Sunday 28 December 2008

Tom Waits For No Man....

I hope you all had a very happy Christmas. I spent much of my - scarce - quiet time reading a review copy of a new biography of Tom Waits, called Lowside of the Road. Towards the end, this none-more Waitsian explanation of why he finds himself writing more and more about death popped off the page:

"How do you avoid it? We're decomposing as we go. We're the dead on vacation. It's not a theme I need to pursue. It pursues me."

Ah, happy holidays indeed! A good excuse, nevertheless, to hear Tom's most beautiful, most quietly spiritual rumination on what truly matters as we gradually decompose. And yes, you're allowed to cry.

Monday 15 December 2008

Best of 2008 (Slight Return)

Having already been included in the Telegraph's best musical tomes of 2008, I Shot a Man in Reno is also listed in the Observer's round-up of the most accomplished music books of the year, alongside the likes of Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise and Simon Armitage's Gig. Fine company indeed.

Also, a short but warm review in yesterday's Sunday Herald, which can be read here.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Metal Riff In "Too Evil" Shock

I generally prefer the space between the music and the murder to be a little further apart than this:

19 year old Italian heavy metal singer Cristina Balzano has been arrested for stabbing the guitarist in her band Soul Cry after he fluffed a guitar riff. Balzano allegedly stabbed the 16 year old guitarist for playing the wrong notes during a rehearsal session after accusing him of “sounding evil”. Balzano has now been charged by Genovese police for attempted murder.

Wednesday 10 December 2008


I'll be chatting about Scott Walker (with a bit of Brel thrown in, naturally) on today's Soundcheck on WNYC. It starts at 7pm GMT, 2pm PST, and lasts about half an hour. The director of the fantastic Walker documentary, 30th Century Man, will also be joining the discussion. Should be good. More on the show and how to listen here.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Elvis Was A Hero To Millions...

... but on this evidence I'm not sure he quite captures the essential primal menace of Frankie & Johnny. Or am I wrong? I mean, it's hardly Robert Nighthawk, is it?

Under The Radar

There's a nice review of Reno in the current issue of Under the Radar. It's not online and relatively short, so here it is in full:

8/10 stars
by Paul Bullock
In the end, death comes to us all. But the incremental approach of the Grim Reaper through popular song is a phenomenon that has just recently crept into the imaginations of music journalists. I SHOT A MAN IN RENO takes a decidedly academic path toward this subject and the professional distance provides for a smart and scholarly read. It's a tragical history tour of the last hundred-plus years of Western songwriting. From "St. James Infirmary," around "Dead Man's Curve," to the city of Compton, Thomson takes us on a macabre, morbid and often hilarious ride. By the time you reach the epilogue of The 40 Greatest Death Records, you'll be ready to discuss the importance of "Leader of the Pack" and "Cop Killer."It's another fine book from Continuum who, along with their 33 1/3 Series, is reshaping the way we read about music.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Weekend Round Up

A few loose ends to tie up this sub-zero Saturday night.

A somewhat garbled account of a phone interview I undertook last week appeared in today's Edinburgh Evening News, and can be read here. Just to clear up a few of the writer's inaccuracies: the U2 gig was in 1987; I was not playing the Capital's music circuit aged 14 (I was singing in a garage band in Bristol at the time, and very bad they were too); and I have never had "a career" in music - nor in anything else, come to think of it. Still, a welcome pre-Xmas page of exposure for the book.

A review of Reno has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, describing the book as "an engaging and celebratory dance with death.... tackled with reverence and passion." None of which dents one little bit my enormous affection for Austin, one of my all-time favourite places.

Finally, I'm blogging about False Messiahs over at the Guardian. The list is restricted to Ten otherwise, this being rock and roll, it could run and run. Feel free to add your thoughts on why Bono isn't - or is? - God. Think on.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Best of 2008

I Shot a Man in Reno has been chosen as one of the Telegraph's Best Pop Books of 2008, described - rather accurately, I think - as a "amiable potter around the genres of the rock and roll graveyard." Very nicely put. Reno also features in the post-election/pre-Christmas run-down in San Francisco's East Bay Express, where they're looking forward to a future where "we'll sing in unison the classic songs immortalized" in the book. Do they mean songs like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" Or songs like "Seasons in the Sun"?

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.

Monday 27 October 2008

Time Out and Morning Star Reviews

A particularly astute and well-written four-star review of I Shot a Man in Reno appears in this week's issue of Time Out, concluding that "it's in making... connections between death songs and a life lived that I Shot a Man in Reno really shines." I'm so glad somebody has picked up on this aspect of the book: the way that good death songs can really throw an affirming light on existence in general, and our own individual lives in particular.

Equally satisfying and smartly turned out was the review in Sunday's Morning Star, which called Reno "authoritative and sparkling with insight, drawing on sharp wit and a record collection to apparently rival John Peel's." You can read the review in full here - though comparing my humble store of music to Peelie's vast world of song is just plain silly. But nice.

The measured insight of these reviews sits in stark relief against a rather pointless radio interview I did this morning with some shouty parody of a local radio DJ, who couldn't get past accusing me of being a "morbid bugger" in between calling Ralph Stanley "Ralph Bellamy." But then he - clearly - hadn't bothered to read the book. Which always helps in these matters, I find.

Sunday 26 October 2008


Back from a week’s well-earned holiday and straight into a little blog curatorship:

A special CD booklet-sized edition of I Shot a Man in Reno is included in Volume 6 of Powell’s fab Indiespensable series, which also includes a CD of death songs and Iain Banks’ brilliant novel The Crow Road. The booklet really is a very lovely little artefact, featuring the 40 Greatest Death Songs chapter from the book with a new introduction from me. More info here

I interviewed Lucinda Williams last week, another writer I wanted to talk with for Reno. She chatted a little about the songs she wrote for her West album after her mother died, particularly "Mama You Sweet" and "Fancy Funeral", both of which are discussed in the book. She said at the time she “had a lot of stuff to deal with and get out of my system. It was like there was this great space and all this stuff was coming out to fill it. In the end it was a real release.” Here’s a reminder of, or perhaps an introduction to, the amazing, visceral and painful "Mama You Sweet."

Last, and somewhat off-message, I wrote a big piece for the Guardian last week on the Replacements, which you can read here. And also a bunch of reviews for the Observer, including some choice words on the subject of the highly recommended new album by Peter Broderick, called Home. They can all be found by clicking the Observer link on the right hand side.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Free Books!

You can win one of three free copies of I Shot a Man in Reno, courtesy of the estimable folks at Word magazine: just click here to nominate your favourite death song. There is also a short interview with me - conducted by telephone, although you'd be forgiven for thinking it was two tin cans connected with a piece of string - on the Word podcast, which is always worth a listen. I interrupt the proceedings about half way through.

Monday 13 October 2008

Radio Radio

I'll be talking live about I Shot a Man in Reno on BBC Radio Scotland's Radio Cafe arts magazine, broadcast between 1.15-2.00pm GMT tomorrow (Tuesday October 14th). You can listen live to the show online here (use the On Air Now function on the top right hand side of the page), where it will be available for a further seven days thereafter through the Listen Again function.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Ron Sexsmith & Reno

I interviewed the excellent Canadian singer and songwriter in 2007 for I Shot a Man in Reno. He was very erudite, insightful and sincere, and said a mouthful of interesting stuff - much of which, alas, didn't make it into the finished version of the book. Here's a comprehensive transcript of the interview. Enjoy.

Your album Time Being is full of ruminations on mortality. Did you sit down with the conscious intention of tackling the subject?
No, they’re not conscious – and not welcome! Around that time I had a few brushes with death, a couple of high school buddies had passed away, and that started informing some of the songs. “And Now The Day Is Done,” “Hands Of Time”, “Cold Hearted Wind” and a few others that aren’t on the record. That’s when I started noticing that it was kind of a dark record. I was actually afraid to play them to the label – I sat on it for about a year. I wasn’t so much preoccupied with my own mortality, I don’t really feel any different, but it’s strange to got to funerals for people who are the same age as you. So I guess they were songs that I felt compelled to write at the time. I’d like to think that they’re comforting in some way. I thought “Hands of Time” was really comforting.

“And Now The Day Is Done,” on the other hand, strikes me as just desolate.
It’s mostly a sad song. I was wrestling with even putting it on the record. It seemed kind of appropriate, almost like something you would sing in church, and felt like a nice way to end the record. I’ve always tried to write hopeful songs, but sometimes it’s not possible. It just comes out darker or sadder than you intended. But I know the widow of one my friends who passed away, when I played my home town she requested that song – which was difficult to sing. We only really played it two or three times on the whole tour.

Who do you write for when you write about mortality?
I write for myself first but the hope is that someone out there listening will get something from it. I hate songs that are overly optimistic, or just being happy for happy’s sake. I always try to write realistically. With Time Being I wanted to write about death in a solemn way but also a humourous way. “The Grim Trucker” is kinda of a song about karma. It was a fun song to write, but one I didn’t know if I should put on the record. It’s comic relief. There is almost a gallows humour in the notion of death and songs about death. Nervous laughter about the whole thing – everybody is going there. Maybe that’s the purpose of a song like that.

Do you have spiritual or religious beliefs, and do they seep into the songs about death?
Since I was a kid everyone has always told me there is a better place waiting for us. There’s gotta be something better than this! It’s amazing to be alive but you look around at all the horrors all over the world…. I’m a God person, not a religious person, but it’s hard to express that without sounding crazy. I’ve always had spiritual songs on my albums. With Cobblestone Runway all of a sudden I had songs like “God Loves Everyone” and “Golden Hills”. At that time in my life things were really falling apart. I’d been dropped [by my label] and my family fell apart and I was trying to look for something a bit deeper and more reassuring just for myself. And I guess I’m still there.

Who deals with death well in music?
My son is really into rap music. Some of those people are just like poets – some stuff is so real it’s scary almost. Even the Eminem stuff when he was getting serious: “The Way I Am” and “My Words Are Weapons”. I like that kind of stuff instead of how many girls I have and how many rings I’m wearing. The whole thing with rap is credibility. The music comes from a violent place and the best of it is very powerful. It’s kind of like if you don’t have that connection [to a world of violence] then no-one takes you seriously. Then when you get successful you spend the rest of your career trying to prove that you’ve still got it.

What about some of the more venerable rock musicians?
Lately, Dylan on Time Out Of Mind is writing about things that kind of make sense to me. Tom Waits, I like his take on that kind of stuff. Judee Sill had a real connection with the spirit world. Even Paul McCartney is tackling these things, on Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard he wasn’t trying to be too jolly. With the Stones, unfortunately, people want to keep them where they are. It’s half their fault and half not, but you’d think there would be more wisdom coming from them.

Tell me about your song “Pretty Little Cemetry”
I moved to Toronto when my son was about two years old, and we lived across the street from a cemetry. He asked a lot of questions about it so we’d go for walks through there on the weekend and the questions were hard to answer. What he really wanted to know was: ‘Why these people were under the ground and where do they go?’ I was only twentysomething at the time and I didn’t really know how to answer. In the song we came upon a grave for a little boy, which is actually a real grave, and for a kid it must mess you up in a way. That’s the thing about life and death – from the minute you’re born you’re old enough to die. It’s always seems sadder when someone young dies, but we don’t really know what’s going on behind, what their soul is yearning for. Like Jimi Hendrix. People say, ‘What a waste, how tragic,’ but maybe he burned so bright in his lifetime that he didn’t want to be an old man and have all these people like Van Halen playing circles around him! Or Lennon. It’s almost like we create the death that we have coming. Life seems to have a plan, and it seems perfect in a weird way. So that song is pretty much taken from life. It’s a song that’s really human and not jokey. It’s very real.

Copyright – Graeme Thomson, 2008

Sunday 28 September 2008

Paul Westerberg & Reno

I tried and tried to get Paul Westerberg to contribute to I Shot a Man in Reno. I’d interviewed him a few times before and we always hit it off, and with or without the Replacements Westerberg has written some seriously weighty songs about death. “The Ledge” (from Pleased To Meet Me, which has just been reissued with extra bells and whistles, alongside the rest of Replacements back catalogue) is perhaps the best, one of the great songs of teen empathy, putting itself in the shoes of a boy about to jump to his death. It’s not melodramatic or gratuitous or told with a transparent emo-relish. It just cuts straight to the heart of the matter. The video, such as it is, conforms to the ‘Mats classic anti-MTV mode. But never mind the pictures, listen to the voice and the words.

Anyway, for one reason or another I never quite pinned Westerberg down for the book, though the Replacements are well covered in its pages. However, I spoke with him again for an hour last week, for a feature that will run soon in the Guardian. Towards the end we got talking about our kids – his ten-year old son Johnny is just a little older than my eldest daughter – and I finally got to steer him towards death.

“My son knows more about the Replacements than I think he knows. I just have to talk to him a little bit about drugs and alcohol. We had a wonderful night together recently when we watched Lust For Life, about Vincent Van Gogh. I forced him to watch it and tried to explain how some people are ahead of their time and laughed at, and looked upon as fools, and he had a lot of very hard questions – why did he kill himself? I felt like I could answer that, but I had to pretend that I had no idea why someone would want to take their own life. But he’s going to find out that I’ve certainly written about that particular event in other people’s lives. It’s one of my topics. I’ve never been one to write about sex, I tend to be more like [Jim] Morrison or someone, who is obsessed with death.

As a listener, do you actively seek out music that deals with issues relating to death?
"Sure. I’ve found great solace listening to bluegrass music on Saturday mornings, knowing that there’s an entire art form that came from England or Ireland that deals with death as part of the songs – they’re all about murder, death and suicide. I mean, Hank Williams, half of his songs were about going down three times and coming up twice. I've always loved that. It’s good to know that I’m not alone. But I feel like I'm damned to live! That's the problem. Only the good die young, which means I'll live forever."

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Cars & Girls

Jeff Barry wrote teen classics like “The Water is Red”, “Leader of the Pack” and “Give Us Your Blessings”. In I Shot a Man in Reno he talked to me about writing “Tell Laura I Love Her”, a massive hit in 1960. I love this quote. It’s hard to think of a more succint summation of the changing mood of the times at the end of the 1950s.

“I didn’t even own a car at the time. I was most interested in cowboys and horses, and in the original lyric, instead of saying that Tommy saw a sign for a stock car race, he saw a sign for a rodeo. In the first version he got gored to death by a bull. But the publisher said, ‘No-one can relate to that anymore’. It was a songwriting lesson. So I changed rodeo to stock car race. He got gored to death by a Chevy!”

Tuesday 16 September 2008


A nice review of I Shot a Man in Reno in the new Paste, concluding that "better musical surveys are hard to find, and the results are positively life affirming." The review is on page 77 and can be found via the mag's very fancy digital version, which is here. Go to the Contents tab, click on 'Books', and then scroll forward a couple of pages.

I'm also quoted, briefly (the full title of Reno sure does eat into the word count), in a small piece about murder ballads elsewhere in the mag, which can be read on page 24.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Music of Interest

This album is an amazing treasure trove of material, documenting 70 pre-WWII songs of death and disaster from the US. It comes highly recommended, and is almost the perfect companion piece to the opening chapter of Reno, which examines the way early British folk music and later American folk music dealt with death, and the influence - narrow but profound - that these songs had on what we now understand as popular music. In the liner notes, Tom Waits reckons these are 'tragic chronicles of the perils of being human'. I think we could do with more of them in 2008. A lot more.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Neil Finn & Reno

Following a fantastic response to the Richard Thompson Q&A (scroll down the page to read), I'm putting up another interview that I conducted for I Shot a Man in Reno. Neil Finn is the main man behind Crowded House and a brilliantly compassionate and warm singer and songwriter. As usual, he said much more of interest than the book could accomodate, and this is a great opportunity to share it. Over the coming weeks and months I'll be posting similarly exclusive and revealing interviews with Ron Sexsmith, Ice T, Mike Scott, Will Oldham and Sir Mick Jagger, including lots of stuff that didn't make the book due to space constraints. Enjoy!

The last Crowded House album, Time on Earth, was hugely influenced by the death of the band’s former drummer Paul Hester in 2005. On what level were you conscious of writing about that event?
It’s very hard for me to be objective about the weight of that event on the record, because it had a huge resonance on my life. The songs that I was writing around that time are probably all influenced by that. They’re not all about that, some clearly not at all, but if it’s in there it’s there and I hope in a good way and not a morbid or maudlin way. But it’s possible there’s a bit of that as well, I don’t know. In most cases for me it just kind of comes out. I rely a lot in the early stages of a song on things falling out of my mouth. I don’t have a very organised mind and I’ve learned to trust the slightly random process of writing songs. Other people might be more deliberate in their strategy, but I trust the things that drop out of my head even though they’re obtuse and abstract. They open doors, I think, for the people who like them and get them.

There’s a lot of underlying soul-searching on that record.
If it’s in the songs then that’s the way it is. I didn’t respond well to what happened. It didn’t hit me well. I still haven’t really got over it. It’s a tremendously difficult thing to get over and I expect it will haunt me for a long time. It’s a great sadness and really a longing – he was a great friend and an unhappy man for a long time. I didn’t see a lot of him in recent years but I think there was always a very strong bond between us.

On the other hand, an older song like “Hole In The River” seems more like direct reportage. Almost like an exorcism, dealing with a tragedy by getting it out in the open.
I wrote it directly after getting some very bad news from my father about my aunt [who had just committed suicide]. I kind of just wrote down what he told me. I guess that was a conscious decision to write about death. Sometimes it feels like the world is just trying to get by and not take any notice of the misery and horror that unfolds on a daily basis. That’s what “Nobody Wants To” is about. Somedays it just hits you: ‘Hang on a minute, what’s the worst that you can hear? Ah fuck it, let’s find out the worst of what’s going on and we’ll walk out the other side better people for it.’

Your second solo album, One Nil, also reflected upon mortality.
I lost my mother around that time and I suppose although it’s not overtly in a lot of songs it was in my head. There’s nothing like death to haul things into focus when it happens close to you. Death is always getting closer. I was very fortunate, I didn’t have to deal with it when I was young, but I suppose that at any age to be reminded of your mortality gets you thinking. With a song like “Anytime” on that record, I was thinking of the chain of events: ‘I see a dog upon a road / Running hard to catch a cat….’, and it being interesting to suggest the idea that your life is hanging in the balance at any given moment. And actually, it’s not gloomy or morbid to think so. It’s useful and life affirming to remember that.

People often assume that “She Goes On” is about either your mother or your grandmother, but in reality it's about neither.
No. I made a little song for a friend of mine who had lost his mother, and played it at the funeral. It wasn’t a song that I was intending necessarily to record, but we tried it one day and it felt universal enough to earn a spot. If you can be useful as a songwriter - at weddings, funerals, whatever - then great. I couldn’t be happier when people tell me they played songs at key family occasions. You just feel really useful.

I spoke to another songwriter, Mark Eitzel, who described songwriters as opportunists, particularly when it comes to writing about the dead. Do you agree with that?
I certainly understand the idea of that. You could say it’s opportunistic, and in a way it is. In periods of dark humour you say, ‘Well, at least you got a good album out of it!’ We joke about those things all the time, and it’s true: there’s ego and selfishness wrapped up in it, but underneath it all there’s a certain universality, a desire to create empathy and comfort for somebody that is at the heart of it as well. There’s a great feeling you get when you know you’ve nailed something that has emotional resonance, that people will empathise with. You can really sense that when you write a song, that people will get into that feeling. So sometimes those terrible events are the spark for those things. I wonder if it’s possible to write a song that has an evil intent and for it to be a great song? There probably has been but hopefully I’ve never written one.

Do you worry about violence in music, in terms of its influence on people?
Some violent music is incredibly funny, people bending over backwards to be as cruel and Satanic as they possibly can. People have to try really hard to be shocking now. I’m not into murder ballads. It’s never really been a genre that’s interested me. I like something with a little bit of heart to it. But try watching Fox News for half an hour and gangsta rap sounds positively life affirming.

Does being raised as a Catholic inform your view of death in your writing?
I don’t think the view of heaven and hell that I grew up with is particularly meaningful for me anymore. I can’t say that I’ve got something else in place, but lately I’ve been trying to concentrate on the idea that if this is all there is it’s not that bad. It’s really useful to focus on what’s going on now and create beauty and joy if possible. I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t follow the disciplines of it, but I do love the idea that the Dalai Lama speaks of that happiness is attainable on earth. If that’s as close as we’re going to get to heaven I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that view. It doesn’t make you a less deep or even a less spiritual person not to believe in heaven and hell.

There’s a great line on Time on Earth: “If there is Hell on earth / There must be Heaven too”.
Actually that was written when I was thinking about surfing. Not quite as profound as it sounds! On top of a wave and being completely in the moment – that’s a heavenly thing, I think.

In I Shot a Man in Reno I talk about Crowded House emitting a kind of non-specific spirituality. Are you aware of that feeling in your music?
Community is at the heart of it for me. In the process of writing a song I think I feel something for people and in the process of them listening to it hopefully they feel something for people too, and for what we all share. There’s other motivations as well, I’m sure, but that’s what I’d love to think is at the heart of it. In our shows recently – more so as time goes on – people’s willingness to sing is just incredible. The absolutely gorgeous sound they make when left to their own devices! Some of the most moving moments I’ve ever had onstage is when I’m standing stock still and absolutely silent listening to the audience sing. They’re singing in four-part harmony now. It’s just absolutely beautiful. It’s like church. Don’t put any religious spin on it whatsoever, but it certainly has the ability to hold me in its sway and make me feel uplifted and transcendent.

Monday 8 September 2008

Evil Don't Look Like Anything

There's always a few songs that slip away during the writing of a book. Here's one modern murder ballad that did just that. It's called "Westfall" by Okkervil River and it's very good. Once again I'm struck by the fact that death and the mandolin make such fine bedfellows. Now, why is that?

And there's the usual entertaining debate about funeral songs over here at the Word website. I'm not sure "Holiday" by Madonna would work for me, mind you.....

Thursday 4 September 2008


I've written a piece for the Book Notes section of Largehearted Boy's excellent music and book site, which you can now read here.

Elsewhere, Signal To Noise have reviewed I Shot a Man in Reno, and very favourably too. I don't think you can read it online, so I'll include the potted highlights here.

"Over the course of this thoughtful essay, Thomson... is a surefooted guide through the musical graveyard. His writing is never dry or academic, but he smartly puts each song into its sociological and psychological context. It's fascinating to see how concepts of death changed over the decades, as Thomson points out trends such as the explosion of death songs during the psychedelic era.... He makes excellent use of quotes from some A-list songwriters; he interviewed Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, and he draws on other sources for remarks from other musicians..... At first, it may seem puzzling that songs on this grim topic have become hits and even popular standards, but Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music."

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Richard Thompson & Reno

Richard Thompson is one of our greatest songwriters, and he spoke with me at length for I Shot a Man in Reno. Although always fascinating, due to space constraints not everything he said made the book. Here is a more comprehensive account of the interview.

Are you always aware when death crops up in your writing?
I take it for granted to the point where I’ve never really even thought about it – it’s just a natural thing that a song would have that subject matter. Coming from the folk tradition, it’s all over the place. In a sense, popular music seems strange because it doesn’t talk about it that much.

Why do you think that is?
You hear in some pop music this sort of endless Peter Pan-ish attempt to keep on strutting. I admire the energy. A band like the Stones can still put on a good show but there is this sense that they’re not dealing with life, they’re shoving it under the carpet. It depends on how people see their role – if it’s just as an entertainer, which is fair enough, then that’s what you do. But if you write - and the Stones write songs - then they should be writing something a little deeper. As they used to. They used to write songs that reflected the [60s] culture and drug culture extremely well.

How do you approach the subject of death in your writing? Do you consciously come at it from a specific angle?
You don’t sit down to moralise or write about your philosophy every time you write a song. You just write a story. It’s fiction and it’s fun to make something up, it’s an enjoyable process. Then you look at it afterwards and you think, ‘Oh that’s obviously about me or about someone I know, and that reflects what I believe.’ With a song like "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?" I sat down to write a story. It could be about Sandy [Denny] or a couple of other people that I know…. I don’t think it is about any person in particular. It’s a bit like detective fiction, it has some of the same goriness and detail. In good detective fiction there’s always a corpse, otherwise you feel unsatisifed. The song doesn’t really give any answers, it just asks the moral questions.

"Meet on the Ledge", on the other hand, seems to speak of a very firm belief in reincarnation.
"Meet on the Ledge" is quite a spiritual song. Even at the age I wrote that, probably 18 or 19, I had that belief and that is reflected in the song in a subtle way. It can be taken in many ways, as fans continually remind me! The thing about the obfuscation of the 60s – and I sort of hold Dylan responsible for making lyrics slightly obscure - is that you can interpret forever these very simple songs. It changes a bit. It’s a song that I feel I outgrew, actually fairly quickly, in about five years or so. I felt that song didn’t really speak for me. Not because I thought it was an adolescent song, but I thought it was a slightly clumsy song in its delivery. It’s only because that it became kind of anthemic for some people that I revisited the song. I had to drag it out and look at it and think, are there things I can extract from this song so that I can continue to enjoy it. And there are. Because it is so vague and so obscure in its references I can find things in it that still speak for me.

Do you intend for these songs to be comforting?
That’s interesting. Some songs might have that function. Some songs have a role to play for the writer/singer, especially if you’re a singer-songwriter and you’re revisiting songs nightly from all parts of your career. Some songs are like reminders. There’s another song called "Wall of Death" which may also be in your area of interest. It has other functions as well, but one of its functions of that song is like a memo to myself every night to take risks. To be on the edge and not quite safe, in the musical sense and perhaps in the life sense as well. For me it’s quite literal. The obvious thing to say is that a song about death is a song about life. The sentence has a full stop, without which the sentence wouldn’t be complete and would have no meaning. It’s just the human condition. It’s more satisfying to include the end of things, to give shape to whatever you’re writing about.

Have you ever sat down and specifically written a song for someone who has passed on? Or is it less direct than that?
It can be either. You can absolutely sit down and write something that is like a requiem for someone, a tribute. In my own work, I wouldn’t really want to pinpoint those, it’s just too personal. And I’m sure I’ve written songs that have subconsciously been about people. "Never Again" is a song of bereavement. I lost a friend when I was quite young and that song is just trying to deal with that. It’s a real song of loss and regret as far as I can see.

Is it hard to revisit these kinds of songs onstage?
It is difficult [to find the emotion]. If you invested every emotion that was in every song every night you’d just tear yourself to pieces. I don’t think anybody could do it. You have to have some kind of way of turning on and off, or modifying it somehow for a night-to-night thing. You are putting a lot of emotion into night after night, but if you let it really get to you you wouldn’t be able to get through the songs; you’d collapse like a quivering jelly on the stage. A dramtic persona takes over that allows you give yourself a slight distance from embodying songs. It’s total concentration and involvement in the song, but at a point you’re being the actor speaking the lines, especially if you’re the writer as well.

It’s interesting what you said earlier about ‘asking moral questions’. What strikes me about a lot of the old ballads is that they address morality without neccesarily giving any easy or clear-cut answers.
In the old ballads there was always a moral dimension. Something like "Tom Dooley," it’s the ballad functioning as both news AND editorial comment. In societies where people didn’t particularly read or there wasn’t a radio or TV, that was the way the news was carried. The function of these songs is to get it out there, so that it’s been sung about as a real thing that has happened. You sing about your hard times at work, your happy times like weddings, and you deal with the local problems, the dark things that happen locally, that’s the arena where it’s OK to bring that stuff and sing about it on a regular basis in the guise of a good tune. In that way society is dealing with the problem of what you do with someone in the community. It’s performing the function of a newspaper.

Are these songs threatened by the propensity of media outlets in modern times? Is there a danger that they become irrelevant?
People haven’t rejected the ballad yet. They still like to hear a story song, even though they have newspapers and other stuff. There is something satisfying about that picture of the world. It’s hard to say why, but there’s something satisfying about the way they deal with life and death. The audience like to deal with these kinds of subjects. In a song often you’re dealing with things that are below the spoken desires of the audience. They are below consciousness, these things that are slightly troubling and below the surface, and as a songwriter you look for those things. You turn them into songs and sing them and sometimes it can be unsettling for the audience, especially the ones that deal with serious subjects, but because it’s entertainment you can do it and the audience will go through that process. They almost like to be unsettled. It’s part of the job of a songwriter, and its part of way the audience expects – from me, anyway.

The title of my book is taken from Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues". Are you a fan?
It’s a wonderful song. Very simple but it tells it like it is – a slice of real life. Mindless acts. America is the place for that. American prisons are just jammed pack full of people who are there forever for [killing] people who were just passing in the street. It’s tragic. It’s gotten very, very dark in America, and it will get darker.

A recent song of yours, "Dad’s Gonna Kill Me," makes explicit that the most terrible and inevitable consequence of war – Iraq, in this case - is death.
To me, the song is a clarification of the war for the audience. It’s saying: ‘This is what politicians say about the war, and this is what the war is really about.’ It’s clearly two different things. It’s important that people hear their entertainers talking about the Iraq War. The most devastating consequence of the war is that someone that you know has died. Perhaps it’s your son. Good and bad is irrelevant when you’re talking about things like this.

Do you feel that popular music has a decent grip on death as a subject matter?
Pop music is a big area. It’s not just young people’s music, it’s not like it was in the 50s and 60s, now it’s multi-generational. It embraces a lot of styles. A lot of the protagonists of popular music are now dead or old – sixty-somethings. I think inevitably and hopefully popular music reflects everything: life, death and everything inbetween.

I think an awareness of mortality is becoming more pronounced in your own work. Would you agree?
Yes. As I get older I start to think about those kind of things and I start to write those kinds of songs. It preoccupies you more; hopefully it becomes a friend rather than an enemy. Society sees death as an enemy - that's why we're so good at generally removing illness and dying from everyday life. When people get sick or old you stick them in a home or a hospital or on the street. But I think you have to try to embrace death and to “die before you die”, is the expression. It’s something that’s always there, you have to deal with it in any belief system. It’s important to understand how to live and it’s important to understand how to die.

copyright - Graeme Thomson, 2008

Monday 25 August 2008

Guest Blog

I'm going to be guest blogging all this week over at the Powells website.

Please drop in and check out my hard won words of wisdom, and at the same time you can also catch up on what some of Powells' other excellent guest bloggers - including Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Kolbert and Sean Wilsey - have been saying in previous weeks.

Of course, while you're there you might as well buy a hot-off-the-press copy of I Shot a Man in Reno at an extremely competitive price. You know you want to.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Pretty Words 2.0

Following a rather tepid and - in my thoroughly partisan opinion - deliberately obtuse review in Publishers Weekly (it seemed to fail to grasp the point of the book, though I would say that, wouldn't I?), I Shot a Man in Reno has fared rather better in the new Booklist.

I think you may have to subscribe to see it here, so I've taken the liberty of putting it on site.

"The long subtitle is a tad inaccurate. This isn’t a history; it’s a commentary. Damned good one, too, by a journalist who knows his stuff and struts it by spanning recorded death ditties from the English folk song “John Barleycorn,” which covers its morbidity by “really” being about growing and preparing the ingredients of beer, to gangsta rap. Refreshingly, he refrains from rock-critic snideness in chapters focused on the teen death songs of the 1950s and 1960s, murder ballads, metaphysical trips to the other side from the high ’60s, suicide songs, afterlife musings, gangsta’s urban reclamation of the murder song, and mourning songs. He wisely sticks to the genuinely demotic song tradition, ignoring the so-called classic popular songs of Tin Pan Alley and the musical theater (the work of schooled composers), and primarily to the products of that tradition’s commercial devolution since the rise of sound recording. Enthralling from the first page, he guarantees rereaders with a penultimate chapter on Europe’s top 10 funeral songs and an appendix of his own, an annotated top 40 of death."— Ray Olson

Saturday 16 August 2008

Pretty Words

A very positive - as well as fair and pretty perceptive - review of Reno has popped up at the
I Just Finished site. You need to scroll down a wee bit but, y'know, it's worth it. I'll take "eloquently elegiac" and "consummate criticism" any day, even if I've never heard of the site before today. Nice use of the word taxonomic, too - but then what would you expect from a fellow Woody Allen fan?

Also, this long article over at ForeWord finds time to call the book "brilliant" somewhere near the end. Fine by me.

Friday 15 August 2008

Anne Briggs at 65

Briggs arrived in Edinburgh in 1959, having hitch-hiked with a friend from her home in Nottinghamshire, drawn by the city’s vibrant folk scene. “I was interested in folk music, and I knew this Scots lad who was working in Nottingham who knew Ray and Archie Fisher,” she says today. “He was going up to see them in the Easter holidays and asked me along. I knew their music from their first record, so I said ‘Yes, that would be fantastic.’ I stayed for the whole of the holidays and just about managed to get back for school!”

In Edinburgh she met Bert Jansch for the first time and quickly embarked upon a friendship that has lasted to this day. “It was almost like we already knew each other,” she smiles. “I can’t explain it. We were drawn to each other, very comfortable and relaxed with each other. Maybe it’s one of those things - when you both come from difficult backgrounds you can subconsciously identify it and relate to people in some strange way.”

Nearly half a century on, Jansch recalls “a brilliant, very natural singer. She sang in an Irish idiom, which was unusual for an English girl, and she would improvise like a jazz singer. It’s fantastic to be able to hold someone’s interest singing 30 verses unaccompanied, but she could do it.”

By 1962, Briggs had come to the attention of Ewan MacColl, who had heard her sing on the Centre 42 tour - a rolling review featuring local talent that he was taking around the country - and invited her to join the tour. Soon after she left the home of her aunt and uncle, with whom she lived after being orphaned at an early age, and moved to London, where she became part of the scene that included Jansch, John Renbourn, Clive Palmer and the Incredible String Band. Despite the calibre of her friends, she says that she “didn’t learn a lot, because they were doing totally different things that I personally didn’t relate to a great deal. I did, however, relate to Bert’s songs, because it was like relating to Bert. That’s how we managed to work together quite successfully. I identified with his music, and somehow he identified with my very traditional approach to ballads. It was like we unlocked musical doors for each other.”

In London, Briggs taught Jansch the standard Blackwaterside, which he made his own on his debut album, and Briggs made her first recordings for Topic, singing two songs on the 1963 thematic album The Iron Muse as well as the Hazards Of Love EP. Most memorably, she appeared with Bert Lloyd on the 1966 EP of traditional songs of love and lust, The Bird In The Bush.

But she was rarely in one place for very long. “I don’t have a romantic idea of travelling, it’s just happened to me,” she says today. “And when it did happen I felt totally comfortable with it, in the right place doing the right thing. I don’t know where I got it from. The Irish side of my family travelled barely half a street away from each in a small town in Ireland. And the same with the Briggs side – they were Midlanders, and they all lived close to each other too. So I’ve no idea where it came from.”

In the mid-sixties, many summers were spent in Ireland with her lover, the traditional singer Johnny Moynihan, who later formed the Sweeney Men. They travelled around the country in a horse and cart or a VW van, meeting new people and playing for anyone who would listen. Briggs learned the bouzouki and loved busking, relishing the excitement of singing for her supper away from the formal atmosphere of a concert.

“The travelling I did and the singing was a more valuable experience to me personally than the gigs and the recording,” she says. “It was always difficult for me. Occasionally I did gigs when I got really into the ballads and the singing, where I really got through to the people that I was singing to – that was great, when I could do that, amazingly, within the structure of a club. But it was always much easier to do informal sessions in the Irish countryside with traditional musicians or busking in the street.”

It’s this period that provides the wildest accounts of Briggs’ antics: tales of drugs, seriously hard drinking and dangerous stunts like jumping off Malin Head in Donegal to chase seals. “Sandy [Denny] was always saying, ‘Oh, you must meet Annie’,” says Richard Thompson. “So I’d meet her and she’d be stretched out on the floor, having drunk herself into unconsciousness.” Was she really that wild, I wonder? “Oh yeah,” she laughs. “I did some very crazy things. It’s amazing to still be here talking about it. I was wild, I admit it, and I’m not that different in a way. I’m older and a bit quieter, but I’m still not very stable. I’m not mad, but I’m inclined to go outside the box occasionally.”

In the late sixties her concession to building a “home base” was moving into a caravan on a Suffolk heath. Perhaps because of this relative accessibility, she began writing more songs and was finally persuaded to sign a record contract by Jo Lustig at CBS. Two albums were released in 1971: the first, Anne Briggs, was a set of traditional songs sung in the sean nos style and released by Topic. “It was very unconscious,” she says of the album. “An amalgam of stuff I’d been listening to on the radio as a teenager, plus recordings I’d heard of people like Isla Cameron and Mary O’Hara and Jeannie Robertson – field recordings. I loved the songs and just started singing them. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to sound like anyone, it was just to try and sing the songs as I felt was right.”

The second album, The Time Has Come, was very different, consisting largely of original songs backed by her own guitar playing. “I started playing the guitar and I found I couldn’t sing my traditional stuff with a guitar at all, but I just really loved playing the music and suddenly songs and words started coming out, influenced by the fact that I was playing guitar,” she recalls. “The songs are very evocative of my life at that point, when I was holed up in that caravan on a Suffolk heath, just me and my dog and occasional friends who would come.”

The recording of the album was “in and out - one take for the lot! Some stuff on it I really do like, and some stuff I think, Oh God you could have made a better job. If I’d had more time I could have made a better job of the singing, because you do get tired belting that stuff out. And the tensions and the pressures in the studios is hard – it sounds forced and immature to me. But it’s alright. I like Railroad Bill – it’s very easy to sing. I like Lal [Waterson’s] Fine Horseman, Clea Caught A Rabbit and Tangled Man.”

By the time she’d finished her third record, Sing A Song For You, in 1973, Briggs had become even more disillusioned with the restrictions of a formal recording career and playing sterile venues like the Royal Festival Hall. She “really didn’t like” the record and refused to let it come out, with the result that CBS “washed their hands of me.” In any case, her life was changing. She married Pat, a forestry worker, and had two children in quick succession. When Pat’s job took him to Sutherland in the north of Scotland, they moved to a remote village to raise their children. And that, effectively, was the last the world heard of Anne Briggs.

Over thirty years later, she insists it wasn’t a conscious retreat. “Having children focuses your mind wonderfully well on trying to get things together,” she says. “People would phone up and ask if I could do this or that, but the answer was always, ‘Sorry, no.’ I missed it hugely. It was hard for me to settle down. It really wasn’t easy, but I was tied up in a totally different life.”

The music stopped, but it was a productive life in other ways. In the 1980s she and her family moved to Lincolnshire, where she made a living selling environmental plants at rural markets, as well as undertaking conservation and education work with the Forestry Commission. In the 1990s she returned to Scotland, where she and Pat ran an award-winning “bunkhouse and tea garden” on the Isle of Cara. Now retired, they recently returned to live on the mainland, just outside Oban.

“She certainly didn’t ever feel that singing was all she had,” points out Bert Jansch. And yet the pull of making music has never left her. She was persuaded by friends Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick to play a handful of shows in the early 1990s, but the experience was fraught, partly because it involved her leaving her natural habitat. “I’m not neurotic, but I don’t like cities the same way some people don’t like flying or water,” she says. “Arriving to do a gig at the end of the day in a state of nervous tension wasn’t good.”

She admits to feeling “guilty” at letting her talent go unused, but that unsettling experience, and the continued passing of time, has clearly dented her confidence. However, she doesn’t discount some kind of return to music. New friends - the young, Glasgow-based folk musician Alasdair Roberts is a frequent correspondent – and old mainstays like Bert Jansch are gently trying to tempt her back, with some success. Visiting her son in Australia recently, Briggs “just took off and travelled around, and it was just like being on the road again. It freed something up in me and I’ve started playing music again at home. I don’t feel I’ve got sufficient material together in good enough form to record tomorrow, but I’m aware that if I want to record again I should do it fairly soon. I just don’t feel I’m good enough at the moment. I’ve got to keep working at it.”

Whatever she chooses to do next, it will be firmly on her own terms. Aged 62, she seems as wary as ever of the glare of the spotlight, but is happy that her timeless music hasn’t been forgotten. And this most private and pleasant of women has one last message to the world: “Say I’m OK,” she smiles. “You tell them that.”

On Briggs:
I wrote the song Beeswing kind of about her. There was a thing in the 60s where people dropped out to live in the country and get their heads together. People like Vashti Bunyan and Annie Briggs: these wild, free spirited women. They were quite inspirational. Anne was great. I saw her a couple of times in folk clubs, but the only times I only actually ever met her she had drunk herself into unconsciousness.

BERT JANSCH: I don’t remember meeting her in Edinburgh, although she assures me we did. I remember her first in London. She was a brilliant singer – really brilliant, very natural. We clicked straight away. She was pretty wild when I knew her, but then I was even wilder! She has calmed down quite a lot. She does sing at home for her own pleasure and her voice sounds the same to me. I think any singer would feel guilty about not using that talent, but if you haven’t done it for a while, it can be hard. Unless you do it regularly you’re going to be insecure. She’s not used to the modern day music scene. In the old days, you could stop half way through a song and start another, but audiences expect a degree of professionalism these days. I’d be really over the moon if she started again. A lot of people have been trying to coax her back into it. I gave her a mini disc player to record with, but she’s not very good with hi-tech. I probably should have given her a cassette player!

ALASDAIR ROBERTS: Her voice has a directness and understated-ness that appeals to me. She doesn’t dramatise. And it’s incredibly beautiful, particularly on her traditional ballads. She doesn’t feel the need to alter her singing personality. She sings like it’s the most natural thing in the world for her to be doing, like it’s an ingrained part of her. Although I couldn’t hope to attain that kind of technical brilliance as a singer, she was one of the first traditional singers that I heard who inspired me to take up singing traditional songs myself.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Battle Of The Sob Songs

OK, time to lay your cards on the table.

The golden age of the sob song (roughly 1960-1965) resulted in a lot of contrived dross about mangled Chevys and fast boys crashing their Phantoms, but there are certain songs from that era that still genuinely pull at the heart strings. Well, my heart strings at least. If you share my affection, the wondrous Last Kiss by J Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers will be right up your street.

If however, you regard sob songs as a big, wet joke, hamstrung by bad taste and kitsch, try a bit of Jimmy Cross's wares. And enjoy, you heartless bastards.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Mood Music

An interesting, if wildly flawed study, appeared in this week's Australasian Psychiatry (no, I'm not a subscriber. I tend to take The Scottish Psychoanalyst instead.)

Here's a key bit: "There is no evidence to suggest that the type of music you listen to will cause you to commit suicide, but those who are vulnerable and at risk of committing suicide may be listening to certain types of music," said Felicity Baker, the author of the study. With a straight face, presumably.

So the premise is that certain defined types of people gravitate to specific kinds of music: teeny boppers who love pop are "more likely to be struggling with their sexuality." Rap and metal fans could - wait for it - "be having unprotected sex and drink-driving." Jazz fans are usually misfits and loners. Could the cliches come any thicker or faster? Presumably the Maroon 5 fan is a model of dull conformity and will lead a long, healthy and happy - if limited - life. The study concluded that doctors should include musical tastes as a diagnostic indicator in mental health assessments, which sounds downright dangerous to me. I'd have been put in a straightjacket at the age of 14 if someone had been monitoring what I was listening to. I may even have been forced to explain how much fun I was having wallowing in my misery.

Funny. All the teens I know have such madly diverse tastes in music that it blows these kind of ridiculous assumptions out of the water. They pick and mix, now more than ever. Thankfully Michael Bowden, a child psychiatrist and the head of medical programs at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry, was on hand to display some measure of good sense: "The key to understanding any teenager is to treat them with respect by listening to what they have to say, rather than typecasting them according to the type of music they listen to." And Amen to that.

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.”