Thursday, July 3, 2008
Mr. Bad Example
When I was in 8th grade, shortly after moving to Wisconsin, I was taken under the wing of my aunt's chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking boyfriend Jeff. Assessing my juvenile sense of humor, emotional retardation, and memorization of the Led Zeppelin catalog as the marks of a kindred spirit, Jeff launched a platform to be implemented across various taverns and living rooms around Northeastern Wisconsin: to get fall down the stairs shit-faced and talk endlessly about music. The first time I met him, he took my cousin Kali and I out in his Thunderbird, driving 90 mph down rural Illinois roads and shouting about how much he liked Cracker, and how the original T-Bird's featured a radio that got louder as you accelerated. This initial exchange set the template for most of our future interactions, and likely most of my fondest college memories. In hindsight, of course, the fact that I could barely get into a PG-13 movie at the time is mildly troubling. God willing, my reckless streak lasts long enough that I can one day afford my children such a divine opportunity.
Once our meetings started occurring at regular intervals, Jeff's schizophrenic record collection gave me an opening to plunge into Primus, Patsy Cline, and all points in between. To this day, I consider myself lucky that I had someone to introduce me the Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks, particularly at an age where I staunchly supported the artistic merits of Bush. Shit, he even took me to see the Statler Brothers in Milwaukee, only to get hammered and spend the entire time shouting about how Harold should go solo.
It was truly a golden era. Yet, times passed and things changed, as times and things are prone to do, and Jeff dropped off the face of the earth. Even in his absence, though, the music lingered. None more so than his favorite artist, Warren Zevon. Zevon, known to most for the 70's radio staple "Werewolves of London", spent the better part of thirty years writing dark, complicated, and often hilarious songs about sex and death. A true pioneer, he explored the core motivational aspects of our mosts carnal behaviors, while most of his Southern California contemporaries were too busy writing vapid odes to geography, and banging underage prostitutes. While an asshole like Don Henley will be haunting my children's children from the factory-radios of their flying cars, Warren is unfairly relegated to a historical footnote, like he's fucking Mungo Jerry or something. As my record collection grew to greater and more ridiculous bounds during my high school years, I tried to fill in all of the bizarre corners of the music world I had obsessed over when I lacked any sort of income. However, Zevon's relative obscurity (and a lack of follow-through that lingers to this day) truncated all attempts to move beyond my initial dubbed cassettes rather quickly. At that point, it was easier to enjoy my weather-beaten copy of "Excitable Boy", and just plunge instead into the noisy indie rock that seems to find all shaggy-haired, ego-maniacal high school boys.
Fast-forward to my sophomore year of college, the first of multiple attempts for Ryan and I to merge like Voltron. The majority of my waking hours consisted of blasting old rap, playing NBA Jam, and blacking out from malt liquor. Ryan's days were fleshed in by the full time job of bottling his escalating rage over the success of DJ Sammy, and writing an electronic composition that consisted of the word "attention" being modified and distorted endlessly until I began to weep. In summation, we were both terribly lame, and on vastly different pages. It would be completely justified if Ryan and Anthony (present day) were to hop into DeLoreans and beat some fucking sense into our 2002 incarnations. Respective failures aside, though, our team-building exercise ran like a well-oiled machine: tandem viewings of David Letterman. Now granted, between Wop Wednesday (named for the drink, not the Italian racial epithet), night classes, house parties, and various other distractions, we'd only catch it intermittently. But the times we did watch Letterman were always our equivalent of a 1950's nuclear family reconnecting around the dinner table.
One night, after a virtually non-existent monologue, Dave sat at his desk and explained that the show's format was undergoing a one-time-only deviation from the norm: it was to be devoted entirely to Warren Zevon. Recently diagnosed with a rare type of lung cancer (mesothelioma), his doctor gave him the ominous prognosis of mere weeks left to live. Being close friends with David on both a personal and professional level, Letterman dedicated an entire show to him, in an effort to draw attention to Zevon's dynamic body of work. For the next hour, Warren, always sort of a dark cat, told a series of dry, hilarious anecdotes, all illuminating the stark, bleak truth. Then, he performed three selections from his epic back catalog, straining to hit each note as his cancerous throat fought back against him. Needless to say, Ryan and I were profoundly affected, and both of us plunged much further into his body of work; devoting radio shows and personal income to his celebration, and pulling a pretty thick John the Baptist routine on anyone we thought we could convert.
Since then, Warren has been in and out of our lives. Some friends, such as Simeon and Melissa, have responded well, and connected on the level that we envisioned at the start of the exercise. Others clutch their rosary beads, in desperate hope that my streak of musical necrophilia ends sooner rather than later. One crucial obstacle to our crusade has always been that we lacked a tangible way to communicate just how staggering the Letterman episode truly was. CBS only replayed it once: the day after his death. Furthermore, they attempted to quash any YouTube linking, and assailed tape traders on the internet as well. Years later, though, Warren's wife and children have finally emancipated a load of his non-traditionally released material from draconian copyright law, and it's been well worth the wait.
To begin, here's the second, third, and fourth clips from that night's episode. When combined with the initial clip (posted above) it amounts to about 95% of the total content from that night. Due to either Viacom reappraising the internet's role in entertainment (unlikely), or the cobwebs of disinterest shielding the clip from their view (far more likely), this epic piece of history is at least currently available to spread dude's gospel.
Warren Zevon - Interview Part 2/"Mutineer" (live on Letterman)
Warren Zevon - "Genius" (live on Letterman)
Warren Zevon - "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" (live on Letterman)
Secondly, the good people at Archive.org have spent over a decade stockpiling an amalgam of multimedia documents, in the hopes of creating a comprehensive online library. One of the most interesting segments of their collection is the recorded music wing. Since most business-minded people fear what new technology could do to their bottom line, your average musician on archive.org is either someone whose works have been considered public domain for years (old folk/blues recordings), independent musicians (who aren't selling anything anyway), or hippies that think the internet is a magical tapestry of puppy dog tales and ethereal hokum (the Grateful Dead).
However, in an effort to simply expose the world to the genius of his works, Zevon's children and ex-wife have signed documents allowing any live recording which doesn't fall under an existing contract to be shared for free on the site. While wading through the 71 concerts(!!!) currently available may seem initially daunting, I assure you that the gold there (ranked according to rating, set lists, and year of production) makes the exercise well worth your time. Here's a few selections, mostly early stuff. The newer stuff is amazing as well, but some of the production works better after you're acclimated to his work. These cuts hit you from the jump.
Warren Zevon - "Carmelita" (live radio performance w/ Jackson Browne)(12/08/1976)
Warren Zevon - "Desparados Under the Eaves" (live radio performance) (10/13/1976)
Warren Zevon - "Mohammed's Radio" (live radio performance) (10/13/1976)
Finally, here's a couple more live clips of Zevon, including a few other Letterman appearances. His post-1980 work is very Leonard Cohen-esque, where a lot of the production choices aged terribly on the studio renditions, with an over-reliance on synthesized instruments and clunky arrangements. The songs themselves are still impeccable, though, as evidenced by the lyrics I've also linked below. Not everything reaches this great height, but it's all still pretty phenomenal.
Warren Zevon - "Renegade" (live in Atlanta, 1993)
Warren Zevon - "Mr. Bad Example" (on Letterman)
Warren Zevon - "Lawyers, Guns, & Money" (on the BBC)
Warren Zevon - "Splendid Isolation" (on Letterman)
...and hating the Jews, but I mainly just nodded and nervously smiled during that part.
This is actually my favorite Cracker song, but the nuanced tone doesn't lend itself quite as nicely to the finer points of reckless child endangerment.
Though I would like the record to reflect that in many cases, I was already aware of the artist from my television obsessed youth. I mean, no self-respecting child raised by Time Warner Cable in the early 90's could possibly forget "Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver".
Oh Gavin, in retrospect your fame truly is as comical as his presidency. Even if I still embarrassingly hum along with "Swallowed".
Trust me. The elderly, western-clad people seated all around us were not nearly as amused as I was.
Y'all have no idea how close I came to naming my blog "FuckYouDonHenley".
I won't delve too much into Zevon's fascinating back story, because that's what Wikipedia is for, though I will say that the recent book written by his wife is fucking revelatory, even for people that have zero interest in the man, or his works.
"240 women sharing 3 showers? What is this - Vassar?"
When asked if he's learned anything now that he's living on borrowed time, Zevon replied "I guess I've learned to enjoy every sandwich". If I ever say anything even half that clever, put it on my fucking urn.
After deliberating, I decided to link to Ryan's account of this tale, in spite of the fact that it's better written, contains far less superfluous garbage, and was written like two years before I got around to covering it. Hopefully that act of writing karma will deflect any of the heat that I deserve for writing my most masturbatory blog entry yet, employing some pretty abominable syntax in the process.