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 by Graeme Thomson
I strongly recommend this book by Graeme Thomson, and not justbecause the title contains that classic line from the man in black, the one and only Johnny Cash.
Listening to my parent’s copy of Live at Folsom Prison was the first time I experienced a powerful narrative voice speaking from somewhere outside of time. Johnny Cash was, and is, eternal.
That spoken introduction, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…” still gives chills. Those Folsom County prisoners must have realized they weren't there for a group strip search. Those words were
purposefully hypnotic. He could have played anything past that point. He had them at hello…
For those unfamiliar with his work, Graeme Thomson is the author of by far the best Elvis Costello biography, Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello. His latest is an attempt to chart the ebb and flow of murder music; the attitudes and responses to death, guns, drugs, disease and other maladies as related through popular music.
Thomson does his due diligence. He touches on everything from the 50’s teenage heartbreak ballads like “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers to Mississippi John hurt’s “Stack O’Lee Blues” on up through Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and beyond.
The real joy of the book is how Thomson charts the commonalities and differences that transcend genre, transferring gracefully back and forth between the work of bands like My Chemical Romance, The Cure, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Jellyroll Morton and 50 Cent, to see what they say, and to see what their music’s resonance says about us.
The book is compellingly readable and expertly handled, despite the occasional (British) cheekiness which occasionally fails to register (not my cup of tea, perhaps). The greatest feat for an entire book written on a topic such as death was the fact that it never grew obsessively morbid or morose, and eventually resolves poignantly and resolutely. Though we all stand in the shadow of death, the ability of the greatest artists (and of someone such as Thomson himself) to look that reality in the eye, and live (or write or sing) even more fully because of it, is what makes living worthwhile.
There was one passage in particular on p. 203 that registered especially deeply. It seems to accurately express where music is at in the age of the internet and shares something with what I’ve intended to accomplish with this blog:
“It’s become increasingly obvious that the linear view of music history, plotting on a graph the line connecting one great artistic breakthrough to the next, though persuasive and comforting, is unhelpful and unrealistic. Instead, the past meets the future every second of every day, in an untidy, ungainly embrace. Everything happens all at once, all the time, meaning popular music in its broadest sense doesn’t so much progress or regress as expand. The musical past is always with us, right alongside the present, continually open to reinterpretation, more so than ever in the wider present of the current age, where a considerable portion of its long history is available instantly at the click of a button, arriving without announcing either its intent or its original context.”
And isn’t that just about where we’re at? Whatever your view on file sharing, my space or the loss of sound quality in the mp3 format, we’ve never had so much music at our fingertips. It is also a world where one can be a fan of Green Day without recognizing their debt to the Beatles, or be familiar with the various incarnations of Jack White and never heard a note of Beefheart. Without the safety of the old narrative timeline we need new tools to keep track of ever expanding connections and to fully appreciate how music influences and interprets our cultural history.
This blog is intended as nothing more or less than a new tool in that pursuit. I hope it leads you to new sources of inspiration and surprise, as well as to a greater understanding of our times through their reflections cast in sound.