June 14, 2018
James Campion's Playlist for His Book "Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon"
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
James Campion's biography of Warren Zevon, Accidentally Like a Martyr, innovatively consists of essays about particular songs and albums by the singer-songwriter.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Campion's adoring book will speak mostly to Zevon's fans, and will encourage them to listen to his music anew."
I decided to write a series of essays based on the music and lyrics of Warren Zevon because it needed to be done and funnily enough when I looked around I was the only one standing there and…well…thanks to Backbeat Books, the rest is history, as the result, Accidentally Like A Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon was published on June 5.
It would be easy to merely list the songs in which I dedicate essays. (I also chose to write about three seminal albums in Zevon's catalog as a whole – Excitable Boy,  which made him a star for a short but spectacularly insane period, Sentimental Hygiene,  because it saved his life and brought him back from the professionally dead, and mainly because it is his most kick-ass rock record, tracked with a young, rough-and-tumble R.E.M. as his backing band, and finally The Wind,  which is an album about dying from a dying man.)
However, when writing any book – especially ones about music – my listening palate goes beyond the subject in which I am deeply committed. I find listening to the artist's contemporaries – in this case many of the singers, musicians and fellow songwriters who joined him in making his music and still others often covered his songs – or the type of music that inspired their work.
And so, here is what filled my head during the writing of Accidentally Like a Martyr, above and beyond the brilliantly provocative songs of the late, great Warren Zevon – and, okay, a few of his that did not make it to full essays in my work are included here as well.
"The Pretender" – Jackson Browne
The title track to Browne's second-most popular album, it precedes Running on Empty by a year, is a true paean to disillusionment, a subject the young songwriter rarely broached in his normally glass-half-full style. According to Jackson himself, he was wholly influenced by Warren Zevon's elegies of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles filled with damaged souls looking for redemption. After all, Browne dragged Zevon back from Europe, where he was playing Irish folk songs in a small fishing village near Barcelona, Spain to return to the City of Angels and record an album – an album he would produce. The lines "I'll be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender" were a direct result of listening in awe as Zevon sang in his rock and roll gospel masterwork, "Mohammed's Radio"; "In walks the village idiot and his face is all aglow / He'd been up all night listening to Mohammed's Radio". Before this, Jackson Browne was everything Zevon was not in the pantheon of the L.A. Sound – sensitive and unerringly positive. Suddenly Browne was bemoaning the banalities of life and filling it with the distractions needed to keep from blowing one's head off.
"Hotel California" – The Eagles
Another song and another band inspired directly from the density and clarity of Warren Zevon's songs that fill his debut for Asylum Records, (a label where the Eagles and Jackson Browne also plied their trade). "Hotel California", a song about a lost generation of naïve dreamers felled by expensively dangerous drugs, empty sex and a clawing need for status symbols, uses a transient stopover as a metaphor of being trapped in a scenic landscape, what my friend and songwriter Adam Duritz of Counting Crows calls "the beautiful exhaustion of L.A.", was captured three months before its recording on Zevon's "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" (I dedicate my first essay in the book on it). With its short-story reflections of the weird dichotomy of the haves and have-nots hobnobbing along the palm-tree lined streets of Hollywood, it is a stunning glimpse of what the morning-after feels like.
Zevon sings, "If California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing / Until I pay my bill". Don Henley, who sang on the song, along with his partner the late, Glenn Frey, eventually frame it in their "Hotel California as "You check in any time you like, but you can never leave."
One more postscript, if I may; although this song is a fine example of 1970s "What the hell happened to the dream?" exposition, Zevon nails the Eagles' six-and-a-half minute fever dream in a single line in the aforementioned "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" with "Accept in dreams you're never really free". Bingo!
"Holiday in Spain" – Counting Crows
Keeping the "Trapped in paradise by my own vices" theme going, I have always been in love with Counting Crows' fourth studio album, Hard Candy, especially its final track, "Holiday in Spain", which reeks of the kind of imagery Warren Zevon made his living on; "We got airplane rides / We got California drowning out the window side / We've got big black cars / And we got stories how we slept with all the movie stars". When playing Zevon songs in a recent podcast (we co-host a pretty cool music-rich, conversation-meandering thing we like to call Underwater Sunshine weekly – check it out!) Adam referenced "California drowning out the window side" as specifically a Zevonesque lyric. Interestingly, in the introduction to my book I compare the Zevon effect as both a window and a mirror, a passage into another world that you can glimpse from the comforts of your home or a reflection of your own demons dancing along with your hopes and dreams. "Holiday in Spain" is the finest example of someone in one place wishing they were somewhere else.
"My Shit's Fucked Up" – Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon wrote an alarming number of songs about death and dying. On a record he titled "Life'll Kill Ya", he goes there with relentless brutality. He was infamously afraid of doctors, and this phobia, which he would later sardonically tell David Letterman was one that did not pay off, cost him any chance to survive, as he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer less than two years after this 2000 release. Ironically, his body having been invaded by cancer cells already, along with his abject fears of most things – which he wrote about as romantically as one can with crippling OCD issues – comes out loud and clear here. An acoustic ballad reminiscent of the best 16th century troubadour, Zevon uses his celebrated acerbic wit mixed with wincing bravery. To wit:
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."
"The Rite of Spring" – Igor Stravinsky
In May of 1913, the 30-year-old Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky debuted "The Rite of Spring" at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and caused a near riot among the unsuspecting literati and classical traditionalists. As avant-garde piece of music as could have been conjured by a true revolutionary, it would cement Stravinsky's image as one of contrarian audaciousness, something reflective in much of Warren Zevon's music. This, along with "Perséphone" from later in his career, would titillate the songwriter's classical sensibilities and also harken back to his middle-school days when he spent afternoons with the then elderly Stravinsky, sharing musical asides and vodka.
Zevon came to classical music first; and as many interviews from the early days, confirmed by several interviews I did with his contemporaries and colleagues, Zevon was obsessed with the craft and form. The chording of his songs along with the musical changes in his haunting ballads were always chock full of classical motifs. In my essay for "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School" I delve into the "symphony" Zevon carried around during his halcyon days and beyond, one he sadly would never to finish. His son Jordan, who was a great friend and supporter of my book, leant me the pages of it and believes that perhaps one day it will be realized.
"Hula Hula Boys" – Warren Zevon
The one thing I sort of regret, but let's face it, I could have done two-dozen of these essays, is not dedicating one to "Hula Hula Boys". It would seem it was a throwaway track from his 1982 The Envoy album, except there really weren't any of those in Zevon's canon. So filled as it is with pathos and longing and hilarious sighs from a whining chuckhole, it was one of Zevon's favorite writers (and mine), Hunter S. Thompson's most cherished songs. The Gonzo journalist included it in his own collected mix-CD from 1999, Where Were You When the Fun Stopped? Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer and guitarist for the L.A. folk/rock outfit, Dawes, who often covers the song, (there is a great version on YouTube with the band playing it on a cruise ship) referenced it again and again in my interview with him for the book. He loves, as I do, the laidback nature of its arrangement and airy chorus, as it recounts this vacation gone wrong in such a sadly comedic way. It is that sense of dire hilarity that made Warren so great as he jammed the subversive and the sublime together to create something new every time. Also, the chorus is in Hawaiian, "Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana", which translated simply means, "And so the story is told" or more loosely translated as "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!" Or, "This Is My Story". Delicious stuff.
"Time Spent in Los Angeles" - Dawes
Speaking of Taylor, I became a fan of Dawes because they rightfully worship Warren Zevon, but also because of their 2011 masterpiece, Nothing is Wrong, a wonderfully musical mini-novel of road weariness and broken young characters mixed with defiant observations on disjointed lives and eerie romances. It is soooo Zevon. Especially "Time Spent in Los Angeles", which both reflects and continues the aforementioned "Desperadoes Under the Eaves"/ "Hotel California" paradise-as-prison mise-en-scène beautifully. Goldsmith sings with the kind of detached beseeching that makes the best of Zevon's music resonate for me: "But you got that special kind of sadness / You got that tragic set of charms / That only comes from time spent in Los Angeles / Makes me wanna wrap you in my arms". Yeah!
"Raspberry Beret" – Hindu Love Gods
Man, this kicks ass. When Warren was recording Sentimental Hygiene down in Georgia with R.E.M. the boys kicked up some dust on blues and old rock and roll standards when keeping warm. Some enterprising engineers rolled tape and it was later released in 1990 as a compilation under the name Hindu Love Gods, a side outfit for the instrumentalists in R.E.M., Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry that involved a "recovering from pills and alcohol" Zevon in the mid-1980s. Among the raunchy distortion is the Prince classic (which had just been a hit single, as the songs were recorded in early 1987) that rocks out no end. Zevon, who was an underrated vocalist (his baritone is likely one of the reasons he was not more popular in his time) in the sense that he captures immediately the fun-loving seduction of the song with the undercurrent of dread that Prince only hints at while he was busy trying to bury the looming monstrosity of Purple Rain and cut a new path for his best work in the later '80s.
"Too Late To Be Saved" – Jordan Zevon
Warren's son is a damned good singer/songwriter in his own right. His 2006 Insides Out album is loaded with several musical styles and distinctive lyrics. "Too Late To Be Saved", however, is a special one (as is his magnificent pass through his dad's unreleased "Studebaker", which I dedicate an essay to for many reasons) because it is a sequel to Warren's "Desperadoes Under the Eaves". Jordan, whose interviews were the foundation of my work, perhaps painted the truest picture of the artist as the man – his alcoholism, his mercurial personal relationships and professional ups-and-downs and his songs' redemptive qualities. All of that reverberates with this song. I loved to play it when things got dark during the writing of this book. Warren was a tough character to frame, and it must have been exponentially more difficult to be his only son, which also comes out here. "It was like hugging a hand grenade," Jordan told me. Here is the musical equivalent. Pull the pin!
"Ain't That Pretty at All" – The Pixies
I dedicate an essay to this Zevon track because it echoes much of the violence and mayhem of his life and his art, but also because it is so damned funny. The Pixies' alternative, screaming feedback relentless pass through this is a homage to all of that. It is a like a Scorsese film blaring in a tour bus careening off the road into a five-car-pile- up. And, it rocks. "I'm gonna hurl myself against the wall / ‘Cause I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all!" Damn right!
"Cadillac Ranch" – Bruce Springsteen
Bruce loved Warren and Warren loved Bruce. They wrote a song called "Jeannie Needs a Shooter" together in the late '70s and touted each other's work throughout their careers. When Warren was dying the Boss stopped his tour and took his Christmas vacation to record a song with him for The Wind. Warren covered a couple of Springsteen songs along the way, but none with more reverence and spastic glee than "Cadillac Ranch". Both songwriters understood the gorgeous notion of an anarchistic daydreamer messing with a vague notion that cars and death and sex and redemption are all whipped up into a fun sundae to slurp down when needed. "Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur!" Indeed. I absolutely love Zevon's tacking it onto the end of his rollicking "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" in live performances from the early 80s when it seemed like neither of these guys could do wrong.
"Stop Breaking Down" – The Rolling Stones
I listen to Exile on Main St. all the time when I'm writing anyway, anyone who doesn't is kind of missing a very big boat, but this song in particular was a favorite of both Warren and his writing, touring, drinking buddy Waddy Wachtel, who recorded with the Stones in the 1990s in addition to recording and touring as a member of Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos band. The muddy, dangerous sounds of American blues, country, balladry and gospel are sifted through the Stones strainer with swampy seductiveness on this 1972 recording, which would find its way into the live sound of Zevon. Waddy told me when Excitable Boy (an album he co-produced and played on) was blasting up the charts on the rocket fuel of "Werewolves of London", Linda Ronstadt, who may or may not have been sleeping with Mick Jagger at the time, took him to meet the Stones during their Some Girls American tour, and got a rousing review on it from his heroes.
As a sidelight, Warren's favorite American film director Martin Scorsese (who loved Warren's music and used "Werewolves of London" in his 1986 film, The Color of Money) uses "Stop Breaking Down", which I should point out is originally a composition by blues godfather Robert Johnson, along with other songs from Exile on Main St. in his only Oscar-winning movie, The Departed.
"Werewolves of London" – Masha
Latvian-born singer, Masha covered "Werewolves of London" for a Three Olives Vodka campaign which was featured in a really cool 2014 video. You can see it on YouTube, but I have been unable to get an audio-only version. Nevertheless, it is fantastic! She captures, much like other great women singers (Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde, Jill Sobule, among others), who added subtext to his songs that were lost on the men who played it laughs, the contours of its most arresting qualities. The exception being Zevon himself, who Waddy told me made sure they gave "Werewolves of London" the seriousness it deserved, thus accentuating its built-in humor. A song about the predatory nature of men, "I'd love to meet his tailor!" and "His hair was perfect!" and the feral undertones of our deeper psyches bubble to the surface here. Pretty damn cool stuff.
"Excitable Boy" – Warren Zevon
I was able to get my hands on a lot of pretty rare and interesting Zevon recordings when working on this book, one of its perks, for sure. One, which is available to check out on YouTube is a 1976 WMMS Cleveland radio performance/interview with an already lubricated Zevon tinkling on a barely-tuned piano and waxing poetic about his first Asylum album. It begins with Warren playing an intimate version of a song about an insane murderer with all the charming snark of the most accomplished commentator. I still listen to this version even now, mostly because it makes me smile every time. He ends with a little musical homage to "Little Drummer Boy" for some Zevonian reason and then says, "I left out the strange verses." But he doesn't. He never did. Thank goodness.
James Campion and Accidentally Like a Martyr links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
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