Book Review: Rock & Roll Books
Reviewed by Doug Freeman, Fri., Dec. 5, 2008
I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease, and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Songby Graeme Thomson
Continuum International Publishing, 253 pp., $18.95 (paper)
Analyzing the myriad forms and functions of death in popular music in less than 250 pages is somewhat hubristic, but Graeme Thomson tackles his theme with a reverence and passion that compensates for Reno's lack of the comprehensive. As its subtitle suggests, the book leaves little beyond a Brit crit's attempted purview and darts furiously between song titles and genres with a loose and casual style that feels like a pop-culture undergrad seminar. In route, Thomson expounds on everything from "Stagger Lee" to "Let It Be," with necessary, if predictable, forays into 1950s love-struck fatalism, 1960s spirituality and protest, goth and emo, and gansta rap, bolstered by interviews from artists such as Mick Jagger, Will Oldham, and Ice-T. Thomson's tenuous thesis holds that today's popular music, especially in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, largely displays an unwillingness or inability to confront mortality in a personally affective manner, though likely his perceived grievance stems more from simply outgrowing the Cure than any real dearth of dirges. His simultaneous affectionate defense of teen angst and condescending consideration of the pall of contemporary emo bands is particularly amusing to negotiate. Though an engaging and celebratory dance with death, the book only barely lifts the veil.