Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tom Reynolds Interview: Part One

In which the author of I Hate Myself and Want to Die explains why he doesn't have time for Portishead fans, why Smashing Pumpkins should be dragged in front of the Hague, and why following The Who is always a risky proposition.

First things first. For a solid month or two after you finished writing the book, did you detox by listening to "Good Vibrations" on a continuous loop? Be honest.

By the time I handed in the final song chapter, I'd also finished up working on a reality dating show. My gloom had been exacerbated by the daily viewing of video footage featuring people much younger and more attractive than me getting free drinks while making out in bars. So I "detoxed" by listening to a lot of solo guitar music by musicians like Michael Hedges, who basically torture Martin guitars by beating the crap out of them while still creating incredible music.

How did you come to the book idea, and what method did you use to weed through and select the songs? Many of the choices are pretty obscure and you seem to dislike them intensely (and hilariously), so I’m assuming you either depended on suggestions from others or you have the world’s strangest/most self-hating record collection.

I literally received a phone call from a publishing company in England that asked if I was willing to spend a year listening to depressing songs and find the most suicide-inducing ones. In hindsight, I think it was a prank phone call that I unfortunately fell for.

The first thing was making sure a song was depressing rather than sad. Depressing songs don't make me cry, they just make me lie on my bed and count the dots on the ceiling. There's a certain apathy-and-ennui effect they should have on the listener. Sad songs put a lump in your throat; depressing songs make you feel like the lump itself.

As there are way more than 52 depressing songs in the world, I knew I needed help. People sent me lists upon lists of song titles, and having worked in radio, I also revisited a lot of hit tunes that flailed me for years while I tried to figure out why they were popular. Most of the songs in the book were hits at one time, which is important because one aspect of a depressing song for me is the chance you're going to keep hearing it. That's why I don't have time for alt-music snobs who bitch about why I didn't include some obscure track off Portishead's second album. I can pull up 20,000 songs just like it that are dark and pessimistic, yet nobody's ever heard them. Plus, those songs are intentionally depressing, which means they're only going to bore me to death.

The ones that suck my serotonin dry are usually trying to be profound and moving. I find Springsteen's working-class ballads much more depressing than Nick Cave.

Was there a uniform procedure for each song, in terms of how many times you would listen to it, how you would test its depressing factors, etc.?

Many I turned off after 30 seconds because I knew they weren't potential candidates. If it was a song I'd never heard before, then I had to listen for the "clueless" factor, wherein the singer doesn't seem to be aware of how depressing the song is.

There were a few I already knew I was going to include even before I started writing, like "Seasons in the Sun," "Honey," the teenage car crash songs, and Smashing Pumpkins’ cover of "Landslide," which is still a crime against mankind. Often-times, an artist succumbs to a try-and-top-this mentality and goes bananas overselling a depressing song they're remaking. Celine Dion took one of the most depressing songs ever, Eric Carmen's "All By Myself," and made it even more depressing with her incessant caterwauling and one of the most violent key changes in recorded music history. I call them Brain Concussion Modulations.

You write that you listened to twelve different versions of "Send in the Clowns" as part of your research. Was that the low point of the endeavor? If not, at what point did you most feel like you might not be able to go on (with the project, life, or both)?

Alas, "Send in the Clowns" has been covered by 150 different artists and I somehow listened to most of them, including Grace Jones’ disco version. Still, there were many low points, like listening to seven different versions of "Honey" just to gird myself for finally dealing with Bobby Goldsboro's original. I also recall searching almost two days for Vikki Carr's abysmal "It Must Be Him" because no music site seemed to have it (when you listen to it, you realize why). And I did become a sobbing wreck while watching the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of "Hurt."

But I think it was the amount of sheer research I did that made me question what I was doing with my life. When you spend an entire afternoon cross-checking facts about Phil Collins and Barry Manilow while right down the street is a neighbor who sold a screenplay for six figures, you wonder about your place in the cosmos.

Given that you seem to detest most of these choices (for good reason), I’m curious – what would you say is your favorite of the 52, the song you could listen to outside the confines of this task without purposefully swerving into a telephone pole? Based on your essays, my guess would be either "Last Kiss" by the Cavaliers or "The Freshmen" by the Verve Pipe. Am I close?

You’re dead-on. I really liked those two songs, whatever snarky comments I made about them. Also, the Carpenters’ "Goodbye to Love" has really grown on me, even the incompetent fuzz guitar solo that’s stuck in it. I now think Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is near-brilliant and I wish I could rewrite my analysis of it. Loretta Lynn’s "Women’s Prison" is a cool gloomy song, and "Captain Jack" by Billy Joel has good music to it.

One that I’ve developed a perverse fondness for is Bloodrock's "D.O.A.," which freaked me out when I first heard it on the radio as a little kid. It’s still one of the worst songs ever written, but I can’t help liking it (or not hating it). Plus, I can't get over how REM used to cover it in their early concerts for pure irony’s sake.

You make a good distinction between depressing songs and sad songs, when you write: "In short, sad songs offer the listener empathetic comfort, reflection, and wisdom. Depressing songs just make you want to stick a Glock-9 in your mouth." And you follow that later with a specific example: "For anyone wishing to understand the difference between a depressing song and a sad song, there’s no better example than 'Hurt.' (Trent) Reznor’s version is depressing; (Johnny) Cash's remake is sad." Could there be a follow-up book about the best 50 sad songs, and what are some of your favorites? (This assumes you like a number of sad songs, if they stay on the right side of the divide you describe. Correct me if I’m wrong, though, and you’re just always listening to Bobby McFerrin or something.)

If Reznor had never written "Hurt," I doubt I would've included any Nine Inch Nails songs. Like "March of the Pigs" is supposed to depress me?

Since I'm at my best as a writer when I'm being an asshole, I doubt I'd ever write a Best Of book. But I'm a huge fan of sad songs and have spent many hours wallowing in them (when you live in Hollywood, you tend to do a lot of that). My favorite sad songs would include:

1. Night Comes In - Richard Thompson
2. Sugar Mountain - Neil Young
3. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
4. Belong - REM (mostly instrumental but still haunting)
5. Take it to the Limit - Eagles (who I normally dislike but Randy Meisner sang it)
6. Name - Goo Goo Dolls (you heard me. They're a guilty pleasure of mine)
7. Luka - Suzanne Vega
8. Moonlight Mile - Rolling Stones

This is just a sampler. There are tons more.....

(Ed. Note: I love "Belong," as you might have guessed. "Take it to the Limit" is one of maybe two Eagles songs that I can stomach, and actually enjoy. And I really like that Goo Goo Dolls song. I knew I wanted Tom to visit for a reason.)

You tell a very funny story in the book about getting up in front of a friend’s church congregation when you were in college and playing guitar while the friend sang Harry Chapin’s "The Shortest Story" – a song that, based on your description, seems to be about hungry international infants being devoured by vultures on Christmas morning. The congregants were rightfully horrified. Which leads me to ask, have you ever attended a concert when a band particularly tested an audience’s patience for depression?

For depression, not really, especially since I never attended Lilith Fair (the mere thought of sitting in a sea of lit candles while Sarah McLachlan sings "In the Arms of the Angel" is enough to make me feed myself to wolverines). But testing an audience’s patience, absolutely.

I can still remember when a jazz fusion band called Sweetbottom featuring Phil Collins’ guitarist, Daryl Stuermer, came to my college in Wisconsin to perform. They had to follow The Who, or more precisely, a Who movie.

The organizers first showed "The Kids Are Alright," the famous Who documentary, then had Sweetbottom perform afterwards. After two hours of guitar smashing and "Won't Get Fooled Again," the last thing anybody wanted to hear was an anal-retentive fusion band playing music geek jazz-rock. The poor guys noodled the entire audience out of the auditorium.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to split hairs, but I'd say "Wish You Were Here" is more mildly melancholic than outright sad or depressing. "Hey You", on the other hand? Now we're talking. Actually, in all fairness, there isn't much Pink Floyd I risk listening to if there's more than, say, one cloud in the sky. While driving or operating heavy machinery? Half a cloud.

3:01 PM  

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