Music, Books, and Death

Reno LogoI Shot a Man in Reno is: a quote from the Johnny Cash song Folsom Prison Blues; a A History of Death… in Popular Song; a blog by Graeme Thomson, author of said book.

Graeme and I have a few things in common; that’s one of the reasons I use his first, rather than his last, name. It’s obvious that he and I share an interest in songs about death, since he decided I write a book on the subject and I decided to read it. We’re both white, dads, not too far apart in age (although I suspect I’m slightly older and closer to death), and British (although I haven’t lived in Britain for decades now). Given that, it’s not surprising that we are both huge fans of Richard Thompson.

I found myself thinking of the book as an album. It has 12 tracks (Introduction, Chapters 1-10, Epilogue). By the time I got to the end of Side 1 (i.e., the intro and ch. 1-5) I was thinking that it should be possible to buy tracks individually, since some are a lot better than others. The strongest track, Teenage Wildlife, starts with a 14-year-old Graeme listening to The Cure, then travels through teenage time to visit Shakespeare, emo, and many points along the way to present a coherent and well-illustrated account of teenage response to music, and music’s messages to teens.

But Teenage Wildlife (ch. 2) is preceded by two tracks (intro and ch. 1) rather too general to make much of an impact. They must have seemed necessary to some combination of Graeme, his editors, and his publishers, and some of the material probably does belong up front, but they get things off to a slow start.

The first side also includes the track I found to be the album’s weakest, the one about the 1960s (ch. 4). It must have been hard to come up with a fresh account of the previous century’s most over-analyzed decade; I don’t think that Graeme succeeded. Lest it seem that there was no way that this chapter was going to please this particular reader, I’ll point out that my favorite non-fiction music book is about the 1960s.

Side 2 worked much better for me. It includes the Gansta Rap track (ch. 7). This for me was the freshest, if not the best, on the album, partly because of my ignorance of the genre. It’s not exactly Graeme’s area of specialization either, and he leans fairly heavily on his interviews with Ice T (who currently plays a cop on TV).

But the heart of side 2 is the sequence of three tracks (8-10) that follows the rap. The first deals with the way singer/songwriters respond to the death of loved ones. The second starts with a list of songs often played at funerals, and goes on to discuss the more general role that music plays in mourning. The third is about how musicians regard their own impending deaths, and how this affects their music.

The last track (epilogue) is a list of 40 death cuts. Graeme took the time to come up with a thoughtful and well-annotated list. I disagree with it, but that is of course part of the point of such a list.

I disagree in particular with Graeme’s choice of Richard Thompson track. He goes for “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” and so would many other RT fans. He went with a different RT song when he put together a book-related playlist for Largehearted Boy; that shows how difficult the decision is.

I go with yet another RT song: “When I Get to the Border.” It’s a song I prefer, and it’s from my favorite album. It’s the opening track, and it opens my playlist inspired by Graeme’s book. It’s also my favorite example of RT as a musician both contemporary and traditional (listen to the interplay between electric guitar and “archaic” instruments in the coda/fadeout).

RT plays on most of the tracks of Graeme’s album: that is, he’s quoted in most of the chapters. (Am I now beating the “book as album” metaphor into the ground?) Other extensively-featured musicians include Ice T (as already mentioned), Neil Finn, and Bob Dylan (although I don’t think that Graeme has talked directly with the latter).

Graeme varies his own tone rather deftly. For example, he gives credit where it’s due, and finds it frequently due to RT and a few others. He acknowledges the occasional greatness of Paul McCartney. He is also good on musicians who aren’t any good, such as Marilyn Manson: “simply the media’s most willingly complicit hate figure… He relishes this… because the alternative is to be judged on his music and then he would really be in trouble.”

That’s more than I meant to write. Now it’s all over bar the rating (4 stars out of a possible 5) on Goodreads, and… oh yes, my Reno-inspired playlist. I was going to embed the playlist in this post, as I’ve done with other Lala playlists in other posts, but for technical reasons, I won’t do so here.

I’ll just link to the playlist at Lala, announce my intention of extending it beyond the initial three tracks, and state what I regard as the main omission. Loudon Wainwright’s The Last Man On Earth is a response to the death of his mother, and a great album. I’m surprised that Graeme didn’t mention it. I’m a little upset that I can’t find my CD. And it’s an omission from the playlist, because Lala doesn’t offer it. I’d probably have gone with “I’m Not Gonna Cry.”