The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Nothing’s Bad Luck

The Lives of Warren Zevon

C.M. Kushins
Nothing's Bad Luck
(Da Capo, 2019)

The irony, of course, was that after so many years trying to kill himself with booze and drugs, it was fucked up when Warren Zevon, sober and otherwise healthy, contracted mesothelioma, the terrible cancer of the lungs that delivered the coup de grace.

Another irony is that his death-haunted album Life'll Kill Ya (200), with "My Shit's Fucked Up":

Well, I went to the doctor

I said, "I'm feeling kind of rough"

He said, "I'll break it to you, son"

"Let me 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."

That amazing grace

Sort of passed you by

You wake up every day

And you start to cry

Yeah, you want to die

But you just can't quit

Let me break it on down:

It's the fucked up shit

came out two years before his diagnosis. Better (or worse, or more apropos) than the irony, though, was how the song's acid, black humor, a quality that set Zevon apart from every other musician of his time, presaged what was to come. It's too simple to say that Zevon's life caught up with him, but it seemed part of a life that combined brilliant music-making with the worst kind of rock and roll asshole behavior. That he lived long enough to contract cancer was a bizarre and tragic statistical anomaly. Depressed, and alcoholic, and a gun owner (who favored .357 and .44 Magnums), somehow Zevon never shot himself to death, either on purpose or by accident.

Zevon hit the scene in the early to middle 1970s which, depending on your point of view, was either the pinnacle or nadir of rock. At a quick glance, the era could be seen as a consolidation and retrenchment after the breakthroughs of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan, but so much of the music of Zevon and his peers and collaborators (including Jackson Browne, who produced his debut album, Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen) was a matter of reaching back to the roots of rock—at least the white roots—and bringing touches of Tin Pan Alley and the basic craft of being a singer-songwriter into a new era. Zevon also reached out into the world of books and movies, especially noir, pulp, and hard-boiled detective fiction from the likes of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

Gone was the hippie sentimentality that music could change the world, or even change anyone's mind, replaced by a desire to craft a romantic (or self-deluded) persona that was worldly, at least a little cynical, and was just as disappointed with the failures of capitalism, society, sex, politics—and the failure of a bottle or Quaalude or cocaine to wipe away that feeling—as with love. The rockers were growing into adults, and before the utter infantilization of music via manufactured poptimism, rock was feeling out what it meant to be an adult.

The downside to all that, particularly for Zevon, was thinking that being a rock musician meant a string of wives, endless booze (his drinking started in high school, which he never finished), boorishness, violence, and all the types of manipulations that the individualistic addict goes through to keep a circle of enablers. (This was all made worse by what was obviously serious depression and what he himself described as obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

Nothing's Bad Luck joins a handful of books about the musician, including ex-wife Crystal's unsparing bio-memoir, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, the dubious Reconsider Me: My Life and Times With Warren Zevon, and two recent critical studies Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles and Accidentally Like a Martyr. Books like these get written because there is some sense of fandom—or in Crystal's case actual love, along with the scars that brought—and they are critical insofar as they examine the artist's work.

Kushins is a fan, but he doesn't assume the reader is a fan. Nor is he any kind of connoisseur, measuring his knowledge against others and rating his own more substantial. That's a danger with Zevon, who sits at an unusual place on the cultural map where the insider appreciation from musicians, the celebrity and literary connections (not just dead writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rimbaud, and Chandler, but colleagues and collaborators such as Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King, and Hunter S. Thompson), and the everyday rock radio listener meet. It's the sweet spot of popular culture, where the pure immediate pleasure of the music is backed by the intelligence and craft that produced it—you can dance to it, then you can think about it. Kushins neither condescends to the reader nor annotates the songs to death, as if Zevon was Ezra Pound.

On the contrary, it's refreshing to read about how some songs came to be without the clichés of artistic struggle and the baggage of meaning. Kushins describes "Werewolves of London" as a novelty song, which is fair enough but doesn't do justice to how satisfying it is as rock and roll, and how it all came about from Zevon and friends joking around and making up verses on the spot, or how the great Irish-march story-song "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" was worked up with Zevon's friend, David Lindell, an ex-mercenary turned bar owner.

And the music is so fine, dozens of songs that are simultaneously funny, mordant, deeply felt, and that have Zevon's unsparing view of himself lurking menacingly just beneath the surface. He wrote a lot of story-telling songs, but not of the love found/love lost variety. Instead, there was "Roland," and the serial killer from the title track to the great Excitable Boy album, the record that stamped Zevon onto the face of pop culture.

For a certain kind of listener, Zevon's lack of sentimentality is his most vital quality. Even seemingly wistful songs like "Desperados Under The Eaves" are full of self-mockery. His best album, Sentimental Hygiene, is so in part because of the surprisingly tough-minded backing of R.E.M., but in the main because it is echt-Zevon. With a production that is both stripped-down and sonically enormous, songs like the title track, "Detox Mansion," and "The Factory" channel his anger and self-loathing through his literary skills, color it with deeply black humor, and transform him into the great rock, noir raconteur he always imagined himself to be.

Kushin's writing is clear and serviceable, it hums along at a pleasant low idle. It's not overstuffed, but it could be leaner. There's a structural issue where he writes about something that is going to happen—a tour, a recording session—and then when the event comes along, he writes about it again in a way that always contains redundancies. And there are too many sections that end with one-sentence quasi cliffhanger sentences that are meant as transitions but come off as trailers for the TV movie of the week—they are out of character with the rest of the book.

But he tells the story. There are illuminating details, like the teenage Zevon visiting Stravinsky, and then deriving the title of "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" from Ernst Krenek's Weimar-era opera Jonny spielt auf—Zevon was seriously interested in modern classical music—and it's clear that, as terrible as he could be when his shit was fucked up, he was the kind of artist that other musicians respected and admired. While Kushins tells the reader how good the songs are without ever showing what makes them that way—some critical analysis would have been welcome, though there is the odd judgment that Zevon had "Aaron Copland-esque lyricism"—the book will have you pulling out records, or launching your streaming app of choice, and digging into Zevon's exceptional catalog. His time, for better and worse, will never come again.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues