Thursday, 15 June 2017

'Spokesperson for the Doomed': a Backlisted podcast on the oral history of Warren Zevon

My Zevon collection, or a cross-section...

A few notes as background to my contribution to this podcast about Crystal Zevon's 'oral history' biography of her ex-husband the songwriter Warren Zevon,entitled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which she compiled at his express request following his death from cancer in 2003. The host is the superb Backlisted site run by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson, an invaluable resource for all lovers of good books young and old (and by that I mean both listeners and books...)

1. Zevon was, in Bruce Springsteen’s view and mine, 'one of the great American songwriters.'  Listen to anything of his and you will quickly pick up on the bite, erudition and humour of someone who understood the secret badness of the world and could still make it sound uncommonly elegant.

2. If you’ve never listened to Zevon previously you can start with this top ten that I compiled as a Spotify playlist. Full disclosure: the inclusion of Werewolves of London is rather a sop to it being his Greatest Hit – if headed to a desert island I would prefer Renegade from the Mr Bad Example album. I’d take Werewolves, though, were it Zevon’s live version circa 1980 in which he would re-jig the lyrics to name-check Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Brian De Palma’s movie Dressed to Kill, wearing his cultural smarts proudly in the manner for which we loved him.

3. The reason I heard that live tape, and umpteen other such rarities, was thanks to a woman called Diane Berger who ran one of the internet’s early WZ fanpages under the moniker of zevonfan1, and who sent me all sorts of dubbed copies in the mail from the US circa 1996 – great generosity born of shared enthusiasm.

4. If I’m a little less of a Zevon fan today than I was then, it’s because I have never quite gotten over reading Crystal Zevon's book. Anyone who teaches Creative Writing and has recourse to the canon of great American short stories will know that sinking feeling when for the umpteenth time while stood before a group of undergraduates you are forced to observe, ‘Of course his life and work were greatly affected by his addiction to alcohol...’ Thus Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver et al. And thus Zevon.

5. I had known Zevon was a very bad drunk during his lowest personal ebb, and yet his extraordinary gift for a rueful love song and the melancholy beauty of his turn of phrase tended me to see him as a man who had been more often ill-used than using, more hurt than hurting. Well, Crystal's book sure turned my head round on that score, notably from the point where she first describes Warren punching her in the face... She forgave him, at length and over time, and of course the credit and debit sides must be carefully balanced by those who weren't there. But still, talk about a nail in the coffin of the myth of the romantic troubadour. Goodbye to All That, as they say.

6. I’ve written two oral histories myself: Alan Clarke and Sean Penn: His Life and Times. The form demands a subject who’s lively, who inspires the telling of tales, even – or especially – contradictory ones. It can be useful if that subject was a bit of a hellraiser - though raising hell can get wearying to read about, just as it can be to observe, and even to participate in. Crystal Zevon’s book arguably has a shade too much of Zevon’s worst behaviour. Regarding the work, while it’s great on the 1970s period which its author knows intimately, and on where Zevon’s songs came from at that time, it’s a little less satisfying about the body of work from 1987-2002, which I think includes most of his best stuff.

7. A confession: I’ve never really listened much to The Wind, the album that Zevon made at great speed with assorted collaborators in the period between his cancer diagnosis and his death. As artists sometimes do, he tried to direct the way he went out, to set-design his final curtain; but his work had always been coloured by the black wisdom that everybody’s headed for a hole in the ground.To wit, this observation from a 2003 interview in the New York Times:

8. Favourite Zevon lyrics? Too many to mention. But the following staves just seem to me an unusually brilliant run to have inserted in a pop song: namely Porcelain Monkey, which is about the life of Elvis Presley, a subject Zevon characteristically dismissed as ‘a very sad story, and not an interesting sad story.’ Zevon, in fact, made plain that in 1977 he was more upset by Robert Lowell’s passing than by Presley’s. But to which of those two gentlemen can Zevon’s accomplishment be more usefully compared?

From a shotgun shack singing Pentecostal hymns,
Through the wrought iron gates, to the TV room,
He had a little world, it was smaller than your hand,
It's a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom.
Left behind by the latest trends,
Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends,
That's how the story ends,
With a porcelain monkey...

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