Monday 30 June 2008

Monday Morning Face Off # 2

Death and war today.

Two very different views, the first reminding us that the first, last and most devastating consequence of war is always the fact that people die - and not 'heroically,' as our politicians would want us to believe, but battling bravely against confusion and abject terror. It's useful to be reminded of that, particularly right now, so thanks to Richard Thompson for Dad's Gonna Kill Me. Thompson talked to me at length for I Shot a Man in Reno, about everything from Tupac to the Faerie Queen. Here's an acoustic version of one of his greatest songs.

Or perhaps you'd prefer this simple song of fraternal love, the bonds enduring through childhood innocence to the throes of deadly serious combat? I didn't speak with Rolf Harris for the book, but I kind of wish I had. Some people think Two Little Boys is camp and silly. Maybe it's because I have a brother, but I find it profoundly moving in its evocation of lost innocence - and also a little disturbing. It was one of the first songs of death I recall hearing as a child.

Anyway, click on Comments and let me know which one hits you where it hurts. To me, both these songs in their very different ways manage to convey the deathly horror of the reality of warfare.

Friday 27 June 2008

Ich Bein Ein Berliner

Went to see Lou Reed perform Berlin the other night. I must admit, I was half-dreading it. I haven't listened to the record in a long while, and the idea of hearing Reed mono-mutter his way through an entire album of drugs, bad sex, violence and suicide didn't really fire me up on a balmy June night.

The reality, however, was superb. Great band, fantastic choir of angelic kids, and - although Lou could make a little more effort on the singing front, because he occasionally revealed that he can still hold a note - the songs were even more bleakly beautiful than I remember, particularly the sequence from Caroline Says onward. I left singing 'They're taking her children away' softly to myself, alternating with 'I'm gonna stop wasting my time / Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.' Lovely.

As a piece of work Berlin doesn't resonate particularly on a universal level - it's a very specific, stylised take on a certain kind of life and death in New York - but it was still deeply moving in parts. So much so that the two 'classic' Reed songs he performed as an encore - Satellite of Love and Rock and Roll - felt a little slack by comparison.

The night also reminded me that one of my first girlfriends bought me Berlin on vinyl for my 16th birthday. In retrospect, I think she may have been trying to tell me something.....

Sunday 22 June 2008

Monday Morning Face Off

OK. At the start of each week I've decided I'm going to venture out into the musical badlands to round up two fantastic death songs that feature in I Shot a Man in Reno. I'm going to haul them back here, under duress if necessary, and for your pleasure and delectation I'm going to pitch them head to head in mortal combat to find out which one is the meanest. And after you've checked them both out, I want you to use the Comments function to let me know which one you'd like to have fighting on your side down a dark alley. Or, if you'd prefer, just tell me which one you like best.

This week we have a couple of very bad tunes indeed. In the red corner, straight outta Compton - or was it New Jersey - tah dah! It's Ice T's Body Count, with Cop Killer. Written in the wake of the Rodney King beating, it caused such a furore when it came out in 1992 - I seem to recall Dan Quayle voicing a typically well-informed objection - that Ice swiftly removed it from the first Body Count album. It seemed like a climb down at the time, but I talked to Ice T for Reno and he said he "stands by Cop Killer." The question is, do you?

And in the blue corner, it's those happy campers Nick Cave and Polly Harvey, with Henry Lee. A traditional song based on the age-old ballad Young Hunting, it provides a neat, gender-twisting counterpoint to all those standard shot-my-woman-down blues; this time, it's the lady who wields the knife. And how. Warning: you may need a cold shower after this one.

Thursday 19 June 2008

"Love Must Never Be Carried To The Grave"

In the post-Diana age of emotional hysteria in which we all now live, I've noticed a tendency for songs touching upon bereavement to confuse graphic detail with emotional truth: it's easy to convince yourself that the more you say, the more you reveal on a purely surface level, the more you prolong and accentuate your grief, the more powerfully you are connecting with the listener. In an age that values the appearance of emotional realism above almost anything else, disclosure is all.

But the most enduring and affecting songs of loss know that this autopsical approach is flawed. Songs of bereavement more than any other require the lightest of touches - they need to leave some room. Have a listen to the late, great Scottish travelling singer Duncan Williamson singing the traditional ballad The Cruel Grave. His beautiful, lilting introductory speech at the beginning should be required listening for every band or artist who thinks that prolonged wallowing in a glossy, graphic version of death somehow automatically transmits the depth and enormity of their pain.

It takes more - and less - than that.

The great Scottish folk singer Alasdair Roberts very kindly sent me this recording of The Cruel Grave, by the way. Check out his stuff here.

Monday 16 June 2008

A Princely Death

I can tell you - and I'm fairly certain this is a bona fide Reno exclusive - that Will Oldham's favourite songs about death include Ebony Eyes by the Everly Brothers and Jim, I Wore A Tie Today, written by Cindy Walker and recorded by a whole host of estimable folk. His favourite version is by the Highwaymen. Very nice choices, I'm sure you'll agree. I like the mix of sentiment and practicality.

Will recently released a new Bonnie 'Prince' Billy record, containing this typically idiosyncratic piece of mortal musing, where his drunken dawg tones are sweetened by those of Ashley Webber. It's called You Want That Picture. It's sweet and fine, but it's not as good as Ebony Eyes. But then, few things are or ever will be.

Friday 13 June 2008

Reviews: Complicated Shadows

“A vital read ... Thomson here returns one of rock’s most elusive figures to flesh and blood ... Definitive.” – Uncut

“[A] cracker … meticulously researched and fluently told.” - Observer Music Monthly

“Thomson has produced ... as believable and fair a picture of the man himself as I suspect is actually possible.” - Herald

“Brilliantly written . . . in the absence of Elvis Costello putting pen to paper himself, this is far and away the next best thing.” – Record Collector

“A sensitive, impeccably researched account of Declan MacManus’s journey” – Time Out

“Thomson’s pop scholarship is strong; he has gone deep into the archives and immersed himself in the music” – Guardian

“A substantive record of the man’s energy and brilliance after nearly 30 years of standing up when we might have expected him to be falling down” – Observer

“That rarest of rock & roll studies: expertly researched, restrained yet stylish, and in perfect tune with its subject's work” – Austin Chronicle

“Those with even a remote interest in rock music of the past 30 years will find his book utterly mesmerizing” – Library Journal

“A knowledgeable critic, Thomson skillfully interweaves articulate criticism of Costello's musical evolution into his biographical narrative, and unsentimentally details the thrice-married lyricist's dips into infidelity, drug use and egomania…. In all, this is an engrossing and lively account of an equally animated personality” – Publishers Weekly

“If the early years, when Costello and bandmates indulged in drugs and sex on the road, are more interesting than his relatively staid later career, Costello's restless exploration and experimentation help keep the narrative compelling throughout.” – Booklist

“Thomson has compiled the type of volume that’s valuable to both admirers and detractors, and is extensive in its praise, but also accurate and fair in its criticism” – Nashville City Paper

“Thomson's research is superb; using the interviews and sources available (including Costello's own brutally honest, voluminous liner notes for the most recent reissues of his catalog and myriad bootlegs), he weaves Costello's personal, professional, musical and business lives together with a clarity that no one has ever approached” – Rocky Mountain News

Wednesday 11 June 2008

The Blame Game

I naturally spend a little time in Reno looking at emo, first as the source of the latest in a long lineage of great teenage sob songs stretching back to Teen Angel, and then going on to consider whether all artists playing all kinds of music have certain responsibilties toward their audience – here I drop in on emo, metal, rock and rap, as well as Will Oldham rather vehemently calling the late Townes Van Zandt a "prick." Why? You'll have to read the book. I also cast an eye over those bizarre US court cases in the eighties and nineties involving Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne and a few families who couldn’t quite face up to where the blame really lay in respect of their kids' terribly sad deaths.

This is all very prescient because of the recent coverage of the death of Hannah Bond, a 13-year-old girl from Kent, England, who killed herself after becoming, and I quote this advisedly, "a devotee of emo," and indulging in self-harm. There followed – quite a while later - a statement from Bond's favourite band My Chemical Romance, the dark overlords of emo, which read:

"We have recently learned of the suicide and tragic loss of Hannah Bond. We’d like to send our condolences to her family during this time of mourning. Our hearts and thoughts are with them. My Chemical Romance are and always have been vocally anti-violence and anti-suicide. As a band, we have always made it one of our missions through our actions to provide comfort, support, and solace to our fans.

The message and theme of our album The Black Parade is hope and courage. Our lyrics are about finding the strength to keep living through pain and hard times. The last song on our album states: ‘I am not afraid to keep on living’ – a sentiment that embodies the band’s position on hardships we all face as human beings. If you or anyone that you know have feelings of depression or suicide, we urge you to find your way and your voice to deal with these feelings positively."

This was swiftly followed by a – pretty lame, but dedicated - protest by a few emo kids against the Daily Mail, the British newspaper most doggedly devoted to scaremongering about The Cult of Emo.

Now, emo really doesn't do it for me - I'm a good two decades outside the demographic for starters; in fact, I'm about the same age as most emo band members - but I can certainly see where it's coming from. It's very much part of a long line of teen-friendly musical miserabilism, and as far as I'm aware nothing it has come up with to date has been as luxuriously black-hearted as, say, the Cure's Pornography, the Mt. Everest of junior-existentialist gloom.

Anyone who takes the time to look back a little further than the length of their own shadow will recognise that a weighty majority of teenagers have always relished immersing themselves in a little heroic nihilism; it's part and parcel of growing up - the internet has simply shone a harsher spotlight on what they're all getting up to these days. But does anyone beyond the more sensationalist of our news rags seriously believe that emo can be blamed for the tragic loss of a young life?

Friday 6 June 2008

"He loved his gal so well he beat her to death with a stick and threw her in the river..."

God, this is a great version of Knoxville Girl.

It's all the better because, looking at Jim & Jesse, I'm sorry to say that I firmly believe they could be capable of pretty much anything.... check out Jim's - or is it Jesse's - rather sinister introduction to the song. Why is he smirking? And laughing shiftily? Sumthin' you wanna tell us, boy?