as Saint Elizabeths are far different from the outside world. When pressed on how he can give the assurance that he is a changed man, Hinckley stresses that there is only one true way to prove rehabilitation. “Well, just by living the life that I’m living now and showing people that I’m like them in a lot of ways,” Hinckley says simply. “I’m just trying to get through life and do what’s right. I kind of express it through my music. If they just listen to the music and what I’m saying, hopefully I can show them that I’m a changed person now.”
The life of a musician is definitely a mixed bag—emotions laid bare and expressed to a room of strangers juxtaposed against a desire to have a life of one’s own. It’s a strange dichotomy, but one that has been successfully executed over the years, usually through the artist staying in the studio or giving limited performances. Hinckley wants none of that, instead seeking to soak in the adulation, attention, and apparent lack of privacy that comes with a successful musical career in order to share lessons from his journey.
“Well, a lot of people were asking me to, first of all. And that’s kind of what musicians do—they have their records and CDs, but also do live dates,” he states matter-of-factly. “And I wanted to do that too, to get out and meet the people. A lot of people write to me and say, ‘Your songs help me get through my day.’ That is a really good feeling when somebody tells me that. That’s kind of what I’m aiming for.”
Yet the question remains, how can someone live a life of anonymity while pursuing a very public life in the spotlight? When confronted, Hinckley is quick to point out the lives of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and many others who have been able to balance private life with a public persona. I respond pointedly that those names clearly did not come into the public eye with the same baggage that his has. Hinckley then retreats into another core mantra, something he reiterated previously, but this time in a different way: “Through my music, I’m trying to show a different side of me. I don’t want people to just know me for the negativity that came in 1981. I want them to see this changed person.”
Regardless of his motivation, he clearly does have an audience salivating to see him. In the past few months Hinckley has scheduled three shows, in Chicago, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, the latter of which sold out in three days. But as the shows began to roll out, each was canceled citing security reasons—the latest cancellation, in Brooklyn, was announced on June 15. “I did have, and still have, notions of playing some live dates, but I’ve been met with resistance. I’ve had three shows canceled in the past few months—it was just really a big disappointment.”
The Brooklyn show may be the biggest blow, as the quick sellout was canceled for several reasons, some of which read like artistic attacks on Hinckley. The statement issued by the venue speaks about mental health and possible atonement, yet the same venue head staunchly defended his booking of Boyd Rice, a known provocateur with a penchant for dabbling in Nazisms for the sake of shock. Still, when asked about that Brooklyn show, Hinckley vacillates between pride and disappointment, enjoying the fact that it sold so fast. “I think I have a lot of people who like my music in the New York area and just wanted to come out and see me in person. I had a bass player and drummer lined up. They both live in New York City and were practicing hard every day for this concert.”
Hinckley readily admits that he has not read the statement in full, which at one point calls the show a “stunt booking.” But when asked what he thought about the statement, Hinckley replies with a larger focus on security than anything else. “I didn’t like reading that. They’re citing security reasons and things like that, but I was taking the security of the event very seriously.”
Now that the show is canceled, it’s easy to let the mind wander in search of just who John Hinckley Jr.’s audience is. And while his music has a certain undeniable Daniel Johnston-esque charm, his audience probably has its share of rubberneckers, eager to be in the presence of a man who single-handedly changed the course of history. Hinckley chalks up these people as potential converts to his music. “Well, my audience, I believe, is mixed,” he opines. “I have people who are interested in me just because of my notoriety and what happened in 1981. And they just would like to see me in person, just because they’ve heard about me for so many years. But I also have an audience of actual fans who really like my music. They listen to it on Spotify, and on my YouTube channel. As far as people who aren’t strictly here for my music...it’s something I accept because I’ve had so much notoriety since 1981. There’s a natural curiosity in people to see me and know more about me. And if that draws them to my music, then that’s great.”
Even if the shows were to happen and go off swimmingly, Hinckley would likely be plagued by one recurring question: Are we allowing a man to use his notoriety to capitalize on a felony? When asked about how he responds to that criticism, Hinckley is quick to point out his long history with music. “I’ve had music in my life since about the age of 8, and it’s been a big part of my life all these years,” states Hinckley emphatically, and with a stronger yet still restrained tone. “It’s just something I’m trying to do to get on with my life. That’s how I'm trying to present myself—as a singer-songwriter. This is what I want to do now, and I believe my talent is in my music and art."
Hinckley’s demeanor and candor hint at a man who realizes his own history and yearns to make peace with it, personally and publicly. But considering the questions around inherent biases, restorative justice, potential dangers he may present both as a potential stalker and violent offender, roadblocks around live performance, the rubbernecking quotient, and whether he is potentially profiting off of the shooting, it feels like public redemption may not be in the cards. And now Hinckley is trying to take matters one step further and garner adulation for his music—a bizarre idea considering his crimes and the pervasive mainstream opinion that Hinkley got off lightly. (Back at the time of his verdict, ABC found that 83 percent of those polled felt that justice had not been served.) His past isn’t easily forgotten, but his future desires are crystal-clear: “What a lot of artists are looking for from an audience is to get their approval and appreciation.”
The only charge Hinckley is definitely guilty of beyond a reasonable doubt is holding on to the dream of every kid who’s ever picked up a guitar, mimicked Pete Townsend’s windmills, or tried out Chuck Berry’s duck walk: to become a rock star without considering the overwhelming baggage that comes with it.