The Crazy World of Warren Zevon

I love October for a lot of reasons, but one of the tops on my list, however trifling it is, is hearing “Werewolves of London” on the radio.  But its really too bad that Warren Zevon only gets that one song played, one month of the year.

I actually think Warren Zevon is the best of all the seventies singer-songwriters.  So James Taylor may have the most emotional weight and gravitas.  And Paul Simon might be the most clever and worldly (and Graceland really is as good as everyone says).  And Jackson Browne is cool, even if I feel 40 whenever I listen to him.

But Zevon made two things, his stock in trade that those other guys only ever touched on.  First, he could groove.  His more popular songs — “Excitable Boy,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and yes “Werewolves of London” — all have enough rhythmic umph that you could almost dance to them (and almost dancing is about as much dancing as I like to do sober).  The other thing is that Zevon has a great sense of humor.  His album “Life’ll Kill Ya” contains a song titled “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” which was strangely prescient of Zevon’s cancer diagnosis two years later.  Here’s the first two verses:

Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
He said, “I’ll break it to you, son
Your shit’s fucked up.”

I said, “my shit’s fucked up?”
Well, I don’t see how–”
He said, “The shit that used to work–
It won’t work now.”

And the song has verve, which you don’t always expect from a rumination on aging and mortality.

Ok, you say, but Randy Newman’s funny (sometimes even on purpose!).  Yeah, “I Love L.A.” is actually a pretty good little social commentary, but Zevon does something far stranger and, to me, more interesting.  Zevon creates characters.  Whether it’s a werewolf whose “hair is perfect,” or the uncouth doctor from “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” these are all people who you could almost meet in our world, but not quite (although I could actually imagine my doctor giving a diagnosis like that).  And if you’re only familiar with the Linda Rondstandt cover of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” you’re missing out on the woman who propositions the singer for some S&M.  The juxtaposition of real world details (say, the 60’s conflict in the Congo) with the highly improbable (say, a headless, machine gun-toting ghost), creates the sense that Zevon’s songs take place in a world just like ours, but maybe tilted 15 degrees askew.  Zevon’s zany world would actually make a really good setting for a comic book or maybe a tabletop roleplaying game (sorry, did I get some nerd on you?).

Randy Newman’s point is usually fairly easy to grasp.  He does not, in fact, love L.A.  I’m not sure Zevon has a point, but if he does, maybe its that our world is weirder and more wonderful than we give it credit for.

That’s my favorite part of Zevon’s humor, but there’s more there, too.  In the same way that Dr. Strangelove is a great parody of war thrillers because without all the jokes it would be a great example of a war thriller, Zevon is a great parody of a singer-songwriter because he’s such a good singer-songwriter.  I can’t help but smile at the paradoxical irony and sincerety when Zevon interjects “Talkin’ about the man!” in the last chorus of “Roland the Headless Thompson gunner.

Of course, Zevon isn’t funny all the time, but the fact that he’s so funny makes you pay closer attention when he get’s serious.  On, his final album, The Wind, there’s only two songs of transition between a song about partying “’til the end of the night” and his musical last request “Keep Me in Your Heart.”  The way the two songs reflect on each other makes the former oddly poignant and the latter oddly warm.  And that strange mix of emotions reflects our world dead on.

Warren, wherever you are, thank you, and I hope you’re getting some much needed sleep.

Published in: on October 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Love this! Big props for mentioning JT and Dr. H! I love your comparison of music to the real world. Well done!

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