Warren Zevon: Gonzo Musical Mutineer

I will always believe that unless you have lived a life where you require lawyers, guns and money to be sent to get you immediately out of a preferably international scrape, then you have really missed out. There is a certain charm to feeling your hair swept back by the thrill of the escape. There is nothing like outrunning, outgunning, out-lawyering the enemy and holding on by the skin of your teeth to survival, then shoving that survival in the face of all those who were prematurely crowing over your demise or foreseen incarceration. It is not the most relaxing way to live a life, and can be spectacularly heavy in the loss column and meagre in the winning lines. Lawyers, Guns and Money is a way of life for gonzo adventurers. Gonzo demands a high price for entrance into the hallowed Halls of Experience: to live fully, at full throttle and to hell with the consequences.


“I’m an innocent bystander and somehow I got stuck between a rock and a hard place and I’m down on my luck!” is the entire schtick, the whole rotten enchilada, the alpha and omega of a gonzo artist’s dirty life and times.

Warren Zevon is the ultimate gonzo musician. He didn’t chose to go the way of Hunter S Thompson, the late great Gonzo pioneer, and write. He didn’t put pen to paper and draw horrific and insulting cartoons which illuminated the terror of the human condition like Ralph Steadman. Zevon is the missing piece of the puzzle, one of the points of the triangle of the Gonzo triumvirate of outlaws and adventurers. Warren used that first person, right in the middle of the ‘lawyers, guns and money’ action technique. His songs are populated by fictionalized characters, made into living cartoons. We have the ‘excitable boy’ and a girl from another song, ‘little Suzie’. Except whilst the Everly Brothers tried to ‘wake up little Suzie’, the ‘little Suzie’ of Warren’s song will never wake up again. Warren kills her off in the most brutal of ways:

He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom
Excitable boy, they all said
And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he’s just an excitable boy
After ten long years they let him out of the home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he’s just an excitable boy

Warren leaves us singing ‘wake up little Suzie’ while the horror of the ‘excitable boy’, the man given every excuse, after all, he was just an excitable boy they all said, proceeds to destroy the trust and the lives of everyone around him. Warren had a way of putting himself inside the song, whilst turning the song itself inside out. Warren, the ‘excitable boy’, never did anything so terrible as what happened to little Suzie, yet the tales of his black-out drunks and subsequent treatment of his wives and girlfriends mar his legacy. Crystal Zevon, his long suffering ex-wife, detailed many instances of forgiveness of her ‘excitable boy’ Warren, and many instances of danger and abuse. In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon writes:

Warren had had too much to drink. We started arguing because I had defended Jackson’s position about not taking wives to Japan in front of Don.

What happened next happened so quickly I didn’t know what hit me, literally, but, Warren punched me in the face. Hard. I pulled the car over and he hit me again, then he flung the door open and stormed into our house.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon

She then details Warren tenderly plucking her contact lens out of her swollen eye and kissing her before passing out. He then didn’t believe, once he was sober in the morning, that he had done that to her at all, saying

“Are you so evil that you are going to try and make me believe I did that? I would never do that. Get out of here.” (Warren Zevon)

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon

Warren made his own adventure. His alcoholism, his black-outs, his drug taking, his journey into the heart of darkness of the 1970s music scene in Los Angeles, and the creatures that passed for people around him, and the people that passed for saints incarnate like Crystal Zevon, all inhabit his songs. This is pure gonzo music: the altered states of being, the scrapes and the search for redemption, for the heart of the American dream, the personal dream, the essence of success it all swirls through Warren Zevon’s work like a mini tornado of pure ethanol forming around the swizzle stick of a stirred martini. The American dream is built on losers – in order to sell the dream only some can win it and the majority have to lose. Death, the ultimate loss, runs through his lyrics like a collapsed vein. Warren is preoccupied with the dying and the dead – the ultimate losers. The silent losing dying majority. He writes about them, for them. He lived as one of them, and he died like a hero. Warren was a beautiful loser.

Hunter S Thompson once wrote:

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson.

Warren got to know the devil really well during his drunks, after all how can someone have no sympathy for that old bald cheater unless he thoroughly investigates the possibility that sympathy is perhaps due? Warren purchased his ticket to the ride, and went on that damned trip. It almost beat the goodness out of him, by all accounts, but it also beat the art out of the words and the sound that he held in his pianist’s fingertips. Sometimes art has to be forced out of the very marrow of the artist. Sometimes it has to be dissolved in ethanol, spiked and punctured by pills and dusted with cocaine, in order to draw it out of the unwilling brain. It is a very destructive process. What does it cost? Sometimes everything the artist has. All of it. All their goodness, all their relationships, all their self worth, all their life. Everything.

Warren wrote a song alongside Hunter S Thompson called You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared. Fear and loathing. The ‘Kingdom of Fear’ that Hunter wrote about so extensively is the natural hunting ground for gonzo inspiration. The conversation between the two men, writing together, centers around wanting to protect a woman from ‘The Kingdom of Fear’. They both knew Warren was a ‘whole different person’ when he was scared:

The eagle screams on Friday
The Colts are doomed this year
The fat’s finally in the fire
In the Kingdom of Fear
Dangerous creeps are everywhere

You’re a whole different person
When you’re scared

We have ways to make you talk
You won’t like at all
If you can’t run, walk
If you can’t walk, crawl
But don’t look down
It’s a long, long fall

You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared. Warren Zevon and Hunter S Thompson

The problem is when you become one of the ‘dangerous creeps’ in that desperate scrum, that ultimate scramble for inspiration, dragged there by the ‘ticket’ to that fateful trip – mind altering substances. That Gonzo desperation, concocting situations which illuminate both the American dream and also the state of the human condition, is no place for a civilian. These two men would say it is no place for a woman. They were wrong. It is no place for a human being. It is reptile land. It is the fabled ‘bat country’ of Fear and Loathing. In Warren’s case, it existed mainly in Los Angeles, but make no mistake, ‘Bat Country’ is everywhere nowadays. They don’t want you seeing it, so they have poisoned the mind-opening drug supply. The protagonist of Carmelita is dead in Echo Park from a Fent and Tranq overdose, his legs rotted off by desomorphine and Carmelita is not far behind him, headed off to the Kingdom of Fear that lays beyond this world and into the next.

Warren’s Los Angeles is his playground. He exposes its soft dark underbelly, and he gives no quarter. Listening to Warren Zevon is like watching a movie on acid. The undercurrent reveals itself, the vibe rears its ugly or emotional head. You get to really understand Fear. You get to know loathing intimately. That self hatred and the hatred of almost everyone around you, you get to know it real well. You push the civilians out of the battle ground in the Kingdom of Fear. It is no place for the gentle. It is no Hundred Acre Woods fairytale. It is a ‘long long fall’ indeed. But how else are we going to ever fix the twisted way this old world is turning, unless we stare into that cracked mirror? How else are we going to save humanity from its violent fate if we don’t confront The Fear and The Hatred, kiss our grotesque and evil Godz full on the lips and examine the inner workings of the problem? There is no medicine, bad or otherwise in safety, no.

Carmelita is such a pretty song about the ugliness of addiction and homelessness. Heroin is the drug of incurable Romantics: it is a dreamers affliction. It’s protagonist lays in Echo Park, while his mind is drifting off to Ensenada with Carmelita, ‘all strung out on heroin, on the outskirts of town’. The gap between reality and dream is a wide one. Warren sings about the ‘county’ not giving him any more methadone, whilst Carmelita’s welfare check has been cancelled. Putting himself in that first person position, travelling into the story, living the nightmare and exploring the dream is the heart of great gonzo writing. The dreams illuminate the reality. The nightmare illuminates the dream. Warren, the great romantic, Ernest Hemmingway with a piano. Warren the traveler into the dark places with the broken people. Warren got broken in his quest, and broke others around him. He was just an ‘excitable boy’. Warren and the addict in Echo Park merge into one and the same person. He sings about pawning his ‘Smith Corona’ typewriter, and going to ‘meet (his) man’ on Alvarado Street, by the ‘Pioneer chicken stand’. These intimate details anchor his work as that of a pure Angeleno. There is the Los Angeles of the movies, and the Los Angeles that exists under the surface, the Los Angeles of the Desperados Under The Eaves.

The American Dream encapsulated in the California Dream is beautifully illustrated in Desperados Under The Eaves. Trees look like ‘crucified thieves’ – Warren is throwing a light on what seems to be and showing us what actually is. Nothing in Los Angeles is authentic on the surface, even the hotel Warren sings about is a fake ‘Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel’, not a real Hawaiian hotel. It is the difference between a pina colada made with pineapple flavored, powdered coconut mix and cheap rum, served in a plastic coconut shell, and that ‘salty margarita’ that Zevon threatens to drink all of them in Los Angeles. The salt and the sweet characterizes Zevon’s work, and his ‘dirty life and times’. He was a man of extremes, of using contrast to expose Truth by exploring dark fantasy. His fearlessness and bravado in songs like Lawyers Guns and Money and Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner only serve to peel back to the fear right to the final pearl of terror that forms at the center of each traveler’s own personal Kingdom..

That Headless Thompson Gunner song, tells the barely disguised story of Hunter S Thompson being deserted by Rolling Stone Magazine in Vietnam. They sent him out there and left him to get out by himself.

Wenner gave Thompson the story of the end of the Vietnam War, and sent him out there to cover it America’s withdrawal. Thompson accepted the assignment and went out to Saigon. He arrived to find utter chaos and every American, including the other journalists, scrambling to get out of there. Once in Saigon, Thompson was informed that Wenner had canceled the story and that Wenner had left Thompson in Vietnam without health insurance or financial support…or a way out. Rolling Stone didn’t publish Hunter’s story for ten years. Hunter needed those attorneys, guns and money. Instead he gets eventually immortalized by Zevon, and had to get his own ass out of ‘Nam.

The Viet Kong becomes the “Congolese”, Van Owen sounds like Jann Wenner to me, but whether it is Wenner or some other asshole, all shit smells the same after a while. That ultimate betrayal of the most important writer that that dirty rag has ever given a platform to – leaving Hunter to the Fates when Saigon fell, becomes a twisted story of espionage, intrigue and revenge, with Hunter as the hero, coming back from the dead to get what he was due and make the bastards pay up. Fact gets fictionalized and fiction becomes reality. Warren just rearranged their faces and gave them all another name, to borrow a phrase from Dylan’s Desolation Row. Whether it is the Congolese or the Vietnamese, war is also much of a muchness as is betrayal, still we have to seek to tell stories, to make history make sense. These pop culture villains fall under the power of Hunter’s poison pen, even ‘Patti Hearst, heard the burst, of Roland’s (or Hunter’s) Thompson gun and bought it. The exchange of respect and ideas, songs and words between artists is the lifeblood of freedom. Without freedom of speech we have nothing. Without the ability to create without fear of censorship, we are all reduced to a blank page, a tabula rasa, controlled and rolled into a homogenous compliant whole that no government need fear answering to. Not Warren though, and not Hunter. Not the gonzo fighters. It is a curious sensation to feel as if these words I type could, if in the right quantity and order, be a Roland’s Thompson Gun. Does Jeanie need a shooter like me?

Jeanie Needs a Shooter is a western song without the schmaltz or the walking bassline. It tells the story of a love struck young man who falls foul to Jeanie’s father’s promise to shoot him if he continued to pursue Jeanie. Again, it is a song of loss, from the perspective of the loser. Whether Warren examines losers in love, loss of success, loss of health, loss of life itself, he never shies away from what is difficult or scary to stare too long at. Warren deserved so much more success than he got. He was covered by Dylan, and many other artists, lauded critically, and yet apart from Werewolves of London, a fantastical tale of a creature that should not exist living in a world that he does, he was never was financially successful or popular as he should have been. I think Warren was too clever for the drooling masses. By 1976 the dumb-down that afflicted the 80s had already begun. The world did not deserve as brilliant a chronicler as Zevon. That said, there was still some fertile ground to sow his song and his shattered world view. There were still outlets that were sympatico, such as his friend David Letterman, and his wonderful show, that always promoted whatever Warren was putting out at the time.

The creative scene used to have Walter Cronkite and David Letterman promoting what was hot and fresh and good for a brain and soul to consume, and now we just have that fat middle aged British cunt who abuses waitstaff overseeing a giant void that is missing the artists and the stage and the talent, with only the memories of truly free people who are now either dead or dying out. The wave crested years ago: we are in creative free fall.

Any man who could write Splendid Isolation is a force to be reckoned with. It is a song that I can get behind and sing along to, and not only that mean it too.

I want to live alone in the desert
I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe
I want to live on the Upper East Side
And never go down in the street

Splendid Isolation
I don’t need no one
Splendid Isolation

Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the World of Self

Splendid Isolation, Transverse City, Warren Zevon.

The Gonzo artist, having burnt through protagonists (aka as friends and family), money, good will, talent and health will always find himself at a table next to Joni Mitchell, while she sings “I don’t want nobody coming to my table, I ain’t got nothing to talk to anybody about.” All good dreamers pass this way some day, hiding behind bottles in dark cafes, sang Joni, and Warren agreed with her, though his situation was a little more extreme than her withdrawal from sociable life. I wish I could live alone in the desert. I wish I had an apartment where I could live amongst the crowds but never have to be down there on the street with them, but who wants to go to Disneyland alone? Isn’t fun dependent on those around us and their happiness? Does the bottle even take that love away in the end? I don’t know. There are perhaps two or three people on the planet that I care to talk to nowadays. Without them, ‘come on Goofy take my hand!” Warren’s ‘splendid isolation’ was a fake-out. When he found out he was dying from mesothelioma, Warren seemed to be generous with his time and love. It is the song of the artist, that dream of ivory towers, that doesn’t seem so attractive when there is no audience to perform to. What Warren really means is ‘don’t pull me on my shit’. What he really means is that the bottle put a barrier between him and love. “I don’t need no one” is a lie. Perhaps it is the ultimate lie anyone can try and persuade themselves is real. Everybody needs somebody to love. Every gonzo adventurer needs a sidekick to get the action and the juices flowing.

Is heaven indifferent after all? In his song The Indifference of Heaven, Warren forces an entire novel within a few verses, a bridge and a chorus or two. It is a travesty that he has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jann Wenner had a grudge against Warren, stemming from some incident or other at a Bruce Springsteen show, and apparently has been blocking Warren’s induction for the last 20 years since his death. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was never heaven, but it is certainly recognition of success beneath our heathen skies. The thing is, Warren never really played the success and fame game very well: while his peers were rolling in the dough, Warren had his bloody ‘hands in the till down at the 7-11’ and some time to kill. Whether he was working there and bleeding because rock and roll was not paying off, or whether he was robbing the till we do not know. Whether he was being robbed, or he was the thief, none of it matters. All that matters is that Warren found out the hard way that Heaven is indifferent to the Kingdom of Fear. The gentle rain turns into the vastness of life that then flows into the multidinous seas. No doubt Warren’s bloody hands would turn the ‘green one red’ just like Lady Macbeth’s did after she murdered King Duncan. This is a Shakespearean level tragedy that Warren is grappling with: the full extent of his culpability. Who knows if we are talking about Warren or some kinda natural born killer figure. Does it matter? Heaven doesn’t care.

In fact ‘not caring’ would be preferable to the potential vastness of the lie that ‘they tell me someday soon all of my sins will be forgiven’. The bridge to the song breaks that suspension of disbelief, moves the movie-like script of the earlier stanzas into Warren’s terminal reality. Facing up to the ‘fear and the loathing’ is not an easy thing to do, especially when your friends and loved ones do not live in the Kingdom of Fear with you. Bruce Springsteen and Patti don’t ‘live around here’, Billy Bob Thornton and Warren’s ex wife Christie (Crystal) don’t live there either. Hunter did and he had his own tragic end. You see there are normal people who don’t care to see what lies beneath, and the gonzo writer loves them all the more for their innocence. The good times they talk and sing about are not real, they sit on the surface. The reality, the gonzo harshness of the situation is somewhat different. People were not at the same party Warren was at. There are Mutineers like Warren, and there are ‘witnesses’. We are his witness, just like he sang during his last performance on Letterman. The Kingdom of Fear, ’round here’, Leonard Cohen calls it ‘The Tower of Song’ is no place for the tender hearted. Everything burns down in the end. The front ‘door slams’ and is closed forever.

Time marches on
Time stands still
Time on my hands
Time to kill
Blood on my hands
And my hands in the till
Down at the 7-11

Gentle rain
Falls on me
All life folds back
Into the sea
We contemplate eternity
Beneath the vast indifference of heaven

They say, “Everything’s alright.”
They say, “Better days are near.”
They tell us, “These are the good times.”
But they don’t live around here
Billy and Christie don’t
And Bruce and Patti don’t
They don’t live around here

The Indifference of Heaven, Warren Zevon

Warren was a poet who also happened to be a rock star who loved to ‘rock the boat’. He was a literary giant who also happened to use the medium of song. He wrote like a novelist or essayist, he sang and played piano as if his life depended on it. He drank like a man who had no need for his liver…or friends…or love, yet he was clearly immensely sensitive and sweet as well as a terror when he was drunk, which was most of the time by all accounts. The two things are not exclusive. Zevon let us peek into the Kingdom of Fear without having to travel there if we didn’t want to….and provided a roadmap for those of us who did. Warren travelled into the darkness and the fear and brought back stories and melodies from the front lines. Warren Zevon: gonzo mutineer. Lyrical adventurer, and if there is any justice and taste still left in the creative universe, Hall of Famer, 2023. I would be his witness any day, even if I am my own mutineer. “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”….and all that gonzo jazz…

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