Looking at the death of pop

AS a 13-year-old boy, Graeme Thomson was blown away by his first music gig. Over two decades later, he still has vivid memories of U2's electrifying performance at Wembley Stadium in 1986.

"I can remember it more than a lot of other gigs," he said. "It was just mind blowing."

Just a year on, Graeme was performing on the music circuit himself in Scotland's Capital, singing and playing guitar. It was the beginning of a career that was to last 16 years and include a variety of bands – the last called Toledo – at venues including the city's Subway and Bannermans.

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The 35-year-old father-of-three may no longer play with bands, but his love of music is still central to his career – as a music writer. The Shandon-based author has just had his third book published – a rather quirky tome designed to capture the Christmas market entitled 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.

The title comes from a Johnny Cash song called Folsom Prison Blues, which includes the lyric 'I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die'.

Graeme explains: "The first kind of inspiration for the book was the realisation that a lot of our first-generation rock stars are getting on a bit – they're into their 60s and some their 70s. I wanted to look at whether that was leading to them being more thoughtful about their own mortality, and whether these themes would come into their work as they got older.

"It's an age where you do either start thinking about immortality or go into denial. The Rolling Stones is a band more into pretending that they're 25-year-olds. They're not into facing up to death in their music, whereas Bob Dylan will talk about these things in his music."

Graeme's second idea for the book stemmed from people's reactions to the inclusion of a death theme in pop music.

He said: "We are a bit taken aback and slightly reticent to embrace it, and I wanted to examine that in more detail.

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"Pop music actually deals with death all the time and in a variety of different ways. Gangsta rap is completely fixated with death.

"Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On is actually about how love endures after death."

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There are various themes in the book, including the romantic view held by teenagers regarding death, as well as a section on people's thoughts on afterlife.

Graeme took advantage of the many musical contacts he had developed over a ten-year-period working as a freelance journalist.

He interviewed an array of music stars for the book, including Mike Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney, Ice-T and guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, as well as Neil Finn from Crowded House and Mike Scott of The Waterboys.

Graeme laughs: "Mick Jagger got quite offended actually because I put it to him that for a 65-year-old man to be jumping about in lycra singing Jumpin' Jack Flash might not be particularly grown up. He got slightly snappy about that.

"He said 'it might not be grown up but it's pop music and it's supposed to be fun and escapist'. I think I struck a slight nerve there."

He added: "It was interesting to see the different angles on death. Mike's (of the Waterboys] got a spiritual take on death and believes it is not the end, but the start of something else."

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Graeme also discovered that Sir Paul's inspiration for Beatle's classic Eleanor Rigby came from a "good boy scout role" – encouraged by his father – when he was young.

The song is based on an elderly woman whom Sir Paul used to visit as a youngster.

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"Paul went to lonely old ladies' homes as a young boy and helped with shopping and cooking dinner, because he knew they were on their own," Graeme explains. "He got an insight into loneliness and old age by doing that."

With three children – Kat, eight, Louis, four, and Martha, three – Graeme, who is married to Jen, 31, doesn't have much time these days for live gigs. "I can't say I know very much about the music scene in Edinburgh just now – I've not got my finger on the pulse. But my perception has always been that Edinburgh has suffered because of a lack of venues and is second best to Glasgow in terms of bands and music.

"When I played the smaller music circuit in Edinburgh, I found that there were not many places to play, just four or five."

The book is a bit of a departure for the author, whose previous works were biographies on Elvis Costello and American country singer Willie Nelson. It looks at why death is such a recurring theme in music, whether it's pop, rock, rap or emo.

And the answer? "Death strikes right at the very heart of pop music, not just odd tangents," says Graeme. "Death really is in every nook and cranny of every genre of popular music."

• I Shot A Man In Reno is published by Continuum, priced 9.99.