Periodically I get the urge to writing something along the lines of a musical biography. The basic idea being tracking all the music I’ve loved and talking about what was going on at the time that I discovered it, or why it meant a lot to me. It always sounds like a fun project with one obvious flaw. The flaw being, as you’ve probably already thought, ‘Who gives a shit?’. No one would care because I’m not famous, and because everyone has their own musical history that is much like talking about your dreams or your fantasy football team. The audience is very limited.
I probably tipped my hand about being a big old music nerd a few posts ago by writing about Wheatus and Jethro Tull in the same post. Everyone knows a few music nerds and probably does everything they can to avoid talking about music with them. I know I have a habit of tossing out anecdotes or facts I know about songs that I think are fascinating and people’s eyes tend to glaze over. And rightly so, to be honest. No one needs to know that the Clash’s original drummer is a chiropractor now just because ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is playing. Sometimes I can’t help myself, but I try to be aware of it and limit myself to no more than two or three factoids per song when I have people trapped in my car on trips.
This isn’t by way of saying ‘poor me’. I have a few music nerd friends that I can yap about this stuff to. I’m just trying to out myself as the sort of person who is fascinated that the guy who wrote and sang ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ for the Spencer Davis Group is the same guy who sang ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ for Traffic and ‘Back in the High Life Again’ (Steve Winwood). It’s not a state secret but it’s a neat bit of history to me and literally no one that I’ve ever mentioned it to.
The point is that I think about music a lot and I think about it terms of connections. In the movie ‘High Fidelity’ the main character (can’t say hero, because he’s not, he’s an asshole) organizes his record collection autobiographically and that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say a ‘musical biography’. I think everyone does this to a degree, but not everyone thinks about it enough to write a book or a blog post. One of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby, did in a collection of essays called ‘Songbook’. He and I don’t appear to have a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, but I devoured his book nonetheless. I highly recommend it if any of what I’m saying makes sense to you.
So, periodically I’m going to use this blog to write about my musical biography and the connections between music, my life, and where and how I found things. I guess you can consider this warning. Now I’m going to talk about Warren Zevon.
As I write this blog post I’m listening to a small mix of Warren Zevon songs. I’m listening to it because of a Steven Hyden article from a few days ago about him on The Ringer. Steven Hyden is the best music writer going right now and someone who’s books and articles make me happy to know that I’m not the only one who loves this shit and thinks about it way too much. The article is absolutely worth the read for anyone, but as a very casual Warren Zevon fan it made me want to jump in a little deeper.
For most of my young life if you said ‘Warren Zevon’ to me I would have answered back ‘Werewolves of London’ in a call and response that I think would familiar to most people. It’s his most famous song and one of the best songs ever that often gets described as ‘novelty hit’. It’s a great song, but not necessarily the kind of song that would inspire you to buy up someones back catalogue.
For me the song that got me more interested was ‘Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead’. I first heard it when my boss at a comic shop I used to manage played it in the back room. The song immediately hooked me even though I didn’t know who it was. He told me it was Warren Zevon, to which I immediately responded ‘Oh, Werewolves of London’. I went home and watched the movie and fell in love with the movie too. At the time I assumed he wrote the song for the film and only later found out that the movie was titled that because of his song, kind of like ‘Dazed and Confused’, except Zevon let them use his song in the movie as long as it played over the end credits.
This was during Napster days so I went and got the song off Napster along with ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’ and stopped there. I loved both songs but wasn’t making the kind of money where I could go buy a bunch of CDs, and Napster died maybe two weeks later.
Fast forward a few years and getting music online is cheaper and easier and I’m making a bit more money. I can afford to buy stuff more frequently. At the time Amazon was running a ‘$5 digital album’ promotion every month, and every month I would scour those lists for ANYTHING that interested me. One month the album ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ was on there and I scooped it up. This was the first Zevon album I ever owned and I still love it.
The first song on Life’ll Kill Ya is ‘I was in the House When the House Burned Down’ and let me tell you, listening to that song for the first time during the Bush presidency was a revelation. Sometimes you hear songs just at the right time and they mirror back everything you’re feeling and it feels so primal that it’s better than just about anything. That song and moment was like that. He was probably talking about his career and his life but it felt so much like he was talking about America that it was perfect. ‘Fistful of Rain’ captures a lot of the feeling in America as well, especially the first line:
You can dream the American Dream
But you sleep with the lights on
And wake up with a scream
The rest of the album is terrific too. The highlights for me are ‘My Shit’s Fucked Up’ and his cover of ‘Back in the High Life Again’ (written by Steve Winwood as you now know). The album came out two years before he was diagnosed with cancer and three years before he died, and as such these two songs sound incredibly prescient.
His version of ‘High Life’ in particular blows my mind. His voice cracks at around the two minute mark and I honestly think you can hear the entire breadth of human experience in that crack. The whole song feels like a confession from someone who knows they’re the cause of all their own problems. I’ve never loved Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt for whatever reason, but the way people think about that is the way I think of Zevon’s take on ‘Back in the High Life Again’.
That’s where my relationship with Zevon stayed until last week. I’ve since heard the songs ‘Desperados Under The Eaves’ and ‘Splendid Isolation’. I had no idea that ‘Eaves’ was essentially his ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but having listened to it a bunch this past week I get why people love it. ‘Splendid Isolation’ really struck me. I’ve instantly come to adore and will probably be listening to a lot more the rest of my life.
We all have these very personal and private relationships with music and artists. My brother once said to that he wanted a song to play when he came into a room ‘Because every hero needs a soundtrack’ and I think that’s true. We’re all the heroes in our own stories every song, album, and artist is a chapter and part of our soundtracks. I hope you will enjoy me writing about mine.