All the best cities have their troubadours: New York has Lou Reed, Dylan, Patti Smith, Simon and Garfunkel and the Ramones as bards of the City and its inhabitants, charms and woes. Boston has…well Boston…and Seattle has Nirvana. Los Angeles is a different beast. Not for L.A. the artfully literary of San Francisco nor the Bowery punksters, nor is L.A a city of boneheaded blue-collar rockers. Los Angeles has a grimy glitter to it. L.A punk is less geeky and more surf-soaked and strange with The Bags, The Dead Kennedys, Flipper and The Gun Club leading the noisy forward charge. We do love a freak in L.A. It is sun soaked, gold country, we gave birth to The Doors, The Mama’s and Papas, and we gave the world the abomination that is The Eagles, and don’t even have the decency to be sorry about it. Yet no band, no artist, no singer is more Los Angeles than Warren Zevon, Mr. Angeleno himself. Zevon is the physical embodiment of some dive on Santa Monica Boulevard, all shabby glamour just past the bloom yet in the right light and with enough tequila looks just like Janet Leigh doing her best to emulate Norma Jean, a cut rate starlet in California tan pancake make up, shattered sequins and scarlet lipstick. There is a seduction in that ruined Hollywood glitz, in the dehydrated lily of the valley – in the cheap magic trick of distraction that city tries to play on you Rodeo Drive day after Sunset Boulevard night.
Zevon is as Californian as In-and-Out Burger, redwood trees, taco truck carnitas, Tiki Bar cocktails in improbable glasses, winter sunshine (not that we got any this year, all is wrong with the world), surfing and all the musical and cultural detritus that goes along with that particular zen past time. Zevon is more of a California Dude than the Big Lebowski, yet his work is so artfully literary, so beautifully composed that it transcends California clichés. The world that Zevon pulls us along into with his music is so identifiably Los Angeleno that you can smell the wild flowers of Laurel Canyon and that hot in the city smog coming off the tracks. Warren is one of these artists who is rooted in a place and time, whilst being universally relevant. He is as much a Hollywood Boulevard Boy, as Dylan of his heyday was a Greenwich Village hipster.
The air-conditioner hum is as much part of LA life, as the music and the Hollywood chitter chatter, yet it is taken for granted, there in the background, until it doesn’t work any more and the cool leaves the room. It is underappreciated until it stops, much like anything necessary yet glorious – much like Zevon now he has gone.
There is a certain way the light falls in Los Angeles, where all the cacti look unreal as if they are on some Hollywood set, where the heat rises from the concrete, and settles in the palm trees. It took Zevon to trap that heat forever in sound and furiously filthy and sacred lyrics. Warren Zevon is as good a lyricist at his best than prime-era Dylan. He has the same ability to crystalize a moment in time and a place so perfectly that it becomes more beautiful than the reality, distilling the essence of a person or a feeling or a time into three or four minutes of music. Warren is never superfluous. No meaningless but pretty ‘baby baby baby’s’ for Zevon, instead we are treated to emotion and longing and love and affection without the sugar on top to sweeten the lyrical deal. The sugar was all in the music that made those bitter pills slip down like ice-cold vodka.
Los Angeles demands you listen to Zevon when you are in town. I remember driving through when I was ‘between homes’ so to speak…
I remember pulling into some faded hotel on one of the presidentially-named avenues out towards Anaheim, the neon lights lying to you, proclaiming something grand or at least the right kind of kitsch, one or two of them continually blinking a message of distress in alien morse code, I felt a sense of unease that could only be alleviated by music. The palm trees conspire with the cacti and the brown hills in the distance to drag you into a fever dream of starlets and infamy and other people’s fortune both good and bad. I tried on Texas Radio and The Big Beat for size, but it was too hopefully, too full of blood lust and youthful hopefulness.
What I needed was Warren reminding me that I will have to pay the bill even if the whole damned lot ‘slides into the ocean’ the very next morning, just like the ‘mystics and statistics say it will’.. I needed Desperados Under The Eaves because that was exactly what I was at that gloriously broken moment in time: nowhere to go, no home, no couch, only a motel in a boring part of town that didn’t even have the decency to lay on some pink champagne on ice. I felt the ghost of a thousand souls past dirty lives and times past slam into the back of my heat and weed addled brain and take the pressure off the moment, like releasing steam from a pressure cooker. There is only one man to listen to in LA when in such a predicament, and that is Warren Zevon.
There was nothing else to do in that dimly lit hotel room that had only a few working channels on the TV, all of them showing something mind-numbingly empty yet glitzy, but listen to the air conditioner hum, and pick out Splendid Isolation on my Martin guitar. The timelessness of turning an actual key in a lock, pushing open a door that led to a room that smelt alarmingly of other people, and watching the ice melt in a thin plastic bucket, while condensation formed on the outside of a can of coke is the essence of Los Angeles. It evaporates in the heat, it is fake and disposable, and all of it tainted with the scent of someone else’s sin. There is so much more you could be doing there in the City, but you end up marking time until the whole thing falls into the ocean and it always does, whether successful or not.
Warren’s muse was not a single real live breathing woman but an amalgamation of the groupies, lovers, whores and actresses that inhabit those streets from the ‘sleepy bedroom towns’ of French Inhaler, to Carmelita‘s Echo Park. Along the way Werewolves drink at the now defunct Trader Vic’s, and his phony friends drink in Hollywood bars with him. Listening to Zevon is like taking a very special tour of the City from one of the ones with an in to the real action that goes on. The real action in Los Angeles is not direly boring Oscar parties, and this gala or opening or that ‘to be seen in’ restaurant. The real action happens in the shadows where the struggle exists, in those Babylon sheets wrapped around a $200 an hour call girl who really should be dangling one graceful arm over an aging actor with a coke problem and what he thinks of as a hundred million reasons to fuck him, not the least being the faint promise of fame and fortune. It is a dirty old town, and Warren does not shy away from the dirt and the fear and the loathing.
Like he sang in the song Hunter S Thompson helped to write, “you are a whole different person when you are scared”, and like Los Angeles, Zevon has the ability to scare the socks off you and make you glad it has done in the very same moment. Zevon was truly ‘accidentally like a martyr’ to the cause of art in song, and he deserves to be lauded for it. Why has the Hall of Fame not been desperate to admit him? Was it because Warren was too much for them to handle, or were they too busy pandering to the populist instead of rewarding and promoting the work of a bona fide genius, so the masses were encouraged to listen to more than one song?
Los Angeles is not interesting when it is successful and riding easy. It is only intriguing when it is drunk and high as hell, scrabbling round for bit parts or recording contracts or scripts or a fair shot at the good stuff. It is only worth shit when it is dying, and no one knew that as well as Warren. He was dying for a lifetime, writing about those cheap suppers, those 20 buck bags of powder that cost everything you got, those actresses with the wasted pretty faces and all those French inhaling lost souls who can turn a pretty trick, but whom L.A. eats up and spits out like grist to its human talent mill. Warren could be harsh on his muse, asking her: “How are you gonna make your way in the world, woman, when you weren’t cut out for working? When your fingers are slender and pale?”
It is a stasis for some while others rush past on a freeway to their futures, both long and short, glamorous and dejected, brilliant or terrifying, but always, always left waiting for the Man to come bringing relief or fame, death or good fortune, just waiting for others to notice how brilliant and intoxicating you really are. The world still hasn’t realized how brilliant Warren Zevon was. He is still waiting in that hotel room, one of us, with the air conditioner humming, waiting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to give him his rightful dues, as the guy who stirs a righteous musical and lyric ‘pot of je ne sais quoi’ with a monkey-paw, and comes with with pure ‘genius’. The most bitter song of his mostly under-rewarded career, Genius.
There’s a a face in every window of the songwriters’ neighborhoodGenius, Warren Zevon
Everybody’s your best friend when you’re doing well, I mean good
The poet who lived next door when you were young and poor
Grew up to be a backstabbing entrepreneur
Warren was not a businessman or an entrepreneur, he was a poet and a musician, and a fantastic pianist. Piano players do not get the cred of guitarists for some strange reason. Piano is a percussive instrument, it doesn’t look iconic, you can’t carry it around and fingers on keys rarely gets the attention that the more visceral fingers on strings gets. Success is a backstabber, and it takes a while for those who make the power plays to catch up to the fact that nothing genius was ever written about clean and neat and tidy little dreams that come true. Like Warren sang, ‘If I could only get my record clean/I’d be a genius.’ Zevon knew he would have to clean up his records, no more songs about little Susie getting murdered, or suspect gambling types needing ‘lawyers, guns and money’ because the proverbial excrement has hit the fast moving blades, if he was going to be endowed with the title ‘genius’ and rewarded adequately for his art with accolades and the money he deserved.
Warren was ‘looking for a woman with low self esteem’ in his dirty life and times, his dark sense of humor shining a light on the darkess of the human condition. The fact that he could sell all this with a strutting rhythm, a cracking melody line and his high energy performances is genius in its purest form.
Warren was not a genius because he made financially lucrative music, in fact his star never quite took off as stratospherically as it should have. Warren was not a genius because he was mainstream, this is a man who managed to alienate Kim Fowley, King of Weird and self proclaimed Mayor of the Sunset Strip. “Be a prick…but be a literate one…” Kim Fowley told him, taking the entire credit for his whole look, style and demeanor, and even his walk. Kim was fond of overstating his influence on others because he himself never made it as much more than a Svengali figure. Richard Edlund, the photographer commented:
I think Kim may have made Warren aware of what an image will do for you, but Warren was pretty capable of coming up with his own idiosyncrasies.Richard Edlund, Ill Sleep When I’m Dead. The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon
Warren doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame because he made music to bop to, and play on the radio, all true color rainbows, and wake me up before you go gos pop fluff …no. Warren deserves his place at the table not for making that which was populist, but for making music that said something about life and death, fear and loathing, and sounded like somewhere special. Warren is the foundation of that Hollywood L.A. scene, with his famous friends and his piano bar vibes and his blacked out gun toting drinking problem.
He was the guts of the City, and one of the purest expressions of its holy and filthy soul, and is now a true Angeleno, watching over the whole mess slide into the Pacific Ocean, just like he predicted it will, whores and drug dealers, destitute sidewalk sleepers, plastique bars and neon lights and all. Warren existed in symbiosis with Los Angeles, with the state of the human condition of the inhabitants of one of the most fake and phony but intriguing and inspiring places on the planet.
Warren wrote songs that sounded like Edward Hopper paintings. You can taste those silver dollar pancakes and the stewed coffee in 50s diners, being served by someone who could be the next Rita Heyward if only someone would see her head shots and give her an audition. Zevon is part of a timeless Los Angeles, which can only be caught in glimpses to the initiated in these remote digital days, which are anathema to the gritty reality of Zevon’s L.A. Like every truly iconic Los Angeleno, he was not born in the City, he was from the Mid West, but the less said about that the better, though he was brought to California as a child.
The twin cities of San Francisco, the more sedate and literary twin to the North, and Los Angeles, its celluloid twin to the south, formed Zevon’s mythos. Warren tried San Francisco, but soon headed out for somewhere a little less staid, and a little more scuzzy. Had Warren decided to become a writer, San Francisco might have suited him, but he thankfully had more musical aspirations. California is like that, you try on this City and that town, and one just clicks. You are either a cool weather, Cafe Vesuvio and green hills kind of soul, or else have a yearning to drink sweeter more extravagant confections in hotter weather and plug into that real American dream material, that soon turns into a nightmare, success or not. Warren found his inspiration there. He was as deft with words and music as Edward Hopper was with oils and a palette knife. The light and the dark floods out of Zevon’s work, his portraits of L.A. life wring all the juice out of their subjects.
Warren Zevon is the best writer and musician, the best artist that currently is not sitting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and considering they have yet to put so many wonderful and important artists into that venerable institution, that is saying something. His work is both rooted in Los Angeles culture and life, and also in the desperation of the human condition, the violence, and the disappointment, the death and the dying and the suffering, yet he presents it with a flourish, he hits us full in the face with a dose of Truth and Reality, but sells it with beauty. There is always beauty in suffering, just as there is more to be learned from the darker side of life, from the more dangerous side of the tracks, than there is to be gleaned from the safely, dully, mundanely, conventionally beautiful.
Warren embraced the darkness and the darkness let him be that light in the way, that refuses to let it take over wholly. “Another a pretty face devastated” he sang in one of his most perfect songs, French Inhaler, but it was in these broken dreams that he found his inspiration. We are all just Desperados Under The Eaves, even if we pay the artists to ‘wake up with shaking hands’ for us, while an ‘angry’ sun illuminates the fact that we are all just trying to ‘find a girl’ or a boy who ‘understands’ us. Zevon knew that ‘except in dreams we are never really free’, and there is only one cure for that: to live in a place where dreams are reality and reality can be held off for extended periods of time. Los Angeles was the cure. Longing was the disease.
In short, those that can should put Zevon in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame already. It is past time to recognize the artist for the genius we all knew he was.
Click the link below to vote for Warren. You know you should!
I Will listen tô him when I got tô LA. I have a huge curiosity ábout the City.
L.A. is a really interesting City, I love it there, but couldn’t live there – it is not really ‘me’. I hope you enjoy visiting!