by Kenn Thomas
"Here's the song of sheer and tortion
Here's the bloodbath magazine..."
--Transverse City, Warren Zevon
Ever since word reached Steamshovel Press of Warren
Zevon's impending demise - the singer/songwriter has
inoperable lung cancer -- the office has been
conducting Zevonfest 2002. Zevon's songs play
virtually 24-7 at the Steamshovel office, and I have
brought him along via CD on my recent travels. His
music first came from the wimpy, Dylan-wannabe,
oh-so sensitive Southern Cal songwriter milieu of the
late 70s. Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt
and all such groovy people who made punk rock
inevitable, appear on Zevon's earliest records.
It's difficult to connect him, through that, to
conspiracy themes and to find a reason for a
Steamshovel editorial praising his genius.
He is precisely that, however, a genius of cynicism
and dark humor that demonstrates to my satisfaction
anyway why rock'n'roll is the soundtrack to the global
His 1989 cyberpunk album, Transverse City, strikes up
familiar themes of the desolated cityscape, an
exhausted science and the alienation found in its best
known song, "Splendid Isolation." It also provides a
snapshot of the political picture of the late 80s
that would warp into the ugly reality that dominates
everything today, a tune entitled "Turbulence":
We've been fighting with the mujahadeen
Down In Afghanistan
Can I go back to Vladivostock, man?
But the one classic Warren Zevon tune, one that David
Letterman begged to play on a kind of farewell
appearance on his Late Show, certainly ranks in the
top ten list of war /anti-war songs summarizing
the sad truth, "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner",
about the Congolese/Bantu conflict of the mid 1960s.
Often taken simply as a bizarre ghost story, "Roland"
tells the tale of a mercenary whose head gets blown
away by a CIA operative and who stalks eternity
wreaking vengeance, even after slaying his own killer.
The final verse drives its point home with a catalog
of hotspots of the eternal war, as relevant now as
when the song came out back in 1979, and
slaps at the violence of the pseudo-left:
In Ireland and Lebanon
Palestine and Berkeley
Heard the Burst
Of Roland's Thompson Gun
And bought it!!!
I brought Zevonfest 2002 to a bar situation recently,
cranking up "Roland" and waving a mug around like it
was a German drinking song, even toasting to it and,
with no small measure of cynicism, the coming war with
Iraq. "Time, time, time for another peaceful
war..." Everybody loved the song. A couple of the guys
started talking about what an effective weapon the
Tommy gun makes.
The song "Genius" appears both on Zevon's latest
album, My Ride's Here, and on the new Best Of
compilation, also entitled Genius. Mata Hari and
lady's man Albert Einstein are among the geniuses
catalogued in the song, and when the concept of
conspiracy poetically emerges, it favors the outlaw:
He thinks that he'll be alright but he doesn't know
Like every other unindicted co-conspirator
The poet who lived next door when you were young and
Grew up to be a backstabbing entrepeneur
Everybody needs a place to stand
And a method for their schemes and scams
If I could only get my record clean
I'd be a genius
As he continues work on his last record, Zevon's great
wish to not miss the new James Bond movie has been
granted, although its title, Die Another Day, drips
with the irony of many of his own song titles. On one
of the Zevon web pages, a young fan grasped
inarticulately at his frustration in a letter to
Zevon: "Man, I'm sorry your shit's fucked." I concur.
Godammit. Warren Zevon. Genius.
While he yet lives, and long beyond, Zevonfest plays