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