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Hell is Only Half Full

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There’s room for you and me . . . Warren Zevon has known from the start that hell is where they play rock & roll. In this, as well as in his romanticism, he resembles the great eighteenth century poet William Blake: “Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.”

Hell is only half full
Room for you and me
Looking for a new fool
Who’s it gonna be?
It’s the dance of Shiva
It’s the Debutantes Ball
And everyone will be there
Who’s anyone at all
Monkey wash donkey rinse
Going to a party in the center of the earth
Honey, don’t you want to go? [Zevon / Aldrich]

I only heard Zevon live once, in a bar in Santa Barbara twenty-five years ago. I don’t know who was more fucked-up, Zevon or me. I had hitchhiked into town the day before from Seattle and been hanging out with a friend, a student and petty criminal named Wes. Around lunchtime we had gone to the bio lab at the University, where Wes was registered if not exactly in attendance, and stolen a pint of ether, which we had been sniffing most of the day while pouring down quarts of Old English 800.

Zevon was careening around the stage with a guitar when we first walked in. I have no ideaw what he was playing. I do have an extremely vague memory trace of him sitting at the piano singing “Desperados Under the Eaves,” or maybe it was “Carmelita.” “Carmelita,” it was “Carmelita.” Everybody went to the bar or the head during the slow songs, but I was mesmerized. What was clear to me even through the haze in my head was that here was a guy for whom words mattered. And callow as I was, words mattered to me, too. No doubt my head was as full of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and other beatnik fantasies as it was of beer, pot and ether.

In an interview with Terry Gross a few years back, Zevon explained his relatively small output by saying that he found it hard to write songs. Zevon grew up in Chicago, a child prodigy who, in the studio, arranged and conducted the string sections on his records. I take it that it was writing the words that Zevon found difficult. That is, the words to the songs are, for Zevon, more than just markers along the line of the melody, more than a catch phrase to nail down with a musical hook.

Now Zevon is dying of lung cancer in Los Angeles. We are about to lose the best American poet currently working in the pop idiom. In 2000 Zevon released a record titled Life’ll Kill Ya and now we have My Ride’s Here. (Zevon is the kind of rock star who always gets his apostrophes in the right place.) News sources report that Zevon handed copies of both CDs to his oncologist in order to explain his attitude toward death. It is tempting to believe that he had some sort of unconscious knowledge that he was dying, but that would be sentimental. And however romantic Zevon may be, he is never sentimental. One thing is certain, Zevon has always been clued in. Ten years ago he wrote:

Nuclear arms in the Middle East
Israel’s attacking the Iraqis
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese
And Bagdhad do whatever she please
Looks like another threat to world peace [“The Envoy”]

And on the new record, to a driving beat:

Smokey and the Bandit
And Saddam Hussein
Were staying up late
And acting insane

Along with Russell Crowe
And Hafez Assad
Start taking this down
When I give you the nod

What makes Warren Zevon so valuable in the current cultural climate is that he is willing to gore every ox, slaughter every sacred cow, deflate every pretentious piece of bullshit, but always while smiling. Combined with the personal vulnerability of the love songs–“I can saw a woman in two, but you won’t want to look in the box when I’m through”–and you get an artist who is going to stay relevant long after he’s gone.

The new record repeats some of the riffs of Life’ll Kill Ya, but the artist’s ego is further in the background. Zevon collaborates with the poet Paul Muldoon and others on this record. The thing that drives me crazy is that Zevon, with far more self-conscious artisty than Bob Dylan (who seems more and more a weird force of nature arcing across the twentieth century), Zevon has been developing a literary song craft that might have the power to transform the art. Way back at the beginking of his recording career, Zevon wrote,

Carmelita, hold me tighter
I think I’m sinking down
And I’m all strung out on heroin
On the outskirts of town

I pawned my Smith-Corona
And I went to meet my man
He hangs out down on Alvarado Street
By the Pioneer Chicken stand.

The first hundred times I listened to this song I heard “Smith-Corona” as Smith and Wesson, buying the whole outlaw rock persona. But it wasn’t a gun, Jack, it was a fucking typewriter. My Ride’s Here feels cool, distant, even quiet. At the same time, it rocks like all hell.

Word has it that Zevon is recording even as he lies sick in bed. He has told the press that he’s not going to turn in a maudlin record at this late date. Blake knew, they dance in hell.

I was staying at the Westin
I was playing to a draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the Tlets of the Law
He said, “It’s still the greatest story”
I said, “Man I’d like to stay
But I’m bound for glory
I’m on my way
My ride’s here . . .”

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  • Thanks for getting me to finally listen to Warren. Wow! I’ve been listening to his earlier stuff — my next two CDs will be Warren’s new ones.

  • Nice job.

    You’re particularly on to quote “Carmelita”, particularly the part you quoted. I sing that part to myself all the time–the words and music blend perfectly, even with my icky voice.

    I stuck the link to the piece I wrote on Zevon in the URL field above–you might enjoy it.

  • And I got the link wrong, too–but it’s right in this one.

    No, I haven’t been down to the the chicken stand.

  • KDCain

    I enjoyed this review. Zevon has been my favorite artist since “Excitable Boy” & “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School”. I’ve seen him perform 3 times & have heard numerous unauthorized recordings of live performances. It IS true that sometimes he sings “Smith & Wesson” instead of “Smith-Carona” on Carmelita. I believe he has also sang “Smith & Wesson…up on the shelf”, occasionally during “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. A S&W model 29 .44Mag also graces the album Excitable Boy (if memory serves correctly). He will be sorely missed.

  • Wanting to read something decent and current on Warren, I knew to look for it here. And your post is spot-on. Beautiful piece.

    I was also curious to hear your take on his Letterman show appearance last week.

  • Bruce

    I thought I heard Warren sing, “In Ireland, in Labanon, in Madison and Berkeley” during “Roland” Did anyone else note this? If yes, did he do this often?