The Televised Tragedy That Spawned a Huge 90s Alternative Metal Radio and MTV Hit

Bvogn, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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In the midst of a highly anticipated press conference, R. Bud Dwyer committed suicide on Jan. 22, 1987. Broadcast on news stations across the country, the tragedy became a staple of the taboo-pushing shock videocassette market and became potent thematic inspiration for a number of metal and alternative rock bands.

A career politician, Dwyer held various positions throughout the previous decades in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania State Senate. He became state treasurer in 1981. After a scandal surrounding a large contract with an out-of-state firm, Dwyer was accused of accepting a $300,000 bribe and convicted of 11 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. As sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 23, 1987, news media were on high alert when he called for a press conference for the day prior.

Given the circumstances, most of the people assembled assumed that Dwyer would be announcing his resignation from public office. The conference began with a lengthy prepared statement in which the state treasurer professed his innocence and criticized the justice system that planned to incarcerate him

“I face a maximum sentence of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for being innocent,” Dwyer declared. “Judge Muir has already told the press that he felt ‘invigorated’ when we were found guilty and that he plans to imprison me as a ‘deterrent’ to other public officials, but it wouldn’t be a deterrent because every public official who knows me knows that I am innocent.”

He continued, “It wouldn’t be a legitimate punishment, because I’ve done nothing wrong. Since I’m a victim of political persecution. My prison would simply be an American Gulag.”

As Dwyer began his concluding remarks after more than a half hour of speaking, the tenor became directly foreboding with vows that he was “going to die in office” as well as an ominous suggestion that members of the assembly “leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind.” He then shocked those in attendance by pulling a Model 19 .357 Magnum revolver from a manila envelope. As the audience pleaded with him to drop the gun, the state treasurer placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

Given the public nature of Dwyer’s suicide, a growing national conversation regarding graphic content in news reports began to take place. While some stations opted to cut away seconds before the gun was fired in their reporting of the event, others aired the footage completely uncensored.

Although he was only 17 at the time of Dwyer’s death, the legacy of the incident would leave an indelible mark on Filter frontman Richard Patrick when he was given a videotape of footage in 1991.

Patrick, who worked as a touring guitarist for Nine Inch Nails in the early 1990s, told KLAQ in 2012: “There was no internet to watch death on. … You can see anything on the internet now. Back then, we were watching it out of fascination like, ‘Wow. We’re all gonna die.’ There was a morbid curiosity. I was watching it and I was all, ‘Hey man, nice shot.'”

Trent Reznor and Robert Patrick recorded a demo track inspired by Dwyer’s suicide. Although initially intended as a Nine Inch Nails song, it was eventually completed and released by Patrick’s band Filter in 1995 on their debut album Short Bus.

Though the incident was not expressly mentioned in the song, the actions of the state treasurer and the prejudice behind his initial trial were directly alluded to in the second verse, which reads: “Now that the smoke’s gone and the air is all clear, those who were right there hot a new kind of fear. You’d fight and you were right, but they were just too strong. They’d stick it in your face and let you smell what they consider wrong.”

“The song is not a celebration of suicide,” Patrick told MTV in 1995. “[Dwyer] had the guts to stand up for what he believed. I’m wary about talking about it. I’m worried it’s going to turn up in print, and I really don’t want the guy’s family to have to deal with it. I don’t think it would be fair and I certainly wouldn’t want us to sell any records at the expense of this guy’s family.”

Already wary of the subject being perceived as exploitative, it made matters worse for Patrick when some fans and members of the press espoused a belief that the track was inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain

“It was very painful,” Patrick told Billboard. “All these DJs, especially the ones from the Seattle stations, were saying, ‘Bullshit, Rich … we know the song’s about Kurt.’ And for years, I walked around, going, ‘Holy fuck! People are getting the wrong idea about this song.’ You know, you write a song in your mom and dad’s basement, and all of a sudden, Nirvana fans are like, ‘Why are you talking about this shit,’ and … it was just painful, man.”

Painful as it was, Patrick made his peace with the confusion after discussing the song with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. “I assured them it wasn’t about Kurt,” he said. “I told them I wasn’t trying to profit off of anyone’s death, and that there’s a phenomenon known as suicide and people do it — that I wanted to kind of understand it, and raise the intellectual question of, you know, to be or not to be and that whole thing.

“When Dave and Krist understood that and I could look them both in the eye, that’s when I felt completely OK about it.”

“Hey Man, Nice Shot” proved to be a breakthrough hit for Filter, reaching No. 10 on the alternative chart and No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100. The popularity of the track catapulted Short Bus to platinum certification.