I’m someone that is looking for constant stimulation. I suffer from really bad allergies and my energy levels come and go throughout the day. Music is a constant source of energy for me. The right music is like an amphetamine that gets my brain in the right zone to get shit done. When I need to get up for a show I usually pick Marah. Their music always feels right. It’s got a true power that is derived from the holy church of rock n roll. It’s got enough swagger and heart and passion to make me want to get up on stage and deliver my best. However, whenever I need to write, but lack the appropriate focus, I go to Warren Zevon. I can see why writers such as Hunter S. Thompson loved Zevon. His music is intelligent and has just enough humor and devil may care attitude to get you into a place where you can think with real freedom.
Today I need to revise a book chapter that I wrote some months back. Let me just say that I don’t feel like doing that! However, I know that if I put on Warren Zevon I will suddenly find the strength to carry on with that endeavor where previously it was lacking. I have all of Zevon’s albums and I love every single one of them for different reasons. One of my favorite periods of his is what I call “the wilderness years”. This is Sentimental Hygiene through Life Will Kill Ya. Now I know that Life Will Kill You received positive reviews at the time and I also know that Sentimental Hygiene was a rebirth for him and it featured members of R.E.M. among others. However, none of these albums had the acclaim and the sales of his early work. And these albums are before the late in life triumph of The Wind. I love his early work and I love The Wind as much as these other albums, but these albums are special to me because there are so many great fantastic songs that most people don’t seem to know about! Songs like Mutineer, My Ride’s Here, The Indifference of Heaven, Boom Boom Mancini, Isolation, and Searching for a Heart are all just fantastic songs that are brimming with intelligence and passion. Any of these songs and many more would be crowning achievements in a lesser writer’s songbook. This list of songs just scratches the surface of all the great songs that Zevon wrote that I believe never got their full due.
Part of it is the production. Zevon seemed to almost always go for the latest in production. However, he often lacked the money that more successful artists had. This often leads to his records having production that feels slightly dated. But don’t let that production get in the way of your enjoyment. You’ll miss out on someone that had a wit as sharp as a razor blade.
Zevon really could have been a writer. His songs often feature interesting characters that are on the fringes of society. However, what he really does well is get all the little details right. I once read that Flannery O’Connor said something along the lines of, and I’m paraphrasing here, that a great writer needed to breathe life into the lamp in the corner of a room and not just the characters. Zevon creates vivid little worlds in the very short form of the rock n roll song, which is a really hard thing to do. He doesn’t just tell a story, but creates the entire world of his character in your imagination. Not many songwriters would write a song about a, “junk bond king playing Seminole bingo.”
Even when he wasn’t singing about a character his lyrics are infused with the best of poetry. Take these lines about growing older from Don’t Let Us Get Sick:
Don’t let us get sick
Don’t let us get old
Don’t let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight
It is so simple, but how many people feel that exact way? A big part of the human condition distilled into a couple of lines. For something more playful look at the lyrics to his My Ride’s Here, which may be my absolute favorite and has been posted about here before:
Shelly and Keats were out on the streets
And even Lord Byron was leaving for Greece
While back at the Hilton, last but not least
Milton was holding his sides
Saying, “You bravos had better be ready to fight
Or we’ll never get out of East Texas tonight
The trail is long and the river is wide
And my ride’s here”
There is so much imagery and meaning, again in such a short amount of lines. Zevon is often depicted as a wildman, a reputation duly earned, and he had many hits that play upon this image such as Werewolves of London and Lawyers, Guns, and Money. I love songs like that. Songs that make you feel as if you can break the laws of nature and get away with it. However, I don’t feel like songs like that would be as powerful if Zevon did not also have a tremendous amount of heart and empathy. He was a highly conflicted person that understood human suffering. In closing I’ll quote his Searching for a Heart:
And I’m searching for a heart
They say love conquers all
You can’t start it like a car
You can’t stop it with a gun