I'm looking forward to this book . Graeme's past efforts , biographies of Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, have been witty and informative. I've never met the man but the many dealings I've had with him on the 'net over the years make me think he's a good bloke and worthy of support.
'With apologies to Johnny Cash, "Hello, my name is Graeme Thomson." I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, As Related in Popular Song is my snappily titled new book, published by Continuum in the US in August and in the UK in October.
I Shot a Man in Reno examines popular music's relationship with death, the different ways it attempts to deal with the subject in song, with exclusive contributions from everyone from Jagger and McCartney to Ice T, Will Oldham and Richard Thompson.
You are visiting the blog of the book, a place to explore the subject further, start arguments, express opinions, tell stories and flag up new, overlooked, obscure or classic death songs. Please come and join in.'
John, a nice taster and I certainly will look it up ....however lately, when I play 'Folsom Prison Blues' on the ukelele, it metamorphosis's (well you know what I mean) into 'Pinball Wizard' ... I'll have to get over that first.
These are my reactions to a review copy of I Shot A Man In Reno -
'I can now pick out a reference in a song to murder, suicide, cancer and nuclear apocalypse blindfold at twelve paces...for most people this is not a useful skill...for them, death is only a low hum in the background'
After reading this among Graeme Thomson's conclusions to his dissection of 'death' songs you're likely to hear them roaring at you from all quarters. In a thorough examination of the 'popular song' genre it is fascinating to discover how widely the subject of death is covered. Working his way, roughly, through the 20th century , from 1920's New Orleans to Gangsta Rap and all points in between, we are introduced to a web of interwoven artists and songs. Reasonings and objectives are teased out and serve to make you listen to the songs all the more closely.
At times it can be a little demanding , as singer after singer and song after song is referenced. Perseverance is, however, rewarded with cogently expressed insights to all concerned. All the greats are there - Bob Dylan,Nick Drake,Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Neil Young etc. The more obscure are mentioned too , including , new to me, Alasdair Roberts.
It's all delivered with the wit and accessibility that characterised his biographies of Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson. Teenage 'emo' types are chided for their , usually, safe domesticity in the line 'Death by duvet'. Songs about dead rock stars are summarised as being about ' our beloved heroes, united by a fondness for Class A drugs, alcohol abuse and flying in very small planes'. From many interviews - including Mick Jagger, Will Oldham, Nick Cave - he presents some perceptive comments. Explaining why he thinks his fans like his 'murder songs' Richard Thompson says 'They almost like to be unsettled'. Paul McCartney talks('It sounds sounds a bit goody-goody, so I don't normally tell too many people')about how his teenage visits to elderly people contributed to 'Eleanor Rigby'.
This isn't a dispassionate account. Graeme isn't afraid to tackle some sacred cows. Though he writes enthusiastically about Dylan songs, including 'Hattie Carroll', he also comments ' This was back when, lyrically speaking, Dylan owned up to possessing a conscience; he quickly discovered it was a burden and has rarely displayed one since.' Similarly he allows Will Oldham to speak at length about his distaste for the 'beautiful loser' mystique that surrounds Townes Van Zandt.Led Zeppelin are dismissed as 'extended silliness' with an 'over-inflated sense of significance'.
It's all provocative stuff , providing material for many a discussion. It's a resolutely male perspective explained , perhaps, in a comment on a poll of funeral songs. The lack of female songs is , he suggests, because '..it's more tempting to surmise that women would simply rather not contemplate their own demise in such vainglorious terms'. Straight away I can think of one omission (Laura Cantrell's 'Bees') but that's the kind of reaction that this book should inspire.
An excellent read, not just for music fans but anyone interested in contemporary culture.
Thanks for the heads-up. It seems modern western culture does not invite 1st world citizens to contemplate mortality (it's bad for business), so these songs, and the exploration of them may be a valuable indication of how death is actually viewed in the popular mainstream.
Just got a copy of this book delivered today. While having a quick skim through it I was pleased to see the cover of the sheet music for The Mysterious Axman's Jazz reproduced on the frontspiece. Unfortunately there was no mention of any lyrics in the book.
The book istelf looks very interesting. I am looking forward to reading it.