Thursday 29 January 2009

John Martyn RIP

I’m very sad to hear news today of John Martyn’s death. I spent an afternoon with him a couple of years ago in Thomastown in Ireland, where he lived with his partner Teresa for the last few years of his life. He was an enormous man, listing like a great old galleon as he walked with his one good leg, but still powerful; something in his eyes warned you off trying on any nonsense.

We sat in the beer garden of Carroll’s pub (everyone knew him, of course) where he drank cider and vodka - in the same glass - and demolished a cheese & onion toastie, and was full of humour, hurt, anger and an odd kind of wisdom. I liked him very much, though I’m sure he was hard work to spend a lot of time with.

He died this morning aged 60, having just been awarded an OBE (I wonder whether he gave a fuck about that or not. Probably not. When I spoke to him he stated his desire to send the entire British Royal family to Elba). It’s no great surprise that he didn’t make it into his twilight years, given his various predelictions and demons, but he will still be sadly missed. What an original! Not just an astonishing guitar player, but also a brilliantly adventurous vocalist and a remarkable songwriter.

This performance is so beautiful. S’long John.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Classic. Rock.

A short review of Reno in this month's Classic Rock magazine, describing the book as "intelligent, erudite and readable", while lamenting that it's not longer. Fair enough. They award Reno 7/10 on the clap-o-meter - aaaaaand the reviewer is called Tommy Udo, which is a quintessentially CLASSIC ROCK kind of name, don't ya think?

And while we're on a classic rock tip, here's my favourite Queen song (with a very tenuous death connection):

Thursday 22 January 2009

Reno: "A Brain-teasing Query"

Some reviews for I Shot a Man in Reno are still drifting leisurely in, hands thurst coolly in pockets, puffing their cigars, idly kicking stones as they go. Toronto’s Eye Weekly is the latest, and very complimentary it is too, awarding Reno 4 stars out of 5. Here's a brief extract:

“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.” Nicely put, I think.

By the way. If – as the Eye reviewer seems to be – you too are interested in the Calabrian mafia songs I mention in the book, your first port of call should be here. It will at least lead you to the music, and a legitimate means of buying it. Below is a flavour of what it sounds like. I make no moral judgement. Someday I'll try to get around to posting an interview I did a few years back with some of the men who play this music in southern Italy. Serious guys.

Monday 19 January 2009

Danny Dill

Danny Dill, composer of Long Black Veil, one of the greatest and most mysterious and elemental of all American songs of death, has died aged 84. Let's hope there's a good woman walking the hills for him as we speak.

Anyway, a fine excuse, if one were needed, to watch this:

Friday 16 January 2009

Giving Death The Bird

I was sent this press release today from the Church of Scotland.

"Some modern music choices at funerals seem to reflect a desire to avoid the stark reality of death, according to writer Ron Ferguson, a Church of Scotland minister, who urges people to think carefully about the music for their funeral. A survey of more than 80,000 funerals conducted by Cooperative Funeral care has found that pop songs were chosen over hymns in four out of 10 services. The most popular choice is Frank Sinatra’s My Way followed by Bette Midler’s anthem Wind Beneath my Wings. As well as popular film music choices included themes from Coronation Street or Eastenders, the Birdie Song and The Laughing Policeman.

Writing in this month’s Life and Work Ferguson says: ‘Such songs might seem a good idea down at the pub, but may not feel so appropriate at the actual ceremony. Ministers, he says, are often under pressure from families to make the funeral service exclusively a celebration of the person’s life and are even under pressure to keep the coffin out of sight. ‘This is not healthy’, he comments. ‘With so many medical procedures designed to keep people alive at all costs, it’s almost as if every death is regarded as a personal failure on the part of the medical profession.’

He suggests that hymns matter even to Protestant and Catholic atheists. ‘What is novel should perhaps be matched by familiar ‘anchoring’ scriptures and hymns which have stood the test of time. Such elements can help to bear the true weight of the occasion and bring solace to the bereaved.'

I wrote about this phenomenon in the penultimate chapter of I Shot a Man in Reno, and made very similar points (I wonder if the Reverend Ron has read the book?). However, not even I realised that people wanted to play this at their funeral. Why? Really. Why why why?

Thursday 8 January 2009

Saying Hi

Happy 62nd birthday to Mr Bowie. The best pop star ever has been ominously quiet lately. I hope we hear something new from him soon.

Meantime, here's this deceptively jolly song from the brilliant Heathen album - death as a "big trip", the departed sailing away over the horizon on some eternal holiday. And isn't "hope the weather's good / Not too hot" a great big generous gag from a man not noted for his sense of humour? Not sure about his hair here, though....

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Crowd Pleasing: The Cash Way

There's a new, big-as-a-house, 2-CD and DVD edition of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison coming out later this month. Listening to it again, it's amazing how many of the songs are about death; it's a tough sell on Death Row, but there's something brave and rather touching about Cash's refusal to shirk the realities of why most of the men in the audience are stuck in prison - as well as his insistence on dwelling upon the fate that awaits them. His refusal to spin fairytales or resort to platitudes is partly what gains him so much audible respect from his audience. When he's not rumbling about murder, faith and retribution, Cash's Folsom songs tend to be about dogs, drugs and trains. What more could you want?

Anyway. Here's a cracking little death medley from the great man: "The Wall"/"Long Black Veil"/"Green Green Grass of Home."

Friday 2 January 2009

Blogs and Ends

Happy New Year. Here's to a potential-fulfilling 2009.

Following a short respite from the blog, there's a few stray loose ends to tie up before normal service is resumed.

Firstly, I was really, really pleased to see I Shot a Man in Reno included in the great KEXP's list of best music books of 2008: "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," they write during a smart little review . "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!"

Reno is also featured on the Here Comes the Flood blog (desribed as the "definitive" book on death-pop, and one that will "expand the reader's musical horizons"), and it's also discussed - in rather impressive depth - in Alternative Ulster, Northern Ireland's premier music magazine.

Other end-of-year blog mentions: Tuna Day ("brilliant.... provides great reading opened at any page at random but is best enjoyed all the way through."), Hipster Book Club ("An interesting account of popular music's fascination with death"), and Big List of Dead People ("If Chuck Klosterman were more of an intellectual and less of a comedian he would have made something like this book, a completely legitimate look at the history of Death songs."

So now you know.