The 33 1/3 Odyssey: The Sound of Falling Apart

Part 16: Shoot Out The Lights by Hayden Childs (#58 in the series)

review by Chris Estey

I’m really happy that in filling in for Spike in this series of reviews spotlighting the 33 1/3 book series I am able to write about an album that is probably in my top fifteen records of all time; arguably in my top ten. Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights was an anomaly in early 80s rock, an LP that hid nothing in the spectrum of human emotion. It didn’t dabble a bit in the studio trickery of its time, being full of heart-on-sleeve playing and emotions, and contains the classic songs “Walking On A Wire” (can a lamentation be this brutal?), the title track (a musical atom bomb covered by Bob Mould and X and many others), and the bracing, timeless “Wall Of Death” (can jangle be this dark or rock this hard on the bridge?).

With its beautiful and haunted vocals from both Linda and Richard, and the latter’s shimmering, often senses-slamming guitar lines, the eight song cycle sounded like the social experiments of the two previous decades coming to a nervous, shattering personal end. This sounded like seasoned playing from two people completely falling apart. Which was appropriate because the relationship of these two immensely talented veteran folk-psychedelic players was indeed dissolving, in marriage and in professional collaboration.

Richard had been at the center of Scottish legends Fairport Convention, raising that band’s best work above parochial playing-out, with Linda coming on board to accompany classic British folk-singer Sandy Denny near the end. As (High Hat website founder and blogger) Hayden Childs eloquently makes clear, the couple hooked up and turned to religion, which did less to liberate them from the drug-fueled madness of the times but instead turned their skepticism about the world into a sort of morbid cynicism about reality. Linda got the tougher end of the stick spiritually, due to their community’s misogyny, leaving Richard for a time after they created a couple of the best folk-rock albums ever recorded, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Hokey Pokey. (And a few less inspired works Childs doesn’t hesitate to briefly assess and dismantle.)

A 33 1/3 book could easy have been written around 1973’s Bright Lights (which I confess is actually my favorite album of all time), but as author-critic Michaelangelo Matos said to me, “Yes, it’s probably a better album even than Shoot Out The Lights, but the latter has a better story behind it.” And more critics know about it as well, as it came in a time when many of the best writers at Spin and Rolling Stone were getting into the scene, picking up on the lavish praise given by the music scribe elite of its time.

That story was the perfect kind of shit-talking rock and roll mythology, with Linda pouncing on Richard physically during their last few shows, and Richard pouring his torn heart into every note he played. And God, the songs. They had tried to record them with Gerry Rafferty (yes, the “Baker Street” dude), but I take an awful lot of weird pleasure in reading how they were discarded, so their meanings could match their sound in a later round of less commercial-aspiring session work.

That is some of my favorite parts of Childs’ book, and the kind of rock geek investigation that drives my own personal interest in reading the 33 1/3 series. I wish Childs had been able to interview Richard Thompson, but the other quotes are fine. Childs adds a fictional narrator, a philosophical folk rock doppelganger who assesses the moves of the declining couple as his own life spins out of control, in mordant comparison to Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Descent. I have to admit that I found this part of the book a little distracting, and a mash-up of perhaps more personal creative writing with a remarkably solid analysis of the Thompson’s output ends up feeling too ambitious. (Childs is similar to conceptually extrapolative Camden Joy, but gives a lot more of the archetypal solid rock write trivia and insight.) Fortunately, this interwoven subplot is pulled off enough not to ruin the spot-on observations and criticisms that fuel the rest of the book. It shouldn’t keep you from reading it, and you should buy the album Shoot Out The Lights immediately if you haven’t got it.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted August 22, 2008 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    At the risk of being an ass for commenting on a review of my book, I just wanted to thank Chris for the kind words. I’m honored to be a part of the 33 1/3 Odyssey. For the record, I couldn’t choose between I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out The Lights at gunpoint, but the SOTL story is indeed the juicier of the two.

  2. Chris Estey
    Posted August 22, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Hayden, and at the risk of being an ass for commenting on an author’s comment on my review of their work (which I don’t think you were being at all, unless you had just called me an ass, or something), I have to say I’ve been struggling a bit in hindsight with my criticism of your fictional aspect to the book. I was actually leery of your combining a fictionalized character with so much story behind such an important record being readily available, but you really did pull that element off well, too. Perhaps much better than I suggest in my final paragraph above. Other 33 1/3 volumes had done it, as had other writers elsewhere, to a less satisfying level of literature. Thinking back on it, you did a really good job of telling a story many of us can identify with -- the feeling that the creator of an album (or story, for example) is a twin of ours, creating a disturbing simulation of our own existence. I had bought “Shoot Out The Lights” just before my deep, several-year engagement with a girl fell apart, and the LP didn’t seem to have any lyrics that couldn’t have been written about my own existence. You captured that weird energy between fan/listener and singer/songwriter so well that it’s been more memorable than a lot of other fiction I’ve read this year. So, well, I want to thank you and encourage people even more to check out your analysis of Richard & Linda Thompson’s (arguable tie for best) album, with less hesitation than my review originally stated. You’re a damned good writer!

  3. Posted August 22, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Aw, thanks, man! (and wink wink: the ayola-pay is already in route.)

    In the two SOTL readings so far, I’ve mentioned that I initially thought the idea of using fiction in a 33 1/3 book was a cop-out. I wouldn’t even read John Niven’s book on Music From Big Pink when it came out, so offended were my delicate flower-like sensibilities. Of course, as I got further into the process and found myself unable to write a compelling narrative from secondary sources, fiction seemed far more enticing. I thought: hey, I know how to cop-out! Then I read Niven’s book and realized that it was quite good and the stakes were fairly high on that front, too, but I was already committed to my approach, so, well, voila: fiction.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great review. I love KEXP in general, so it’s quite a thrill to see my book show up on your blog.

  4. Chris Estey
    Posted August 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, sir, my pleasure, due to the great people at KEXP!

    Also, I need to read that Big Pink book myself. Last I heard from Continuum that volume had been really overlooked (perhaps due to its fictional nature, maybe because it as about something less buzz-worthy than Neutral Milk Hotel, who knows) and they were eager for me to review it for the rock magazine I edited at the time. You are throwing in with Greil Marcus in his new notes for the astonishing fifth edition of “Mystery Train” (just out) where he says Niven did a great job too. So back into my too-read pile it goes! (And I need to review “Mystery Train” soon too, as the new draft is almost half-new with juicy contemporaneous notes from the esteemed Mr. Marcus.)

  5. Posted August 22, 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Another choice I hope never to make in this life: The Band vs. Neutral Milk Hotel, especially the second albums. I think both Niven’s book and Kim Cooper’s book are brilliant (as are the subjects of their books), and despite their completely different approaches (fiction v. oral-historical, I mean), they have an odd affinity. Both put the readers right into the moment, and both are more concerned with the narrative than with criticism of the album in question. That approach works very well for their subjects.

    And I’m always happy to throw in with Greil Marcus! Even when I think he’s wrong, he’s wrong for a reason that’s fascinating. It’s been a long, long time since I read Mystery Train, and a half-new version sounds like a delightful read.

  6. Chris Estey
    Posted August 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with you about both The Band’s and NMH’s second records. I was just noting the difference in popularity between the volumes, which I think is worthy of some analysis. I think younger people are picking up the 33 1/3 series, and these readers may not be that familiar with The Band -- which is both a bad and a good thing (younger people are reading about their own music! But: don’t forget about The Band!). I credit you for noting the odd affinity between the books as well, even with the different styles. (For my part, I would have been into anything Cooper wrote about, as she is an amazing editor and I’ve been a fan for a long time.) I do wish Jeff had given interviews, but I’m not as critical of it with the work as some reviewers were. That album tends to breed that sort of fecund passion.

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