Duck Duck Book

63 – i shot a man
09.15.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

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 / Graeme Thomson.
New York : Continuum, 2008.
[MCL call number: 782.42164 T483i 2008; two copies, no holds]

When I was a teenager, my mother made a mix tape labeled “Death” on one side and “Suicide” on the other.  It was for a road trip, but she had it for years and I always loved it.  Ever since I first heard this tape, I’ve been building a play list in my mind of all the other death and suicide songs I’d use, if I were to make my own tape.  I don’t think I’ll ever actually record my own version, but the songs are lodged in a special place in my brain, asserting their relatedness to me every time the subject arises.  I have other lists — songs about living through a violent revolution, songs that list lots of place names, songs appreciating difficult women, songs about sex that rely entirely on metaphor to get their nasty across, songs describing famous disasters, songs about the historical Jesus Christ, and so on — but the death and suicide songs are the most assertive, and the longest, list.

Graeme Thompson shares this interest in death songs.  I Shot a Man in Reno is his take on the history, meaning, and social significance of death songs.  He considers songs about suicide, murder, drinking yourself to death, the afterlife, mourning, and songs people want to have played at their funerals.  Overall, it’s a pretty useful tour of death songs and what they mean in a cultural context, but I can’t say I loved the book.  Really I think it’s just a question of taste — I didn’t find Thompson to be the most intriguing or well-rounded cultural or musical observer, so his critical analysis didn’t jazz me.  I’m not going to recommend him enthusiastically, but I wouldn’t tell you not to read the book either.  I’m sure it would suit other readers just fine.

However, I didn’t like it much.  The thing I really couldn’t get over is actually quite petty.

Thompson promises in his introduction that I Shot a Man in Reno will not be merely a list disguised as a book.  It is in fact a thematic history, not simply a list, but still it is true that when he gets really in the thick of his subject, Thompson tends to resort to listing songs, and it pretty much sucks.  I can hardly cry foul very loudly here — when it comes to lists-posing-as-meaningful-prose I do, as regular readers have no doubt noted, live in something of a glass house.  But really, Thompson’s listy bits seem designed specifically to invoke a mood in the reader.  It’s as if he wants you to remember the songs, hear their melodies, recall their words.  Great, if you’re familiar with them all, but kind of lame if you’re not.  And I have a hard time imagining how anyone who is not a music critic or historian could possibly know all or even most of the specific songs Thompson mentions.  It’s a pretty widely-ranging catalog.

It’s ironic, really, that this is the part that chafes — I was sort of hoping, when I picked up the book, that I would be exposed to some new songs, right along with a nice bit of analysis of death songs, a history of their roots, some stories about what they have meant to us, why they matter, and so on.  Really I was hoping to learn about songs I’d never heard of before.  And I did, but all I really learned  about the songs Thompson lists is who wrote and sang them, their titles, and a teeny tiny bit about how they relate to the subject of death.  I don’t know how popular they have been or what effect they’ve had on society, I don’t know the lyrics, and most importantly, I don’t know what they sound like.

It might be that Thompson listed lots of songs so that one or two of them would catch in the reader’s mind, and they’d be able to see the specifics of his point at that moment in the narrative.  But for me, reading the list was like the literary equivalent of a conversation with someone who knows tons and tons about something, but can’t lay off the jargon enough to be able to talk with someone uninitiated with that subject.  Perhaps I Shot a Man in Reno could benefit from a companion CD?  It is hard to imagine getting the rights for all those hopelessly copyrighted songs, but it might help solve the problem.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: