Friday 27 February 2009

U2: Rejecting the Death Cult

I wrote a chapter in I Shot a Man in Reno called Appetite for Self-Destruction: Oblivion Songs, which looked at our deep rooted desire to see our rock stars sacrifice themselves, and the tiresome willingness of many of them to oblige. I was interested watching the BBC's Culture Show special on U2 the other night, to see how Bono articulated his thoughts about this strain of rock's DNA:

“One of the things we like about rock and roll is this religiosity, and genuinely people do want you to die on a cross aged 33 with a Jack Daniels in your hand," he said. "It’s a death cult, and to give in to is to be made beautiful by it. ‘At least choke on your vomit, one of you!’ But we haven’t. We haven’t played that game. Our job is to derail a mythology that isn’t helpful to music or musicians.”

Interesting. Of course, one of the reasons people hate U2 is this perceived piety, this dogged refusal to follow the script. However, it's a mindset that allows them at their best - and the new album isn't near their best, but has its moments - to express a complete and pure joy through their music, which is still a real rarity for a rock band. It can't be faked, unlike live-fast-die-young posturing. And I'll take joy, however sporadic, over the join-the-dots, join-the-club orthodoxy of the likes of Primal Scream, any day.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Blooms Day

I Shot a Man in Reno is reviewed in the latest issue of the Bloomsbury Review. It has some very kind words for the book, calling it "continually fascinating" and praising my "dry sense of humor" (tell that to my wife) en route to concluding that Reno successfully marries "the unique coming-of-age attitudes of the younger generation with the approaching mortality fears of older adults." All good!

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Steve Earle & Reno

I spoke to Steve Earle the other night. It was great, not just because he provides an unstoppable torrent of ideas, opinions and insight, but also because he sounds like a man who lives a real life. He was taking time off from finishing his novel (having just completed an album of Townes Van Zandt covers) and I could hear the pleasing clatter of dishes and voices humming away in the background. The sounds of home. Anyway, here's what he had to say about death and music:

"Songs about life and death are pretty fucking ancient. Music has been doing that for a long, long time, and in fact you can deal with things that are darker in music a little easier sometimes than you can through other artistic forms. There’s a reason why murder ballads and the darker end of child ballads exist. Part of it is oral history, but it also helps to deal with that stuff and tolerate staring into the darkness a little bit. Sometimes people abuse that. For example, I just made a record of Townes Van Zandt songs, and a lot of the younger crowd who are into Townes tend to key on the darkest of his material, the nihilistic thing. And there’s plenty of it. They’re the kind of people who put the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat at the front of their record collections, but in reality it’s impossible to listen to that album more than once without wanting to kill yourself.

"I made conscious decisions to continue to write darker material, and I’m totally comfortable with that. There are certain decisions I could have made where I would have reached a bigger audience at several points of my career, and a lot of those decisions had to do with wanting to reserve the right to write songs that people die in. It was one of the things that was surgically removed from country music, and as a result it really lost its soul: it was from a country influence that we got those early rock and roll songs where people died, like "
Leader of the Pack", but people aren’t allowed to die in country songs anymore. Come on, country music was always the one place where people were allowed to die!"

Friday 6 February 2009

Jacques The Lad

What have the Belgians ever done for us? Only invented pop music as we know it, that's what.

You can read my piece about the great Jacques Brel (who I've decided to henceforth dub "The Emperor of Death Pop" - let's see if it catches on) in today's Guardian. It features interviews with Marc Almond, Zach Condon, Neil Hannon, Gavin Friday and Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake - but not Joan Wasser. Sorry Joan!

Thursday 5 February 2009

Richard Thompson: How To Combat Motion Sickness

I interviewed Richard Thompson the other day for the Guardian and Observer, who are putting together a series of themed supplements on music: Love Songs, Political Songs, etc. Richard was chatting about Life & Death, and naturally we revisited some of the topics we discussed when I interviewed him for I Shot a Man in Reno (he must think I’m an unusually morbid guy: ‘Hey, let’s talk about death again!’ 'Errr, great.')

Anyway, one song we discussed was "Just The Motion", which appeared on his knockout 1982 album Shoot out the Lights. The song depicts life as a journey upon a constantly restless sea, with no haven or harbour to be found. Here’s a short sample of the exchange:

RT: Life is surfaces and you’re subject to the storms and waves and ripples and all this disturbance; all the inconstancy. You have to dive down deep inside yourself where there’s a calmness and things don’t change. That’s what the song is about.

GT: There’s a real ambiguity in the lyrics: “Cause under the ocean at the bottom of the sea/ You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be.” It sounds suspiciously like drowning.

RT: Well, perhaps you have to drown – perhaps the answer to life is to drown.

Brilliant. You don't get these kinds of answers from Lily Allen, do you? The song is sung by Linda on the album, but here’s some footage I’ve never seen before of Richard performing the song solo. It’s extraordinary.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Pop Matters Review

Under the heading Art Imitates Death, a great big beast of a review for I Shot a Man in Reno has appeared over at PopMatters (it's worth clicking the link just to see Johnny Cash's ravenously cool 1965 mug-shot). Andrew Gilstrap gives one of the best overviews I've so far read of the book's aims and themes - and he really likes the book, too, which obviously helps. He concludes with the following:

"Those moments where Thomson steps into the narrative work really well
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."