Art Imitates Death

by Andrew Gilstrap

29 January 2009

One of the misconceptions that Graeme Thomson deals with in his book I Shot a Man in Reno is that music about death is somehow out of the norm. In fact, death finds its way into pretty much every type of music.
Johnny Cash, who never really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, seen in a mug shot from an October 1965 arrest for transporting pills and tranquilizers across the US-Mexico border. 

I was sitting in a restaurant recently, reading Graeme Thomson’s 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, when the waitress asked me what I was reading.

I turned the book over to show her the gun-, needle-, and skull-decorated cover, saying, “It’s a book about death in music.”

cover art

I Shot a Man in Reno

Graeme Thomson

A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song


Clang. You could see the shields go up in her eyes, the wheels turning: “Okaaay. Eats alone. Quiet. Looks like a drifter. Reading about death music or death metal or whatever. Oh my god! He’s even wearing a black T-shirt! Where’s the nearest exit in case he snaps?”

I thought about lying to her and telling her I was reading the book for a class. I briefly considered telling her I was reviewing it, but figured that nothing screamed “volatile loner” more than that bit of truth.

“Yeah,” I hemmed and hawed. “It’s a little odd.”

Now, those thoughts weren’t necessarily racing through her head, but it’s fair to say that she thought the whole idea of reading about music about death was just really, really weird.

It’s one of the misconceptions that Thomson deals with in Shot a Man in Reno, this idea that music about death is somehow out of the norm. Sure, it might not be a mainstay on the Billboard charts (although history holds plenty of exceptions to that rule), but death finds its way into pretty much every type of music. Many people don’t like to think about it. I come from a part of the country where clean-cut folks have spent decades shagging (dancing) to Lloyd Price’s rambunctious rendition of “Stagger Lee”, its easygoing rhythm masking the song’s violence. And when people do try to connect music to death, as Thomson points out in a chapter devoted to songs that people play at funerals, the songs—such as “Stairway to Heaven”—often have little, if anything, to do with death.

But death is all around us in our music anyway, as Thomson clearly points out with mention of song after song after song touched by loss, a list you can add to on your own with very little effort. There’s Crowded House’s “Hole in the River”, about a death in Neil Finn’s family. There’s the tragic hero of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, or the guilt that blows like a gritty wind through Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”. You have the White Stripes resurrecting the grim reaper’s blues in covers like “St. James Infirmary Blues” and Son House’s “Death Letter”. And if you go way back, you have a mountain holler’s worth of murder songs like “Pretty Polly”, “Tom Dooley”, or “Knoxville Girl”, not to mention a whole host of disaster songs of the type found on 2007’s People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 box set. Oh, and then there are the old English folk ballads, and so on and so on. From Johnny Cash to Morrissey to Eminem to Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone to whoever came up with Beowulf, it seems like nearly every songwriter or poet has found inspiration at the site of a car wreck, funeral, murder scene, or suicide.

Thomson takes two main approaches to such a vast, century-spanning, genre-agnostic topic. Part of Shot a Man in Reno is chronological, tracing the portrayal of death in modern music from ‘50s teen songs to the drug-laced mysticism of the ‘60s to even the rise of gangsta rap. But it’s also thematic, as Thomson often returns to the notion of pop music, as a young art form, simply being too immature to consistently deal with death in a meaningful way. Early in the book, he flirts with getting on Mick Jagger’s bad side by pressing the singer on the irony that, as men in their ‘60s, the Stones aren’t exactly taking stock of their mortality (they certainly won’t be covering Leonard Cohen anytime soon). To his credit, though, Jagger offers some good analysis throughout the book, as do a host of others such as Neil Finn, Will Oldham, Richard Thompson, Mark Eitzel, and Ice-T.

There’s no way Thomson could include every song every written in I Shot a Man in Reno, and so it’s entertaining to read his blog to see him continue the discussion as he posts interviews and discovers new songs. Here are just a few standout songs that have come out recently, proving that as long as the grim reaper’s doing his work, songwriters will keep trying to make sense of it all. Blitzen Trapper, “Black River Killer” Atop a spry acoustic melody, a killer chronicles a lifetime of indiscriminate killing, summing up his sociopathic ways in stanzas like “So you make no mistake / I know just what it takes / To pull a man’s soul back from heaven’s gates / I’ve been wandering in the dark about as long as sin.” Chilling. Chad VanGaalen, “Molten Light” Hell-bent supernatural revenge from beyond the grave in less than three minutes, made all the creepier by VanGaalen’s lo-fi, eerie presentation. Brothers dump a woman’s body, only to be pursued by her revenant who tracks them down for revenge equal to their crime. The Avett Brothers, “Murder in the City” One of the most gentle songs about death you’ll ever hear, the brothers offer up this musical last will and testament, advising loved ones to ignore the urge for revenge, instead entreating them to follow a simple set of last wishes. The Felice Brothers, “Murder by Mistletoe” The Felice Brothers bring their easygoing Band-backing-Dylan vibe to this quiet tale of carolers, falling snow, mirrors, and razor blades: “She left him by the night arcade / And turned his heart into a spade / He turned that lovely blue eyed Jane /To a homicide on Campbell Lane.” Charlie Louvin, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs An entire album of death songs from one of bluegrass’s timeless voices.

It’s not a weakness of the book, but rather a testament to the depth and diversity of the subject that Thomson’s chapters—each of which could be its own book—makes you hungry for more discussion and more examples. His discussion of gangsta rap in the context of the violent blues tradition supports Thomson’s point that, while gangsta rap seemingly emerged from nowhere, it really had roots in a very deep tradition (his chapter-opening gambit of blending Jelly Roll Morton and 50 Cent lyrics into a seamless whole of macho vulgarity is especially well done). He doesn’t excuse rap’s violence, proposing that “Rap is the only major musical form of current times that would be significantly diminished—both in terms of its content as well as well as the sheer quantity of releases—if it was somehow prevented from writing about murder. It has become the big bad daddy of the death song.”

Instead, he tends to let a long list of dead rappers tell its own tale. But you can sense Thomson’s bind, as he tries to reconcile rap’s origins with its eventual absorption by giant multinational corporations, and as he tries to balance rap’s role as a voice of the oppressed with his unease at how it might impact society. To some degree, he voices similar concerns about the older death ballads and their rampant violence against women, wondering if perhaps it’s merely the passage of time that makes these stark tales of murder and death so acceptable.

Thomson’s discussion of rap is interesting on its own, but especially worth noting in light of blood-soaked chapters about murder ballads, and about songs that have been blamed for deaths and suicides. In general, he tends to let music off the hook, admiring the fact-based but exaggerated morality-free distance found in bluegrass, for example. In a chapter on trials surrounding songs like Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution”, the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, and Eminem’s “Stan”, Thomson generally lays the blame on misinterpretation by fragile psyches that, if they had never heard the songs in question, would have latched on to something else.

But it’s just these kinds of thorny issues that give I Shot a Man in Reno and our lives as subjective listeners its zing, as we try to figure out why one song bothers us, but another song doesn’t, or why we think a particular song nails the topic of death, while another strikes us as crass exploitation. In his discussions of music like rap, emo, and metal, Thomson really has to flex his critical muscle, and even allow his own tastes to intrude. For rap, he takes the discussion into deeper territory by trying to examine what he, as a middle-aged white man, is supposed be getting out of rap music when he listens to it. That’s not to say he tries to put a racial spin on things; rather, he’s simply trying to bring his role as listener into the equation, much as he does when he discusses the curious success of death songs that drape themselves in vague lyrical veils and muffled lamentations—the types of songs that somehow get played at weddings, or those which take on anthemic status.

He’s probably the least charitable towards emo. As opposed to goth, which Thomson feels is a rich genre capable of aging with its listeners, emo represents a genre that has no hope of escaping its youthful, emotion-drenched trappings. “Emo, on the other hand,” Thomson writes, “with its factory-formed, cookie-cutter guitar shapes, identikit band-names and connect-the-dots vocabulary, has little of the juice of Goth. Much of the humor and sex and death has been squeezed out. What it shares is its utter self-absorption. It places the miserable teenager right at the center of the universe, exactly where they belong, and is entirely disinterested in engaging with the world politically in the way that punk or hardcore did.”

Defenders of emo might accuse Thomson of placing the music of his youth on a pedestal, while slamming the music of a younger generation that’s poised to replace him. That may or may not be true—only Thomson knows for sure. However, his grudge against emo does get pretty funny as the book goes along, culminating in the following dismissal of Marilyn Manson: “Manson is the dread-warning ghost of Christmas future for every emo band in the land: a 40-year-old forever doomed to playing the part of the sulky teenager, perennially intent on shocking his parents.”

But those moments where Thomson steps into the narrative work really well, throughout 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.

To top it off, Thomson ends the book with a list of what he considers the ultimate death songs. Like any list, it’s sure to provoke argument. And his naming of grizzled old souls like Tom Waits and Nick Cave as standard bearers for the future will alternately thrill some readers and distress others.

The only real problem with the book? It’s a shame it couldn’t come with a CD.

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