Quick Reads

Friday, October 31, 2008 at 1:00am

QUICK READS

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

(Continuum)

While plenty of rock and pop music doesn't get any heavier than issues of romance and cars, there's also a long tradition of far more serious themes being examined in topical tunes.

Graeme Thomson's latest volume 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 includes commentary, interviews and studies that show balladeers, songwriters and others have been discussing killing their mates, avenging wrongs, fighting corrupt authorities and battling drug addiction for decades before such genres as gangsta rap or death metal ever came into existence.

Whether it was Son House singing about "Death Letter Blues" or The Louvin Brothers asking "Are You Afraid to Die?" many great performers have expressed their views on their impending demise. Another chapter covers compositions on suicide, and there's even a section that looks at murder songs as interpreted by rappers.

The essay tracks the influence of modern and vintage gangster films and directors like Martin Scorsese on modern rappers. Thomson shows that the disdain many pop songwriters have for rappers is problematic, especially when their work gets contrasted against that of many songwriters featured in this volume.

Of course context plays a role, and that's something Thomson understands better than many other commentators and journalists. He traces the impact of environmental and working conditions on death, murder and suicide tunes, showing how these songs often illustrated the bleak living circumstances of their creators or reflected their pessimistic worldview. But there were also cases when the people profiled and the stories told were just larger-than-life myths made into anthems by extraordinary performances.

Fortunately, the vast majority of musical works exemplify joy, inspiration and perseverance rather than the themes spotlighted in I Shot a Man in Reno. But Thomson's book does a service by profiling the other side of the music equation — the works that express and highlight humanity's darker side.

The epilogue to his final chapter covers Thomson's choices for "The Forty Greatest Death Records," which are arranged chronologically from "Mississippi" John Hurt's version of "Stack O' Lee" in 1928 to Muse's "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist" and Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart," both done in 2003. It's a fitting wrap to a fine, if often morose book.

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