I have never been the kind of ‘head much into the ole devil’s dandruff. In fact, I don’t think I have ever had coke by itself that was even worth the snorting. I was never rich enough for a coke habit, and besides was psychologically opposed to feeling like a goddess, Ms Inneresting and glorious. I didn’t want to get on top of the world, I preferred under it or within it to that invincible overawing ego-inflation balloon pop of cocaine. Besides it is expensive, it has no legs, and often it’s been stepped on to the point of worthlessness – it is mostly epsom salts, milk powder, and the speedy scrapings from Keef Richards left shoe, with a faint hint of homeopathic coca: sometime, somewhere it was probably close to that ole cocaine, within the same vicinity even, perhaps the same zip code, but in the state it is in by the time it made it to that car key towards my nose it probably wasn’t even illegal, just irritating and expensive.
It is no secret that cocaine and rock stars go together like Eat A Peach and Creem magazine. It is fuel, plain and simple, not just for some bombastically amazing performances, but also for some disastrously overblown occurrences that were better if they had never happened at all. For every Rock God or Goddess moment, there is the image of Stevie Nicks recruiting a groupie to blow coke up her ass, in order to save her septum.
Zevon was the kind of musician that made the drugs and booze work for him, at least until it sent him to Detox Mansion for a time out. I am kinda glad that he hadn’t made it there before his performance at the Capitol Theatre in January 1982. This was a balls-out grandstanding, growling virtuoso performance by Warren and his band. Warren is there, either bashing at the piano, coaxing a tune from it’s keys, or standing legs apart, exaggerated gestures, facial tics and enough brash aggression to shame most of the SF crackhead scenesters. This is 1982 – the hair is big, the jeans are tight and the machismo is overwhelming. The shouts of “Rock and Roll! Whoo hoo! New Jersey!” are not the coolest thing in music history, but it is honest work. Cocaine is all spandex leggings, big hair and bloated success, coke is meth’s uncool cousin from the ’80s, yet there is something perfect about this discarding of cool for fun. Zevon and his band are having fun, and Zevon himself, the Werewolf at the piano is undeniably cool whilst the rest of the world is falling into the fake plastic metal shame of the ’80s. The band rocks. Everyone is having a good time, not least the boys on the stage, it is silly and funny, and loud and faintly ridiculous at times, but it is good clean fun, and music is meant to be fun. Shows are meant to be fun. If Rock and Roll consisted of the cries of babies from Lou Reed’s Berlin, the tears of Sinead O’Connor singing Prince songs, and some dirty New York punks wailing sissily about Chinese Rocks it would all be a bit too grotty, and not nearly enough of a blast.
The vocals and guitar are thuddingly forceful, dramatic and unrelenting. Some of the most satisfying moments are to be had when Zevon is up on his feet, there is a lot of spinning, rocking like the band is Slade on a boisterous night at the opera, head tossing, and homoerotic duelling guitars crouched down together onto the floor of the stage. It might not be cool, but it sure is a lot of fun. “Charlie had to take his medicine” sings Warren, as the crowd nod knowingly about paying “Charlie’s” bill. Warren is not Mr Sensitivity at this show: he is pure fire….a bit like the coke he had clearly done piles of before he got on stage. Four guitars on the stage, including the bass, adds to the avalanche of sound and fury playing out. These are war songs. “Daddy’s doing Sister Sally. Grandma’s got cancer.” sings Warren, howling like a lost hound dog at a full moon. The battle cry of “Sweat! Jizz! Piss and Blood!” plays off the physicality of a band running on the sheer brute force of marching powder clearly far superior to any sad leavings I ever got my sweaty druggie paws on.
Just as I thought the show was going to be unbearably aggro and driving masculine force of the most stimulating high nature has to offer, Warren, partially spent, sits down at the piano and plays a beautiful rendition of Accidentally Like a Martyr with such sensitively delicate and fragile almost classical piano, gentle vocals and the band providing unobtrusive guitar lines that I fall back semi stunned. I was not expecting this, not on this night, not from Warren. The feeling and ballad break didn’t last, a truly bombastic Poor Poor Pitiful Me launches on it’s tail, with Warren bringing back out the growl, and the band cringingly demanding New Jersey “get ’em up one more time”, but it is undeniable, the crowd was having fun, they were involved, the show was rocking along. There was not a soul that was disappointed that night, not one person went home sad. Take a bow, Cocaine, take a bow: it was not singing and playing or composing but it was providing the fuel and the attitude adjustments, changing the channel and driving the train. Almost makes me wanna make like it’s 1982 and party. Except everything is now dull, the party is over, and the clowns are all coughing, and it’s not from the chemical post nasal drip of the blow.
Look, this band is not the coolest thing in rock and roll, but it was 1982, nothing was truly cool in 1982, even Lou Reed had a mullet, but it was fun, and this performance contains the most psychopathic version of Excitable Boy, with a very excitable Warren, throwing water over his own head, and getting that crowd yelling and jumping and dancing and smiling to a song about a sex murdering necrophile. That takes some guts….and some serious drugs. The show slides seamlessly from kicking along rock n roll soldier marches into the other side of the coke ride – the freaky, psycho, bulging eyed, paranoid hunched over rage and fury, and it is beautiful. The crack in his voice, the whatever ‘pathic of “Ild rather feel bad, than not feel anything at all” and warren yelling how he is going to throw himself against the wall as hard as he can. It is the only way forwards over that mental barrier – throw weight at it and sees what gives. Often, not anything at all. It’s not my party, not my gig, I am just happy to watch Warren write coke psychosis into music and lyrics. It really ‘ain’t that pretty at all”, but that is why we are here watching – so Warren can experience the ugly and we can listen, watch and wonder, and bounce around to songs that really are quite ugly in their subject matter, even if they power ahead musically.
This is drugs working with the performer to create something bigger, something better, something electric “John Belushi! It ain’t that pretty at all” Zevon screams as he squirms on the floor and the crowd go wild – as they should. He pretends to faint and jerk in a seizure on the floor, the band carry off Warren the Hero as the crowd chant his name. It is high performance. It is hilarious. The band comes back on for an energetic and ad-libbed Werewolves of London. The band are trying to wring the last drops of high powdered energy from the coke, dripping with sweat, using feet to play the piano, pounding the last cent out of the ride for the crowd, but starting to lag and finally, Warren collapses bent double, touching his toes, entirely spent. He will rip yer lungs out Jim…
Not so lucky was Lou Reed the recipient of David Bowie’s birthday bash offering of Bowie covering a few of his songs, and doing a few of his own with Lou. L.O.U. as Bowie describes him. Queen Bitch kicks in, Lou staring intently at David. David is glorious, gorgeous, in love with himself and his brilliance. Oh to be David Bowie flying high, adored on the stage for one night! Waiting For The Man, a tale of waiting for a Lexington dealer with the ‘sweet taste’ test, an infinitely cool Velvet Underground song, one that Lou always seemed to be very protective over when he performed it. It is beyond classic: it is popular music art Canon. It is enshrined.
No one fucks with Waiting For The Man. People. David fucked with Waiting For The Man. He had some beat and special effects R2D2 beep and blip disco electronica shit, with a pre-recorded backing vocal track of electronically altered voice declaring in robotic tones “waiting for the man”…Lou looks first disturbed, which melts into a set jawed determination to tolerate whatever David is doing to The Song. I remember that old Melanie song, What Have They Done To My Song, Ma? as I look at Lou’s tortured countenance, growing steelier with each robotic heresy.
It is starting to look dangerous as David coked-up puppy-dog like delivers a gift to Lou even though it is David’s birthday bash: he honestly looks as though he is expecting Lou to prefer this version to the Velvet’s original. David considers himself a gift, a hugely inflated coke ego combined with the assurance that must come from being a genius with massive success to prove it to the world. No, Lou is not smiling, not until David sings “Feeling so good, feeling oh so fine,” and Lou allows himself a smirk. It is abundantly obvious how fine David is feeling about this pre-recorded soundtrack electronica bleep and circuit BORED bullshit. The band looks vaguely uncomfortable, but David is feeling it, even if no one else is. I watch this with my mouth agog. How could David think this was alright? Lou plants himself and his guitar, playing the chords, legs planted on the stage, defiant. It’s too late. The song has been pissed all over, and is now drowning in cocaine metabolites and Bowie’s humungous ego. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bowie, Hunky Dory is a masterpiece, but this is a disaster.
This is what happens when the drugs alter the ability to perceive reality in such a way that is foolish, dull and downright ugly in a polyester dress kinda way, instead of a sweating Zevon gurning and singing that Grandpa pissed his pants again. There is beauty in honest ugliness, a certain reality of holiness. There is nothing holding up this disintegrating snow drift artifice and delusion. Disaster. Not even Lou’s sardonic deadpan and enjoyable discomfort and irritation can save the performance, it is just BAD, and not even bad motherfucker kinda bad…just dreary, tasteless, tuneless irritation. Waiting for my Man has a drum and rhythm-based engine, it is not an ego song.
Man and plant have not melded and powered onwards at the birthday bash, instead David’s personality and ego turn it all into neon dust. Zevon’s performance was pure id – sex, aggression, Eros and Thanatos running on some ancient recipe passed down from the Gods to warriors who need a little, or large, electric jolt up their spine.
I would have loved to see what would have happened in a more respectful Bowie cover of the VU standard, with a harder edge, if it wasn’t for the coke-bloated self love, I’m guessing it would have been fantastic. The White Girl seems to be a very fickle mistress indeed.