Friday 30 May 2008

Extract 1.

I was fortunate enough to inveigle, bully and cajole contributions to Reno from people as fascinating as Paul McCartney, Will Oldham, Ice T, Neil Finn, Richard Thompson, Ron Sexsmith - and, rather excitingly, Mick Jagger.

Below is a brief extract from the Introduction, setting up two opposing arguments about pop music's responsibilities when it comes to dealing with death. One of the speakers is young Mick, who was witty, whip-smart and surprisingly thoughtful, as well as being so impossibly Jagger it was scarcely credible; the other is Anthony Wilson, Factory supremo, who sadly died before I could speak with him in person about the subject of death. I'll need to check with Alanis to see whether that's 'ironic' or not.

* * *

“In a way we’re in a bit of a pioneer area, because pop music doesn’t really deal with [death and ageing] as a major topic,” Mick Jagger told me in 2007, in the course of rather tartly conceding that the music of the Rolling Stones might not be, well, very grown up.

“You’re writing within certain conventions – which you can break, but you’re still working with them – and you have to recognise what they are. For years the three-and-a-half minute pop song has been an absurd convention, but we’re still in it more or less. That’s just one of the conventions and there are many, many others that you tend to follow. And one is that it’s not conventional to write about too depressing subjects all of the time.”

Note the taken-as-read correlation between death and ageing and ‘depressing’ music. Need it be so? Not according to Anthony Wilson, the late Factory Records boss who did so much to help bring, among others, Joy Division and New Order to prominence.

“Hamlet is about death, failure, indecision,” Wilson said in 2005. “Do we think of it as depressing? No, we know Hamlet is among the greatest works of art and that everyone can draw a great and worthwhile experience from it. But rock and roll is a comparatively young art form. Maybe it’s not surprising that certain unimaginative people think that music with dark themes, which looks at death and depression and the existential dilemma, has to be a depressing experience itself. It absolutely doesn’t. I think that seeing someone genuinely test the bounds of art and create something new….is absolutely exhilarating.”

This book, then, will swim happily to and fro in these waters, with Jagger on one distant shore and Wilson on the other. As you read, I’d ask you to picture them gesticulating at each other, one clad in lycra, prancing oddly on the sand to It’s Only Rock & Roll (But I Like It), the other pacing along the edge of the cliff-face in a greatcoat with Atrocity Exhibition playing on repeat on his iPod. I’ll allow the reader to determine which is which....."
- copyright 2008 by Graeme Thomson

Wednesday 28 May 2008

An Audience With The Human Riff, Continued.

GT: In context of Willie, I’ve been thinking a lot about what ...

KR: Yeah, you must be well embroiled in it by now!

GT:......I’m up to my neck in it, but it’s brilliant. I’ve been thinking a lot about what keeps people on the road. In your case what is it that keeps you out there?

KR: I dunno. You could ask Willie that one!

GT: I know. I have.

KR: One could say that it becomes like an addiction or... there’s loads of people out there who want to see what you do and you feel like doing it. It’s a simple as that. It’s probably somewhere between the two: white line fever.

GT: With him it seems to have just become his life almost...

KR: [Sings] On the Road Again...

GT: It’s his manifesto, isn’t it?

KR: He’s an amazing guy, Willie. I’ve never hung with Willie except when we’ve been working together, but Willie always makes a little space to hang. He’s an amazing guy. He’s your All American. He’s what I would call an American patriot, but not in the flag waving sense or that shallow sort of.... he loves the soil, man, he loves the... land itself, and he’s the right guy to put the case. I mean, he’s a real old regular American. There’s very few of them, really, at least that stand up and say so. Willie is just that way. He couldn’t be any different any other way I don’t think. Times that I’ve known him, I always have a great time with him. We’re guitar pickers and song writers and shit so we can just kinda kick shit around, you know. But as a man he’s a bit of a mystery, actually.

GT: I get the sense he’s pretty unknowable really.

KR: So you’ve got that feeling too, right?

GT: Totally, yeah.

KR: I don’t think he really knows all of himself, he’s just dedicated to his idea and after all, on top of that a brilliant musician and a songwriter par excellence - that’s your actual French, you know?

GT: Ha! When did you first become aware of him? His harmonica player Mickey Raphael told me that the Stones offered him a support slot in the 70s and he turned it down. Do you remember that?

KR: Well, I do believe so, it is very hard to recall that kind of thing. Maybe it was because he had a previous engagement, a lot of the times you want to work with people on the road and you find that they’re doing Australia while you’re trying to get a gig together in LA. It’s all that ships in the night passing away. But, em, Willie sort of cracked into my perception, I started to hear these songs first.... 'Funny How Time Slips Away', and 'Crazy', and I started to see this name Nelson. When they were 45s it was easier to check out who wrote what. I knew nothing about his character, I just heard these very interesting songs coming out of this guy called Nelson.

Finally, when he burst through the bubble and actually became Willie Nelson in fact rather than just being a Nashville songwriter and whatever it was he was doing – I know what he was doing, actually, but I’m not going to tell! – but Willie sort of creeps up on you. Every time you heard a really interesting song, half the time you’d find Willie Nelson’s name attached to it. And then when he became a performer, because he’s such a recluse in a way. He’s the most unlikely star.

I’ve worked with him.... I think the first time I worked with him he asked me to come up to that casino somewhere in Connecticut, where the Indians are running the joint. About time they got their money back – Willie agreed with me I think. I was amazed at that country thing – there’s Willie, he finishes the show and then he spends like an hour or more and he just signs about every autograph in the audience, you know that country tradition of ‘you’re one of the folks.’ When you’re up there on the stage you’re that, but then afterwards you’ve got to mix, and I was amazed that that was still going on. And Willie, that great patience that he has, that sort of stoic.... meanwhile he’s going, ‘Where’s the joint,’ you know? I always judged Willie shows when I’ve worked with him by how many guys he’s got rolling behind him in the bus: ‘This is a three Frisbee show, pal!’

GT: He smokes an unbelievable amount of dope, doesn’t he?

KR: Oh, absolutely - and always good stuff. Believe me, I’m a connoisseur. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I work with him a lot! No, I’m attracted to the man just as a character and a player. His knowledge of the music... those beautiful mixtures he has between blues and country and mariachi, that Tex-Mex bit, that tradition of a beautiful cross section of music.

GT: How do you rate him as a guitar player?

KR: Oh, he’s incredible man. Absolutely. He’s unique, can you get any better? I mean nobody else could play like that. I mean, look at the state of the guitar for Chrissakes! He’s punched holes through it, scraped it away, and it still sounds better than ever. It’s that weird mixture of stuff, and he doesn’t mind going off on a flight somewhere in the middle of a song. Just taking it and seeing where he ends up. He’s got a beautiful bravado. I admire that.

GT: Has he ever let you play that guitar?

KR: Oh, I’ve had a bash at it. I say, ‘I can’t play it, it’s got a hole in it Willie!’ Where’s there’s a Willie there’s a way.

GT: I’m surprised you’ve never done... cos he’s done so many albums and duets and stuff, have you never discussed doing anything on record together as a piece?

KR: We kind of talk about it and look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, when and where?’ and then it becomes: Oh, later. It’s sort of in the air, I’d love to, but his schedule is...most of the difficult things about working with guys you really admire and would like to get together with is since everybody’s busy, they’re always on the other side of the planet when you’re doing things. It’s finding the time and stuff, and Willie’s a busy man. He has to save all those small farms.

GT: Last time I spoke to him he said he was making six albums – at the same time!

KR: Yeah, he’s been incredibly productive in the last few years, he’s really working hard, man. But then I don’t think he couldn’t. If he wasn’t working I can imagine him fading away.

GT: Do you know his band very well, have you met those guys?

KR: Yeah, the guys around him and everything, I always have a great time when I see Willie. I’m always waiting for the ‘I’m doing a TV show, do you want to come by?’ I say, ‘How many Frisbees involved, man?’ The last time, I met Merle Haggard via Willie. I’d never met Merle before, which was interesting. It ends up with Merle working with us in a few weeks time in Texas. I’m sitting rehearsing with Willie on the West coast somewhere, I think it was Parsons thing or whatever, and sitting there on the drum riser, and there’s this guy with a baseball cap on – the right way around – and a grey beard and he’s picking like a maniac, and he’s sitting next to me and suddenly I said, ‘Your name’s not Merle?’ Yup! Jesus Christ, what a way to meet.

Willie brings people together, that’s the other thing that I think is important to stress. Willie is a great magnet. All kinds of different music. He can pull people together that probably very rarely that somebody else could. They’d be staying in their own lanes, so to speak. But Willie can pull together like Norah Jones.... a diverse amount of people from every spectrum of music you can think of, Jesus Christ there’s enough spectrums to think!

I always admire him because.... when I work with him he’s doing these TV shows. And he’s on stage with absolutely everybody. All day. He’s got to rehearse with them and then he’s got to do the show. Me, I come there and I just do my bit with him, ‘You wanna join in on this?’ I can pick and choose. But I watch the man work, Graeme, and it’s amazing the heart and diplomacy of the man. He should be President, I think! We’d be a lot better off, or at least the Americans would. Possibly we would. But his dedication to what he does, amazing energy. A lot of guys say: how do we [the Stones] do it? How does Willie do it? I mean I’m watching him up there with 24 acts and he’s singing with every one of them. And he’s got it all together, very very smooth, beautiful, no sweat. He has that amazing effect on people, a sort of calmness, but there’s a certain ....under there there’s a hint of real danger if it blows up.

GT: Those eyes...those black eyes he’s got.

KR: Yeah, yeah, he’s one of your great Westerners. A real love for the soil of the land and a feel for it, more than waving stars and stripes and all that crap. A real concern for where it all comes from and what you live on, and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really honest. Which is hard to find in this day and age and this world we live in.

GT: Pretty much unique, I’d say.

KR: How does he strike you, once you’ve taken this gig on? Same way?

GT: Pretty much the same way, yeah. I think....

KR: Are you Scottish?

GT: I am Scottish, yeah

KR: I figured, I saw the way you spelt your name. Yeah.

GT: Yeah, that’s the Scottish way. I’m in Edinburgh at the moment. I loved it, I went over there and hung out in Texas with his guys at the recording studio and stuff, and just the amount of people who are dependent on him and kind of...

KR: I know, this whole travelling community. [Sings] On The Road Again! I kind of know.... Willie and I, without ever knowing each other that much, the minute we looked in each other’s eyes it was, ‘Oh yeah, OK, I know you.’ I might have known you for years and years and years. OK. And what a lovely enthusiasm for music. Ain’t it funny how time slips away but, hey, he can write them too. Incredible. As I said, the name Willie Nelson first cropped up as a really good writer, that was how I first play on it many years ago.

GT: And he struggled as a singer. Well, people’s perception of him as a singer was what held him back.

KR: Oh, he’s a great singer man, Such a wry delivery. I mean, everybody has got a great voice, it’s just a matter of what to do with it. I mean, I get a lot of that flak too, you know. The Grizzle, and all that crap. Willie and I have been pretty well grizzled and we kind of find ourselves in a weird way – which is really amazing coming from where we come from, totally different places – I feel at home with Willie.

GT: Did you listen to that reggae album he made?

KR: Yes I did, yes, cos I live in Jamaica I know most of the cats that are on the session. I thought it was a very bold move, and then I found out that Johnny Cash has been living in Jamaica for years, and round the corner from me. But when you go to live in Jamaica you don’t advertise, I found out without me knowing it that Johnny Cash had been my neighbour, virtually, at 20 minutes away, for like 20 years, but probably never there at the same time because when you go to Jamaica you don’t want to be seen by white people! It’s one of those things.

GT: How much time do you spend there?

KR: As much as I can. I haven’t been there for about a year now, mainly because we’ve been making records and doing this. But as soon as these hurricanes stop I’m going to the bolt hole.

GT: Well listen, that’s fantastic.

KR: Ok, Graeme. All right.

GT: Can I use this as a little introduction to the book? Is that cool?

KR: You can use it in any way you like. Yes. And give my regards to Willie, all right?

GT: I shall, and thanks for your time Keith. Take care.

KR: Pleasure, Graeme. Later man.

© Graeme Thomson 2005

Monday 26 May 2008

One That Got Away

It always happens. Just as soon as you wave bye-bye to your manuscript for the last time before it emerges, lovingly set and bound, as a real book for real people to read, something (actually, loads of things) pops into your head that would have fitted perfectly inside those crisp new pages. I suppose you just have to accept that books are never really finished; you simply draw a line in the sand at some point.

Anyway, when I was in my teens I was big fan of Peter Gabriel’s first few solo albums, but they’d rather slipped away from me in the past ten years or so. Then someone reminded me the other day of the song Family Snapshot, from his ‘Melt’ album, and it immediately made me want to stop the presses and crowbar in a couple of extra paragraphs.

The song is about an assassin readying to kill a US politician – it's based on the attempted assassination of Governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremmer in 1972 – and some of the lyrics are really superb. In RENO's chapter on murder songs I talk about a brilliant line from Tom Waits’ Murder in the Red Barn, where he sings: ‘For some murder is the only door through which they enter life.’ There are a couple of lines in Family Snapshot, sung by the murderer to his prey, that are similarly chilling and perceptive: “I want to be somebody / You were like that too / If you don’t get given you learn to take / And I will take you.” In the closing lyric, we're transported back to the gunman's childhood and given a glimpse of the gaping holes he's trying to fill by killing. Listen to it here and you'll see what I mean.

Monday 12 May 2008

Reviews: I Shot A Man In Reno

“A wildly cheering history of the subject of death in popular song.” - Observer, Best Music Books of 2008

“Better musical surveys are hard to find, and the results are positively life-affirming.” – Paste

“Its contents more than live up to the billing…. a rich and masterful read.” – The Word

"Through brilliant prose and exhaustive research, [Thomson] presents a potted cultural history which argues that songs about death reveal just as much about how we live... In addition to his own articulate and persuasive thoughts, Thomson's interviews with top table musos such as Paul McCartney, Nick Cave, Richard Thompson and Neil Finn result in one of the most informative and fulfilling music books you're ever likely to read. An essential volume for anyone interested in pop as an all-pervasive social force that soundtracks our lives right up to our last breath” - Record Collector

"It’s his knowledge of hip hop, as well as Goths, that makes I Shot A Man In Reno more than just a creepy bathroom read. His description of the Rolling Stones classic ode to “girls dressed in their summer clothes” shows his electric ability to craft delectable imagery with informative reporting..... Dude knows the best musical death trips!" – KEXP, Best Books of 2008

“Hearts are also pierced… in Graeme Thomson's I Shot a Man in Reno: a History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure as Related in Popular Song. In his amiable potter around all the genres of the rock and pop graveyard, Thomson points out the girl groups of the Sixties wailing over the teen idol's car wreck, and the gangsta rappers bragging about the drive-by.” - Telegraph, Best Music Books of 2008

“An intriguing, intelligent analysis…. Thomson's real strength is his understated empathy and common sense, most prominent in his excellent chapter on emo… It’s in making connections between death songs and a life lived that I Shot a Man in Reno really shines.” – Time Out

“Authoritative and sparkling with insight… drawing on a sharp wit and a record collection to apparently rival John Peel’s… this is ten quid well spent.” – Morning Star

“Graeme Thomson’s book is more than just cornucopia of the splendidly grim and myriad ways we speak of death in rhyming couplets backed with a catchy beat. It’s a brain-teasing query into the strange, abstract place death occupies in our culture.” - Eyeweekly

“[Thomson] moves beyond profile to entertain readers with the long-running and continually fascinating story of deadly mayhem as narrated in song lyrics…his fascination with the lyrics comes with a dry sense of humor, making the subject just as much fun for readers.” - Bloomsbury Review

“Thomson immerses the reader in the world of death-pop. Counter-intuitively, it's a jolly read and his top 40 best death-themed songs - or his "DiPod" - show the author has excellent taste, too” – Sunday Herald

"Those moments where Thomson steps into the narrative work really well throughout I Shot a Man in Reno, reminding the reader that despite the dark subject, music is cathartic, fun, and liberating, and that our close ties to it drive us to mix it up a little when something bugs us. For all the research and interviews that went into the book, Thomson isn’t trying to write a dry scholarly tome, so he has plenty of chances to include himself in the discussion. And the book, already fascinating and fun to begin with, is better for it..... The only real problem with the book? It’s a shame it couldn’t come with a CD." – PopMatters

“Rock songs… are just as much about death as they are about love, argues Graeme Thomson in his brilliant I Shot a Man in Reno.” – ForeWord

"Compelling... Divided into chapters covering everything from the common teenage penchant for suicide songs to the evolution of murder ballads and gangsta rap, Thomson displays considerable knowledge of music past and present." - Publishers Weekly

"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…. 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." — Booklist

"Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music. If music is about the human experience, death must be in there, along with everything else… Thomson is a surefooted guide through this 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." - Signal To Noise

“A smart and scholarly read… 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 and often hilarious ride…. Another fine book from Continuum who, along with their 33 1/3 Series, is reshaping the way we read about music.” – Under the Radar Magazine

“Intelligent, erudite and readable" – Classic Rock

“Full of little facts that make for some interesting conversations, but... also thought provoking—you may not always agree with him, but he really knows his stuff and you can’t refute that he has a dizzying amount of knowledge of music of every genre to draw upon. There’s plenty to keep you reading and thinking.” – Buzz

“Nowhere does Thomson wax more eloquently elegiac than towards the end of the book he talks of those songs that deal with the loss occasioned by death, whether it be of a parent, a lover, a sibling, a friend; particularly in his dealing with both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and their respective songs about the loss of their mothers, this book becomes quite moving. [He] saves his best… rhetoric for the epilogue, wherein he provides his Top Forty of all-time greats. Each song comes with a capsule discography and rationale for its inclusion, and some of that is the most consummate of criticism, cultural or otherwise.” –