33 1/3’s “Shoot Out The Lights”

In an oft-quoted aside on the futility of trying to describe music in words, Elvis Costello is said to have said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Probably true, yet… There are those of us need a bit of help getting past some of the barriers to really hearing what we’re hearing.

I came late to the pop music heritage of the sixties. Already an adult when the Beatles arrived here in 1964, much of the sound track of the youth and counter-cultures seemed entirely irrelevant to my own life. Fortunately, the scales fell from ears and the music began pouring into my head. However there’s been so much of it that there are huge gaps in my pop music literacy. Given all of that, I’ve come to accept the buzz that Richard Thompson, despite having been relegated to cult status, is indeed one of the giants among guitar players and one of the musical geniuses of the era.

I never find myself forwarding to the next selection when a Thompson tune comes on the shuffle. His brilliant and unapologetic appropriation of the structures of John Fahey’s equally brilliant “Requiem for Mississippi John Hurt” as the base for “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952” would be enough to make me a believer. But his sound track for Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” and his massive double-disc “1,000 Years of Popular Music” seal the deal. But still, I had never taken the time or effort to explore in any disciplined way his and ex-wife Linda’s acclaimed 1982 album, “Shoot Out The Lights.”

In June I received a Father’s Day gift of a book, the “33 1/3” edition of “Shoot Out The Lights,” one of the small format books, each given over to the explication, however esoteric, of a single pop music album. I had read the Joe Pernice novella riff on The Smiths, “Meat Is Murder,” and came away from that experience with a new if rudimentary understanding of the appeal of Morrisey and The Smiths. But I had come of age in the nineteen-fifties, and much of the zeitgeist of an eighties adolescence failed to resonate with me.

“Shoot Out The Lights” by Hayden Childs is a masterful 116-page obsessive’s factual and fictional paean to the 1982 eight-song album, as well as to Richard Thompson, and to a lesser degree to Linda Thompson. Ten pages into the book, I realized that I had little inkling of the musical specifics that Childs was putting under his microscope. After four successive and attentive listenings of the entire CD, I was ready to go back to my reading. As Childs pursued his inventive and slightly mad takes on the significance of each track, of the context, emotional and musical of every bar, I would go back to my iPod and listen again to the song under discussion. I finished the book and stood back, realizing that “Shoot Out the Lights” is now a burned-in part of my interior landscape, of my internal sound track, and is there in ways that as yet I do not fully and probably will never fully comprehend.

Wikipedia lists fifty-eight titles in the “33 1/3” catalog, with selections as varied as “Exile on Main Street” to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” There’s even a blog devoted to the series at http://www.33third.blogspot.com/

Exceptions usually prove rules, and so much of writing about music remains a fool’s errand, but with “Shoot Out The Lights,” Hayden Childs proves himself an imaginative exception to that rule. Worth a shot.

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