Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Reviews: The Outlaw

“Thomson tells the Nelson story with incision and insight. Sharp writing, astute observation and a wry attitude .... make for a lively read and a vivid portrait of an often baffling talent.
Recommended.” – Neil Spencer, Observer Music Monthly

“An excellent biography. Thomson is too shrewd a biographer to take [Nelson] at his own estimation.” – Paul Du Noyer, The Word

“Thomson’s new biography .... wrestles boldly with the singer’s complicated history. [It’s] a timely reminder of the stature and achievements of the 72-year-old Texan.” - Adam Sweeting, Telegraph

“An astonishing tale. Recommended” – Q

“A fine biography” – Time Out

“The confusion of being all things to all people, masterfully unravelled” – Record Collector

“A fabulous biography of one of country music’s most colourful characters.” – Tatler

Blood On The Floor: An Extract

I Shot A Man In Reno will be in US stores in a few weeks. In the meantime, here's an extract from the chapter Blood On The Floor, subtitled Music, Murder and Morality. Happy days!

* * *

The key line, I think, on music’s relationship with murder is buried deep in a parched, sinister, elemental blues, written in 1992 but harking back to the previous century. Tom Waits’ Murder In The Red Barn was inspired by the real-life events of 1827, in which the English woman Maria Marten was murdered by her wealthy lover William Corder and buried in a shallow grave in the red barn of a farm in Polstead, Suffolk. A hugely popular broadside ballad called The Murder Of Maria Marten recounted the act, as told by the murderer; Waits does not stick to the detail – he appears to move the story to the US and the characters are unrecognisable – but he clearly knows the original tale. And halfway through comes a line that never fails to stop me dead in my tracks: “For some murder is the only door through which they enter life.”

It nods, of course, towards the odd kind of celebrity status that murder can bestow upon both victim and perpetrator, both then and now, but it also hints obliquely at the purpose behind many of these songs, to explore not just our inner fears but also the darkest areas of the human condition. The Waits line ties in with Nick Cave’s epic
O’Malley’s Bar. It starts like a joke - man walks into a bar – and it is a joke in many ways, in all its cartoonishness, its bloodthirsty relish and pathetic execution of power, as our anti-hero slaughters what seems like the entire town (actually, it’s thirty-seven people by my count). We are almost in Tom Lehrer territory. The lavishness of the violence inviting comparison with songs like Rickety Tickety Tin, in which the daughter murders all the members of her family in bizarre, macabre and hilarious ways.

O’Malley’s Bar is a black joke, but by walking through that saloon door with murder on his mind, Cave’s killer is also walking through the door Waits is talking about: the act of destruction is a search to find some kind of greater meaning to his life. “There was something about a guy walking into a bar and blowing everyone away that I found quite interesting at some point,” Cave said. “Now, I find it an act committed by someone who lacks imagination and moral commitment. However I think our society is such that I can understand people committing acts like this. In its way, it’s a legitimate spiritual quest, a way of getting a bit of quality, a bit of meaning into their lives. It’s the by-product of a doomed world.”3

O’Malley’s Bar came out less than two years after Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film
Falling Down, another contemporary attempt to plug into this idea of murder as the ultimate protest against an inexplicable world. But never mind Michael Douglas, really we’re into world of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Albert Camus’s Meursault, murder as an existential act, committed as part of the search to carve out a personal moral code. In his afterword to the 1955 edition of L’Etranger, the French-Algerian author muses on Meursault, the murderer who murders for no discernible reason: “He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him.”

Alongside the likes of Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde, Meursault also appears as an archetype in many modern murder songs as the socially transgressive individual whose calamitous actions appear to be randomly deployed and motivated only by an attempt to show that the moral parameters set by society actually mean nothing. In one shot all the external religious and empirical structures are destroyed. Death, after all, is random, inexplicable, painful, inevitable and – often – seems utterly meaningless. The murderer-in-waiting in Talking Heads’s
Psycho Killer is struggling to “face up to the facts”; murder gives the illusion of taking control and gaining power. The Cure, famously, translated Camus into the language of brittle post-punk on the snaking Killing An Arab: “I can turn and walk away/ Or I can fire the gun…. Whichever I chose/ It amounts to the same/ Absolutely nothing.”

Meursault’s troubling lack of remorse is echoed by the teenage killers in Springsteen’s
Nebraska: “I can’t say that I’m sorry/ For the things that we done/ At least for a little while, sir/ Me and her we had us some fun.” And again on the Boomtown Rats' I Don’t Like Mondays, written just days after the sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer killed two adults and wounded eight children and one police officer in a shooting spree at Cleveland Elementary School in the San Carlos section of San Diego, California in 1979. When asked why she did it, Spencer replied: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day. I had no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun. It was just like shooting ducks in a pond.”

Johnny Cash wrote
Folsom Prison Blues, in which he famously shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die”, because he was “trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person. And that’s what came to mind.” It’s this line, a masterpiece of economy, that makes the song more than just a barely re-written version of Gordon Jenkins’ Crescent City Blues. It forces us to contemplate a truly amoral act, an act of sport, and why it was committed.

Richard Thompson, who has lived in Los Angeles for over twenty years, isn’t alone in finding
Folsom Prison Blues alive with resonance fifty years after it was written. “It’s a wonderful song, very simple but it tells it like it is - a real slice of real life. Mindless acts: America is the place for that. American prisons are just jammed packed full of people who are there forever for [killing people who were just] passing in the street. It’s gotten very, very dark in America, and it will get darker.”

Everyone in these songs is brought to justice in the conventional sense but, the Folsom convict aside, they are not changed. Their minds do not surrender to the law imposed upon them. They don’t even display any real recognition that they have done anything wrong. This terrible, off-hand banality, more than the bloodstains and bullets, is the really scary thing about murder ballads. Why? Because deep down we know it’s the truth. This is exactly how terrible things happen in the real world. Murder doesn’t seep in through the pores; it starts from within, and it can catch you by surprise. If these songs seem somehow senseless, if we struggle to find a real clarity of purpose behind their composition, then that should not necessarily be regarded as a negative. In fact, it’s their triumph. “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense,” wrote Anton Chekhov in 1888. “If an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees — this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

copyright 2008 by Graeme Thomson

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Waits & Measures

Dastardly computer problems have been keeping me quiet lately, but I'm resurfacing to gloat. It's slightly off-topic (OK, completely off topic, though he did play Dirt In The Ground, which I talk about briefly in Reno), but I went to see Tom Waits on Sunday night, and I'm still not quite past the bragging-about-it-in-public stage.

I was asked to write down my thoughts for The Word website, and you can read them here. The fabulous setlist is here, courtesy of the Eyeball Kid. It was quite a night.

Monday, 21 July 2008

"Won't You Spare Me Over For Another Year...?"

There is a new 2-cd anthology of Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Harvest recordings out shortly. I'm reviewing it for Word magazine and it’s absolutely brilliant. It contains all of Love, Death & The Lady, one of the all time great folk albums, and I was struck listening to it again by the extent to which the title track resembles O Death, the great Appalachian dirge made famous by Ralph Stanley a few years back via the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou.

Both songs try to use their wiles, their riches and their youth to bribe Death to return some other day. Alas, death ain’t cutting a deal. Which, when you think about it, is how it will be....

This live version of O Death is even better than the recorded one. I find the fact that this song now resides in some 10 million homes worldwide strangely comforting.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Big Goodbye

An interesting blog over at the Guardian recently about funeral music.

I devote a chapter to this topic in Reno, using a recent poll of 45,000 people as a starting point. The poll found that the ten most popular funeral songs in Europe are:

1. Queen - The Show Must Go On
2. Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven
3. AC/DC - Highway To Hell
4. Frank Sinatra - My Way
5. Mozart - Requiem
6. Robbie Williams - Angels
7. Queen - Who Wants To Live Forever?
8. The Beatles - Let It Be
9. Metallica - Nothing Else Matters
10. U2 - With Or Without You

I make my opinions clear in the book (especially about 'My Way'), but what are yours? Do any of these songs ring your bell? Are you generally in favour of using pop music at funeral services? If not, why? And if so, what would you play?

Thursday, 10 July 2008

A Pig's Ear

Helter Skelter , the Beatles song from the 1968 White album, will forever be associated with the Charles Manson murders. Piggies, too. I almost always feel instinctively inclined to stick up for songs that get blamed for inciting sociopathic acts of violence and hatred, but I have to admit that I’m not a fan of either of these two. In fact, I really don’t like Piggies, and while I'd never suggest that it deserves to be held to account for the horrific crimes perpetrated in its name, it does betray a deeply unpleasant misanthropic streak.

Here’s a brief extract from the book, taken from a section in which I look at the content of songs that have been used as scapegoats for real life acts of murder. (Yes, of course Marilyn Manson and Eminem show up.)

“Musically, Helter Skelter is what can only be described as Macca Metal, a terribly tame attempt to ape the growing trend for “maximum heaviosity”, as Woody Allen once put it, that was thundering into popular music courtesy of bands like The Who, Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It fails rather miserably. As Ian MacDonald points out in Revolution In The Head, the Beatles were “the quintessential Sixties four-piece, their natural inclinations were for balance, form, and attention to detail, and in straining to transcend these obsolete values in Helter Skelter they comically overreached themselves.” It is a tendency that marred a few of their later songs. Helter Skelter wasn’t so much dark and threatening as ersatz-heavy rock punching well above its weight.

Piggies, meanwhile, is bad but not quite criminal. It is smug, sour, and pious, but on the surface – which is all jangling harpsichord and the bitter scratch of strings - it contains the combined threat and menace of a wet sponge applied to the shins. In many ways the sentiments sum up all that went wrong with the hippie movement as it travelled from its original come-all-ye ethos to a holier-than-thou misanthropy which was rather spiteful. It’s not an anti-police song, despite the popular counter-culture coinage of ‘pigs’ as a derogatory term for the boys in blue. The mention of piggies in “their starched white shirts” suggests Harrison’s blunderbuss is instead aimed at the mythical Man, the be-suited pillar of the British establishment, in which case such Beatle-friendly types as George Martin are presumably among the number being sneered at.

Piggies has the sing-song, edge-of-violence tone of a dark old nursery rhyme. It displays very little evidence of any belief in the redeeming qualities of humanity, which makes it a far less palatable piece of music than the more rowdy Helter Skelter. In the end, it is an example of the worst kind of anti-all-life song that Will Oldham talks about. But aside from the mildly interesting denouement which shows the piggies consuming themselves – “Clutching forks and knives/ To eat their bacon” - this is hardly revolutionary satire. There is vitriol, but it’s hard to really know or care who it is directed towards, so muffled and unlovable is the song, while there is only one couplet that could in any way be interpreted as a call to arms: “In their eyes there’s something lacking/ What they need’s a damn good whacking.” In the context of the song, only a madman like Manson, or perhaps a devout Sopranos watcher, would interpret ‘whacking’ – part of a line written by Harrison’s mother Louise, a middle-aged housewife from Liverpool who occasionally taught ballroom dancing – as denoting anything other than a brisk slap on the back of the legs with a wooden spoon. No, there's no murder in here. But it is certainly a nasty little song.”

Monday, 7 July 2008

Monday Morning Face Off # 3

I love it when the same song gets twisted in two very different directions. Dylan’s Death Is Not The End has an inbuilt ambiguity – the tension between the horror of the verses and the soothing message of the chorus is always going to be somewhat unsettling – but his original version leans towards hope and comfort, the idea that no matter how desperately hard this life becomes, something better awaits.

Nick Cave’s cover version, on the other hand, uses a hell-choir consisting of, among others, Blixa Bargeld, PJ Harvey, Shane MacGowan and Kylie Minogue to forward another view. Without changing a word, he leaps on the song’s ambiguity like a highwayman and ransacks it for all he’s worth. The net result is a blackly comic evocation of a world where the myriad horrors of earthly existence are destined to be replayed over and over and over again into eternity. If death is not the end, then there is no end to our suffering. As a man in a moustache and singlet once asked, who wants to live forever?

I know which one I like best. What about you?