This is a song with three chapters, each involving the sudden death, by gun, of a famous person named John. Each death happens in a different decade.
While it is not often safe (and sometimes completely wrong) to assume so, this time the speaker is Simon himself.
News first death is described in the greatest detail. The John this time is Johnny Ace. We learn what Simon was doing when he heard of Ace's death, and how he heard it, his emotional reaction to it. As Simon himself admits, "I really wasn't such a Johnny Ace fan," so it is not important to know Ace's biography or repertoire. From the evidence in the song and the "photograph" in the LP's liner notes, Ace was an R&B artist who died young. I had to look him up to realize the gun-death connection:
Bill Dahl, writing for allmusic.com, explains (pardon my edits, Mr. Dahl, for brevity): "The death of young pianist Johnny Ace in a round of Russian roulette backstage at Houston's City Auditorium on Christmas Day of 1954 (note: this is disputed by some) tends to overshadow his relatively brief but illustrious recording career on Duke Records. Ace's gentle, plaintive vocal balladry deserves reverence on its own merit... John Marshall Alexander [his birth name] was a member of the Beale Streeters, a crew of Memphis youngbloods that variously included B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Earl Forest. Signing with the local Duke logo in 1952, the re-christened Ace hit the top of the R&B charts his very first time out with the mellow ballad "My Song." Ace racked up hits: "Cross My Heart," "The Clock," "Saving My Love for You," "Please Forgive Me," and "Never Let Me Go" all dented the uppermost reaches of the charts. Ace scored his biggest hit of all posthumously; his haunting "Pledging My Love" remained atop Billboard's R&B lists for ten weeks in early 1955.")
But what was the impact of Ace's death on Simon? On the surface, not that much. And yet... he "sent away" for Ace's photo: "And they signed it on the bottom/“From the Late Great Johnny Ace”."
Then the music shifts, as with a "wipe" in a movie, we are at another time and place. London, 1964: "the year of The Beatles/ the year of the Stones." Simon says he was living there "with the girl from the summer before." This is mostly likely the Kathy of "Kathy's Song" and "America," but her name is not given.
The bands are mentioned again for emphasis, and then: "A year after JFK." The second John, this time American president John Kennedy, but again killed before his time by a gun. While everyone claims to know where they were when they got that shocking news, Simon does not reveal here where he was or how he heard, as he did with Ace's death.
The reaction of the youth to such nihilism was apathy: "We were staying up all night/ And giving the days away."
For one moment, the music here becomes somewhat psychedelic, as are the lyrics: "And the music was flowing/ Amazing/ And blowing/my way." "Blowing" could be a reference to marijuana smoke, to Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind," or to the basic "something in the air" of the 1960s.
In any case, the music was blowing Simon's way, and in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel's first album hit the stands. It didn't sell well, but an unasked-for remix of one of the songs-- "Sound of Silence"-- blew the duo on their way.
Then the music shifts back to the first melody, and we hear of the death of the third John: John Lennon. A "stranger," perhaps recognizing Simon, calls to him as both are hurrying through the December air past the Christmas decorations, and tells him the sad news.
The songs ends: "And the two of us/ Went to this bar/ And we stayed to close the place/ And every song we played/ Was for the Late Great Johnny Ace." It does not mention the year, 1980.
Some of the other details are missing, here, too. What does it mean-- "every song we played." Did the stranger also know how to play music, or were these songs "played" on a jukebox? Assuming they played live, did Simon have his guitar with him (not unlikely), or was there one at the bar... and did the stranger have his with him, too? Did the stranger know who Johnny Ace was? Whose songs did they play? After such an intense encounter, why do we not learn who the stranger was?
But the most important question is... Johnny Ace? Why not songs for Lennon? Surely the news of Lennon's death was met with a spontaneous outburst-- worldwide-- of people singing Beatles songs, or perhaps songs they new Lennon had liked (The Beatles were frequent cover artists). Surely in all the world that night, Simon and his new friend were the only ones musically recalling an R&B singer with a handful of hits who had died several decades before, even if also at Christmastime.
Simon was born in 1941, and Ace accidentally shot himself in 1954. So Simon was only 13. Not Kennedy, not Lennon, but Ace had been the first such death he had encountered. The sudden death of a recognized, and very young, name must have had a tremendous impact on young man just embarking in the music business. And while JFK was far removed from his life, Simon grew up not just hearing The Beatles, but knowing them as friends and fellow musicians.
Lennon's death must have shocked Simon on a level that JFK's did not (JFK's came around the same time as the assassinations of others of that level of importance in politics and civil rights). It might have shocked him all the way back to when he was 13 and first tried to get his mind around such an event.
In telling us that he thought of Ace when Lennon died, Simon also says that he thinks of Lennon as just as young and innocent, with as much of a future ahead of him.
There is a musical epilogue, a mournful instrumental by modern composer Philip Glass. (Simon would later contribute a song to a Glass album.) The coda features a worried cello, pacing back and forth, then lulled by a simple flute line.
Musical Note: The first time Simon sang the song publicly was at his Central Park performance with Garfunkel, during which he was interrupted toward the end by an audience member who ran onstage; the song does not appear on the released version of the album's recording or the DVD, but the clip is on YouTube.
Next Song: The Shelter of Your Arms