Friday, October 12, 2007

Zevon: Asshole Reconsidered

At the wonderful NYC Public Library, I recently picked up a copy of the late Warren Zevon’s biography by his ex-wife, Crystal. A large book, an oral history, what I’m figuring is the best way to read rock bios anymore as you get so many different takes.

I suspect the editing of an oral history requires just as much of the author’s discretion as a regular bio would. Crystal refused to name the Philadelphia DJ Warren not only dated, but lived with for a year, Anita Gevinson, which suggests to me some bad blood between the two, as all of Warren’s other main squeezes are not only named but interviewed. Who knows. (For a more clear account of his time in Philly, this article delves into what’s portrayed as an alcoholic haze in the bio. A little unfair as the same description could easily apply to the decade before.)

But most of it seems brutally honest, underlining Zevon’s years of alcoholism, resulting in strained familial relations, spousal abuse, a blown marriage, dozens of affairs, etc. The usual rock-star stuff, only this time it’s presented in a “this is simply how the guy was” light as opposed to either glorifying or condemning his behavior. Even after he got sober, he could be assholic: self-centered, argumentative, problematic, etc. It was made clear that his goodness, which is also noted many times over in terms of his humor, intelligence and flashes of generosity, was counter-balanced with a very dark side.

What I felt reading the book was virtually no different from the vibe I get around many musicians, whether or not they’re anywhere near the level of success Zevon had. Danny Fields had a great quote in the Legs McNeill oral history of the punk scene, which boiled down to: “All musicians are assholes.”

While I wouldn’t go that far, I know what he’s saying. Some musicians I’ve met are just people who view music as their vocation, and put out the vibe that they work hard at it and otherwise appear to be normal, caring human beings. They’re nowhere near as prevalent as the stereotypical musician. Basically a guy who’s useless and/or a burden when not composing or playing music, often baked or stuck in a late-teenage emotional state of development, usually living off a wife or girlfriend (who gets him in some sense, and he should kiss her feet nightly for doing so), profoundly selfish, in short, someone who would have a very hard time supporting himself.

I hope that doesn’t sound too negative, because I’ve also come to understand a lot of these guys are great musicians, and I love their work. But I’d sure hate to be responsible for their well being. It seems to me Warren Zevon’s life was what happened to a stereotypical musician who hit “the big time” in some respect and spent the rest of his days leading a relatively pampered rock-star life. Good work if you can get it, but I suspect your average person with zero contact with musicians doesn’t understand what that implies, which is never as alluring as the image.

From what little I’ve seen, a successful recording artist or band functions in its own little snow-globe world, especially on the road. Since the artist tends to be the center of attention much of the time, he doesn’t fully develop an adult sense of the world. In Zevon’s case, he just took money out of the bank whenever he felt like it, had very little understanding of his finances, and assumed money would always be there for him. Luckily, it was, although it got tight from time to time as his success boiled down to a few 70s hits he either recorded on his own or wrote for others (like Linda Rondstadt, who was hugely successful back in the 70s). After 1978’s Excitable Boy, his albums were much more critical than commercial successes, and aside from “Werewolves of London,” he never had any huge hit singles. He often toured solo in theaters and small clubs, most likely to reduce costs and make as much money as possible.

The artist also tends to populate his world with people who either support or depend on his ongoing success. Imagine a large family where a father is encouraged to be both infantile and patriarchal, and you have your average rock star. Reading the book, that’s how Zevon came off to me. I suspect that’s how many famous entertainers conduct their private lives, save they’ll be lucky not to receive the same sober scrutiny Zevon’s life receives in this book. (And not to worry if you don’t like the concept of rock stars being ambiguous and hard to accept beneath the image: there won’t be too many more rock stars. And just about everyone I know comes with strings attached, sooner or later.)

That’s also how a lot of his songs come off to me. With this renewed interest in Zevon, I doubled back and listened to his songs (of which I have just about all thanks to a returned MP3 favor from a friend). The first few albums, I was struck by how rigid his work was – either a slow ballad or stomping rocker, with little in between. And most of the rock songs I can live without. For years I’ve noted how “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner” has got to be the most retarded song I’ve ever heard, from the clunky martial beat to the silly mercenary story line. (I recall cringing the first time I heard it on my brother’s basement stereo in 1978.) I’ve always favored his ballads, and those early ones, like “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Carmelita,” still sound great.

Even when he lost his way a bit production-wise in the 80s, he had roughly the same formula that worked for him. What struck me most was how much his later work loosened up, to the extent I found myself more drawn to that material. He experimented with different styles (even incorporated a few celtic numbers), and there was a sense of artistic freedom I picked up on that wasn’t in his earlier, more popular work. The harder-rocking songs, like “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” and “Factory,” swung more than they stomped. In his case, I’d say the lack of pressure to write and record a Top 40 hit did him a world of good. I should also note sobriety agreed with him creatively, which is sometimes not the case for recording artists.

His lyrics? Always excellent, even on musically awful songs. Another reason I never warmed up to Zevon over the years was this odd effect his songs have on writers, and not just the famous ones he knew. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been around newspaper or magazine types in bars in New York, whom I know personally to have very little taste in music, but the one thing they can all agree on is a deep, abiding Warren Zevon appreciation. And while these guys are often great writers, they’re dicks when it comes to music, jam-band types who own about five CDs. Thus, I pictured Zevon concerts being a bunch of bespectacled guys in knit shirts and khakis, rocking out to that awful headless gunner song, and recalling their crazy nights copy editing while stoned after midnight at the campus newspaper.

As it turns out, I’m going to short-list about 40 songs for the MP3 player, which in old-world parlance would make a very full 2-CD set of his greatest hits. I wasn’t expecting that much, but then again, I had never fully listened to later work and thus didn’t know he somehow got better as a songwriter in general, despite never having another hit.

When I was back in Pennsylvania last week and mentioned the recent Zevon fest to brother J, he reminded me of the live version of “Werewolves of London” that Jackson Browne did for WMMR (Philly’s premier rock station) back in the mid-70s. He re-titled it “Werewolves of Bryn Mawr” as that was the town name of the Philly suburb he was performing in, at a club called The Main Point. It was such a good version that the station played it in heavy rotation well into the early 80s. I found myself wishing I had a copy of it, but hadn’t really searched for it.

So, when I got back to New York, went onto Soulseek, lo and behold, I found a copy, although as a humongous SHN file. Always a bad sign … means a tapehead’s file that’s supposed to be pristine fidelity because of the file type, but never is because, fuck’s sake, it’s a live recording, and all these dweebs insist on FLAC and SHN files as if they were recording engineers (when their source material wasn’t that well-recorded to begin with). But I pulled it down, converted it to a handy MP3, sure enough, it’s the same recording, although I’m not enthused about the quality.

Still, here it is, Werewolves of Bryn Mawr, if you want it.


Andy S. said...

"I hope that doesn’t sound too negative, because I’ve also come to understand a lot of these guys are great musicians, and I love their work."

And a lot of them suck. If the percentage of musicians who are great is very small and most of them are assholes, I'd bet the same is true for the vast majority who suck: they're overwhelmingly assholes, too. Because rock music generally attracts people, talented or not, who have no interest in ever growing up. That's the tragedy, all those untalented juvenile assholes running around loose.

"Imagine a large family where a father is encouraged to be both infantile and patriarchal, and you have your average rock star."

They made a show about that and called it The Osbornes.

Anonymous said...

I am more of a fan, but I understand you reservations. If you didn't know that Zevon had asked his ex to write a bio, you would think it was meant as a hatchet job. The book is brutal: from what I know of Zevon, I suspect he wanted it that way.
As for the music, he wrote his later music with an eye to being played solo. I saw him probably a dozen times in concert, usually solo. That's how he made his living in between record deals. Unlike a lot of musicians, he was still writing good songs up until the end. I'd be curious to see the list of 40 that made the cut for you (as a Z head, I have everything released commercially, and a few bootlegs; my list would need far more than 40,but my attitude is not shared by many).

William S. Repsher said...

Zevon - Accidentally Like A Martyr
Zevon - Back In The High Life Again
Zevon - Carmelita
Zevon - Dancing with Myself (live)
Zevon - Dirty Life And Times
Zevon - Don't Let Us Get Sick
Zevon - For My Next Trick I'll Need A Volunteer
Zevon - Heartache Spoken Here
Zevon - Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)
Zevon - Hostage-O
Zevon - I Was In The House When The House Burned Down
Zevon - Jesus Mentioned
Zevon - Keep Me In Your Heart
Zevon - Let Nothing Come Between You
Zevon - Life'll Kill Ya
Zevon - Mohammed's Radio
Zevon - Mohammed's Radio [Solo Piano Demo]
Zevon - Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse
Zevon - Mr. Bad Example
Zevon - Mutineer
Zevon - My Ride's Here
Zevon - My Way (live)
Zevon - Ourselves To Know
Zevon - Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Zevon - The Factory
Zevon - The Indifference Of Heaven
Zevon - Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead
Zevon - Tule's Blues
Zevon - Werewolves of London
Zevon - Werewolves of London [Live]

Actually, came out to be about 30, but not including covers, like the Browne/Lindley take "Werewolves of Bryn Mawr." The stuff I did pick, especially from the last two albums, really registers -- he was going somewhere, I guess literally and figuratively, and knew it.

Frankie said...

Hi William. Any chance you could repost that mp3 file? The link is long dead (unfortunately).

William S. Repsher said...

Leave a comment with your email address (I won't publish it, will only read it) -- I'll send you a copy of Werewolves of Bryn Mawr. (But not until Friday evening as I can't do this from work.

ivpaul42 said...

If you did not include Hasten Down the Wind, your head is up your ass.

William S. Repsher said...

I was born with my head up my ass. Try again!

Mamie said...

No Desperados Under the Eaves? No French Inhaler? No Detox Mansion? No Ain't That Pretty at All? Sorry, but you aren't much of a fan...

William S. Repsher said...

I sure hope not! No "Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner" either ... roll them out, Mamie, there are a lot of Zevon songs that either just don't grab me or I just don't like. I should double back on Desperado, but the other three, I can move forward in life without. I strongly suspect Warren would understand.

Kowasi said...

It's kind of funny that you took the trouble to whittle down the WZ songs that you will listen to and got rid of all the rest. I listen to whole albums at a sitting and never skip a track, or I'll play the entire recorded works on shuffle or listen to all the albums in alphabetical order. I can't imagine throwing out any of it. At the same time, your list has tracks I haven't heard. Funny how people take to music in different ways, ey?

William S. Repsher said...

I only "got rid" of the other songs in terms of not having them on an iPod: I can surely go back and listen to them any time I want. Call it my personal greatest hits compilation. No qualms with your level of fanhood: it's worth it with this artist.