Sunday, 30 November 2008

Missing In Action

With I Shot a Man in Reno out in both the UK and the US, now seems like a good time to collate some of The Ones That Got Away. Since publishing the book and starting the blog I’ve had loads of correspondence from people who have read and – mostly - enjoyed the book, but who also wanted me to explain – in great detail, preferably - what the hell was I thinking etc etc. Or to put it another way, Why Song X by Band Y wasn’t mentioned.

This, really, was one of the main reasons for writing the book: to elicit a personal response from readers and for them to apply their own favourite songs to the themes discussed throughout the book, to ransack their record collections and discover what songs about death and mortality resonated the most for them. I did take the time in the Introduction to explain that more songs about death would be omitted than included. That was the only way Reno would work as a book rather than a horribly distended list feature.

Still, it’s been good, educational fun hearing about the songs you love and wanted to include. In some cases, they are songs I know well and just didn’t have room for; some didn’t fit; some I knew but completely forgot about; others I didn’t know at all, and it’s been a particular pleasure finding out about them.

Anyway, here’s Part One of an edited list of songs about death that aren’t discussed in the book but, according to you – and who am I to argue - really, really should have been, what the hell were you thinking, etc etc:

“Bees” – Laura Cantrell
“Westfall” – Okkervil River
Anything (that’s not a song, that’s literally *anything*) by the Handsome Family
“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel
“Gallows Pole” - Leadbelly
“You Want That Picture” – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (to be fair, this wasn’t out when I finished writing the book)
“Oliver James” – Fleet Foxes (ditto)
“It Was A Very Good Year” – Frank Sinatra
“Lick Your Fingers Clean” – Jethro Tull
“When I Was Dead” – Robyn Hitchcock
“Floyd Collins” – trad.
“Life’ll Kill Ya” – Warren Zevon
“Gresford Disaster” – The Albion Band
“Jail Break” – Humphry Lyttleton
“On A Faraway Beach” – Brian Eno
“The Queen Is Dead” – The Smiths
“And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” – The Pogues

And on it goes – more in Part Two. Perhaps there will even have to be a second volume: Death: The Comeback. Please free to add to the list….

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

La Mort

There's a lot of Jacques Brel in I Shot a Man in Reno, as you might imagine. Death was his specialist subject, and he tackled it with a uniquely European mix of reverence and relish. There's a great new compilation of Brel's earlier recordings - In the 50s: The Birth of Genius - coming soon on PoppyDisc, which is well worth investigating even though my favourite Brel song, "My Death", isn't on it.

I mention in Reno that I can never quite decide which version of that song I like best: Scott Walker's booming slice of existential orchestral pop, or David Bowie's wracked, beautiful live version, bashed out on a 12-string with a twinkling piano whispering in the background? Today, Bowie wins. And here's why:

Friday, 21 November 2008

Two Shots Of Happy

A stupendously heart-warming 5-star review of I Shot a Man in Reno has appeared in the new issue of Record Collector, calling the book "an essential volume.... one of the most informative and fulfilling music books you're ever likely to read." You can go here to read the full review, though you'll need to buy the mag to read the accompanying brief interview with me (and, um, see the photo!).

Also, Buzz magazine has added its own two pennies worth, praising the "dizzying amount of knowledge" in Reno and concluding that there's "plenty here to keep you reading and thinking." That's the general idea, certainly.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Gloom Tune

I received an email yesterday informing me that the great old British comic Tony Hancock chose “Gloomy Sunday” as one of his 8 Desert Island Discs when he appeared on the classic BBC radio show in 1957.

A lifelong depressive, Hancock killed himself in an Australian hotel room in 1968, the same year the song’s writer Reszo Seress also took his own life. So.... another strike to the notorious “Hungarian Suicide Song” which, it has been claimed - with little hard evidence as backup - inspired a rash of self-inflicted deaths over the years due to its overwhelming sense of misery? Hmmm….

Anyway, though Billie Holliday’s 1941 version remains the definitive take, there have been loads of great interpretations of the song through the years. Here’s a young Elvis Costello singing it – proceed with caution!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Listen Up, Listen In

UPDATE: You can now listen again to the Soundcheck interview here.

I’ll be chatting about I Shot a Man in Reno on Soundcheck, WNYC’s excellent daily music and chat radio show, at 7pm GMT (2pm EST) tomorrow, Wednesday 19th. You can find details of the programme here. The easiest way to tune in is to visit at 7 p.m. GMT. The show will stream live from the “FM 93.9" link on the top left hand side. I think it’s also syndicated nationwide on NPR. I'll be on for about 20 minutes.

If you want to listen later, a few hours after the show airs users can either stream or download an archive of the show (links stay up permanently.) I’ll post the link for this on the blog later on the day of the show. The segment will also be included in Soundcheck’s daily podcast, available on iTunes and at End of transmission.

Monday, 17 November 2008


You can read my review of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals' Edinburgh show here. And I was being kind. If I'd been feeling unkind I would have compared Friday's show to the one he played at Glasgow QMU in 2001, but using an artist's past glories as a stick to beat them with is never pleasant. Suffice it to say he's not the man he used to be. Good news for him, perhaps. Certainly good new for his muso buddies in the Cardinals. Not so great for us, though.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Mike Scott & Reno

I've been a fan of Mike Scott and the Waterboys for 20 years, so I was thrilled when he agreed to contribute to I Shot a Man in Reno. He was, as you'd expect, a fascinating source and offered up some genuinely thought-provoking insights and views into death and the way it filters into his music. Not all of it made its way into the final version of the book, so here is an edited transcript of our chat. Enjoy! And please let me know your thoughts....

Are you always aware when death crops up in your writing?
“Love That Kills”, “I’ll Meet You In Heaven Again” – those two definitely. “Spirit”, perhaps, this idea that the soul continues to live after the body’s death. I find it impossible to think about death without also thinking about the continuation of the soul. All the death songs that I’ve covered, like “Death Is Not The End”, “Soon As I Get Home”, “Meet Me At the Station”, they all have this quality, they all talk about what happens afterwards.

Is the purpose to provide comfort to the listener?
Comfort is one of their purposes, I suppose, although that’s never been the turn on for me. I remember when I first heard “Soon As I Get Home” on the original record by Thomas Whitfield and his congregation it had a profound effect on me – it touched me in a very deep place, and I think that place is the part of me that does live on after death; the song touches that eternal part. That’s the power of it. It’s a much bigger thing than comfort, these songs impact more directly and more powerfully than that. They are like confirmation, because they touch the part of me that knows there is continuation after death. It’s not a question any more. You see, I have a disagreement with the common concept of death. I’ve always felt, since I was a little boy, that in the words of Dylan, death is not the end. And so all my songs that deal with death or the songs I cover all focus on this idea. That’s what it’s about for me. It’s a battle of ideas. I disagree with the idea that death is 'the final curtain' and all that bollocks. I don’t believe it, and I sing songs that contest that idea. And I enjoy doing it, putting those songs into people’s mind and knowing that they have to think about it, that I’m presenting an idea that may be counter to the one that they hold.

When did this belief start impacting upon your writing?
The first time I ever became conscious that that was what I was interested in was when I found the song “Meet Me At The Station” on an ancient gospel record. I rearranged it, wrote some new lyrics, because I believed this idea that there was a continuation. My cover of Dylan’s “Death Is Not The End” precedes that, but that was more just because I liked the song. With “Meet Me At the Station” something else came into play, this almost crusading thing: I’m going to fight this lie with these songs.

“I’ll Meet You In Heaven Again” seems like a continuation on that theme.

Yes, it was influenced by the gospel songs I was listening to; it’s very close, thematically, to “Meet Me At The Station”. It’s my development of that idea into my own song.

“I’ve Lived Here Before”, meanwhile, is a reincarnation song. Are you a firm believer?
I don’t know! Nobody has disproved it, and I’ve had odd recognitions of places that I can’t explain, which is behind the song. I would subscribe to it, but I don’t specifically remember any past lives. I’m not going to tell you I was the Queen of Sheba or anything. It’s just a feeling I get in specific places, the West of Ireland mostly. Feeling familiar with a place you’ve never been before.

The other song you mention, “Love That Kills”, seems to me a more complex song.
It was written several years earlier and it’s a song I haven’t thought about for a long time. The company didn’t like it. It was one of the casualties of my deliberations with Nigel Grainge at Ensign records: with “Red Army Blues” I won; with “Love That Kills”, I lost. He didn’t like either of them, or “Old England”! It’s amazing isn’t it? With “Love That Kills” I was reading a lot of esoteric literature, it was my first awakening of that. I’d been thinking about these concepts for a long time: who are we, why are we here, what is life all about? And then in 1983 I discovered there were lots of non-Christian books written about this very topic. This was a great awakening for me. People like Dion Fortune. “Love That Kills” came out of that. I was at my mother’s house in Ayr when I wrote it on the piano, and it was just my thoughts on death being a love that kills, not a bad thing.

Who does death well? I know you’re a big Dylan fan….
I find it so hard to listen to his records because of the worldview. I love his records, I love the sound of them and the playing, but I just can’t deal with his worldview on his latest record [Modern Times]. I listened to it once and I can’t listen to it again. I find it such a dry…. I feel shrivelled after listening to it. I can’t go there with ya Bob! The great one is Brel’s “My Death”, which Bowie did a magnificent cover of. That’s a wonderful song – it’s an old heaven or hell thing. It deals with the increasing knowledge that our time is short. Of course, “Seasons in the Sun” is from a Jacques Brel song, but the Terry Jacks version is a very mawkish rewriting. The Fortunes did a version 6 years before – they had a near-hit. I know because my Mum bought the record and I’ve still got it! It was a much better lyrical translation, much less mawkish.

Should popular music be dealing with these big themes?
Popular music is a broad church. There are very serious artists, and some not so, there is space for everything. It depends what you do with it. If it’s purely observational, if you’re just placing it there for all to see, then I think that’s OK. But if you make it sexy or get off on it or glamourise it then I don’t think that’s OK. Music has an influence and an affect, just like books and films. My life has been changed by music, it happens all the time.

Have you ever written a song specifically about someone who has died?
No, I don’t think I have. People always think “Is She Conscious?” is about Princess Diana, and there are elements of that, but it’s not only about that. The last few lines lead us very graphically to that Princess Diana conclusion, but it’s not about death at all, it isn’t to do with ‘is she conscious after death?’ or anything like that. It’s more like, what on earth was her consciousness like when she was alive and going through the things she did? What is it like to be her or someone like that?

So you’ve not been moved to commemorate somebody in song?
It could happen at any time, but I’m a funny case. I believe our human identities are only a small part of who we are. I believe that we are eternal beings; we come to earth and we have this human, physical, five sense experience, but it’s only a phase of who we really are. The idea of, ‘God, if only I’d said this to someone’ doesn’t affect me. Here’s the thing. My aunt Edna died recently. She was an English lady of a particular generation, a young person during WWII. I always felt that there was a certain chilliness between her and me, because I was the product of very different times and I had a much freer way of looking at things. We got on OK but there was this chilliness. Well, she died quite recently, and I remember thinking a lot about her as she died, and shortly afterwards every time I thought of her this chilliness was gone. I think she had shifted her focus from the limited perspective she had as an incarnate human being due to the times and circumstances she was born in, and she has returned to the wholeness of who she is. She has discarded those limitations. And now when I think of her, my thoughts travel to her and do not meet a barrier, they meet openness. I believe that when we die we meet each other without the restrictions placed upon us by our human guises and our own misconceptions

That’s a tricky thing to capture in a song!
It’s in “I’ll Meet You In Heaven Again”: ‘All the secrets we keep, all the words we don’t speak/Things that are hard to say between two men/Like the meeting of two rivers all will be delivered/When I meet you in heaven again.’ I caught it in that verse. And I knew it!

copyright - Graeme Thomson 2008.

Monday, 10 November 2008

"...THE WORD Was Good..."

.... and The Herald, too! Click on these splendid reviews if, like me, your eyes grow dim and you feel the need to go large.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Fatal Attraction

Whilst negotiating the usual problems regarding available space, I put together a piece for today's Observer Music Monthly based on some of the interviews I did for I Shot a Man in Reno: click here to read the edited thoughts of Jagger, McCartney, Ice T et al (and don't let that rather alarming Take That pic put you off).

Of course, readers of this blog have already had a full preview of my interviews with Richard Thompson and Neil Finn, which are also included in the OMM piece in truncated form.

Also, a quick public service announcement: Continuum are once again accepting proposals for new titles to their excellent 33 1/3 series of books. Check out all the details on the 33.3 blogspot and if you decide to have a go - and you really should - good luck!

Monday, 3 November 2008

Private Ryan

There was a time I loved Ryan Adams very much and wasn’t afraid to admit it. Now I feel I have to justify and qualify my admiration for him (which is all it is, really, these days) which is a shame. His new album Cardinology isn’t much to shout about, though there are some highlights, but I still feel he's a rare talent.

Moreover, I like him. I’ve interviewed him a number of times and have always found him polite, thoughtful, engaged and really rather sweet. You can read my latest encounter with the rather subdued but clean and sober singer here, as it appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Herald magazine. He’s touring the UK in the next few weeks and I for one shall be trotting dutifully along to the Edinburgh show. Until then, here’s a reminder of how good he can be (and, keeping this blog vaguely on topic, how good he is at capturing the delayed shock of loss and the pain of absence):

Finally, Paste's fine review of I Shot a Man in Reno has finally made it into the digital realm. You can read it here.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

"Profiling The Other Side..."

A positive and timely (it being published on Hallowe'en) review of I Shot a Man in Reno arrives from Ron Wynn in the Nashville City Paper.