OPINION | ON BOOKS: Warren Zevon’s ‘Philosophy’ full of essays by fans

Book cover art: Warren Zevon and Philosophy
Book cover art: Warren Zevon and Philosophy


I was staying at the Westin

I was playing to a draw

When in walked Charlton Heston

With the Tablets of the Law

He said, "It's still the Greatest Story"

I said, "Man, I'd like to stay

But I'm bound for glory

I'm on my way

My ride's here ... 

-- Warren Zevon, "My Ride's Here"

"Dasein" is the German word for "existence," but philosopher Martin Heidegger made it a term of art. For Heidegger, Dasein (capitalized to distinguish it from the ordinary German word) is essentially the experience of being human, which means living with the knowledge of one's own mortality. To be fully human, we must necessarily confront the temporary nature of our time on Earth and embrace the dilemma of sharing a universe with similarly afflicted beings while being ultimately alone.

A lot of art has been generated by human beings considering Dasein. A long time ago Shakespeare imagined a suicidal Danish prince asking what might be the most important question any human ever asked or answered: To be or not to be?

Poet Dylan Thomas refused to mourn the death of a girl murdered in a World War II air raid ("A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London") because he believed more in the possibilities of living humans than the muttering of trite certainties. To him, an innocent's death as an opportunity to pronounce "a grave truth" -- to signal the profundity of the moral lesson the eulogist delivers -- would be blasphemy, a trivialization of the loss of London's daughter.

Death gives lives their outlines; it's the knowing we'll be going that gives our lives meaning. It's the knowing that we'll be forgotten that makes it all absurd. Along with the human need to court affection, Dasein is our big subject.

Warren Zevon was a pop poet of Dasein, and it's hardly a surprise that his work should appeal to academics, philosophers and critics, that class of listeners who attend to lyrics and credit the creative intelligence that authors them. While I'm not sure we ought to pay the words of rock songs too much mind -- Paul Simon has warned against regarding lyrics as English lit -- writers are by definition people who are interested in words, and who are we to read if not them?

And so I was delighted to receive the fairly compact (about 250-page) book "Warren Zevon and Philosophy: Beyond Reptile Wisdom" the other day. It consists of 17 essays by academic Zevon fans from all over the world, and is edited by John E. MacKinnon, who teaches philosophy at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia. MacKinnon also contributes a useful introductory essay, "Talkin' about the Man," that recounts his history with Zevon as it limns the artist's career (both MacKinnon and I came to Zevon pre-"Werewolves of London" via our fandom of Jackson Browne -- I see you, brother!) and the wonderful essay "Zevon and the Prigs," in which he dives deep into Zevon's concept of "Sentimental Hygiene," which served as title for both his sixth album (first "sober" album) and the lead-off track on that album.

'SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE'

"Sentimental Hygiene" is not a song I've given a whole lot of thought to over the years; the lyrics are not among Zevon's best and the title phrase, while evocative, veers terribly close to Bernie Taupin territory in that while the words sound grand and evocative, it is difficult to describe precisely what they mean. (In the context of the song, "sentimental hygiene" seems to mean moments of peace and quiet, or as the country standard would have it, "A Satisfied Mind.")

MacKinnon acknowledges this, noting Zevon's dismissal of the term as an "interesting phrase" likely to "make a lot of interpretations possible." But artists are not always conscious of the meanings of their work, and Zevon was not especially forthcoming with his take on what his songs might mean.

(This is understandable; any artist who prescribes a particular meaning to their work takes the risk of foreclosing other, potentially richer conclusions their audience might draw. Being literal and specific is kind of a dumb move unless it's done in such a way that the audience automatically rejects the artist's explanation as a red herring or sick joke. Bob Dylan and the Beatles may have started the tradition of artists laughing off "serious" interpretation of their work in the '60s, but Zevon certainly followed their example.)

None of this deters Mac­Kinnon.

'TRUE INSPIRATION'

"I hope to clarify the 'true inspiration' behind Zevon's concept of 'sentimental hygiene,'" he writes. "Much of what I want to argue is that it's not just a title, nor an appealing or evocative combination of words, but a concept of potential significance."

What follows is a genuinely thrilling (to a certain kind of receptive reader) tour of Zevon's politics (he only pretended to be right of Attila the Hun but embraced certain conservative positions; MacKinnon marks him as an à la carte centrist, or what Zevon's friend Billy Bob Thornton describes as a "moderate radical") and philosophy, drawing from Aeschylus -- "whom Zevon described as his favorite author."

Aeschylus, MacKinnon points out, "describes human beings as 'new gods,' whose 'privileges of honor' were assigned 'in full complement' by Prometheus' gift of fire." Before they were given that gift, human being were "'mindless' creatures, acting 'without intelligence,' incapable of mastering their wits."

They had yet to acquire the concept of Dasein.

MacKinnon goes on (so could I), but the upshot is that he commits a fascinating bit of rock criticism in that he says insightful things about the work under consideration that could be true.

Several of the other essays here hold similar interest; in "A Hard Rocking Aphorist," Finnish philosopher Jarkko S. Tuusvuori (correctly and perceptively) locates Zevon's songs as taxonomically different from those of his admirer Bob Dylan, or those of more "convincingly" poetic writers like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell, or storytellers like Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. The title gives away the game, but the discussion is erudite and fascinating.

And James Cartlidge, described in the book as "a post-doctoral researcher in philosophy with a Ph.D. from the Central European University, Vienna," delves deeper into the explicit influence Heidegger may have had on Zevon, noting that the singer-songwriter was familiar with Heidegger's "Being and Time," and had given a copy of that book to J.D. Souther as a birthday present.

One's engagement with -- and enjoyment of -- this book is correlated to one's familiarity with and appreciation of Zevon's music. While in recent years he's been a perennial candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his cause taken up by Facebook groups and social media swashbucklers, in truth were it not for the trio of albums -- 2000's "Life'll Kill Ya," 2002's "My Ride's Here" and 2003's "The Wind" -- he released in the three years before his death at the age of 56, Zevon's place in the culture might be settled.

He might be widely considered a journeyman who made a flash in the '70s, a one-hit wonder, who, if you dig into his catalog, wrote some crafty, hard-boiled songs in the spirit of L.A. noir. He would have been a cult figure. But nobody argues for Michael Franks or Van Dyke Parks or Tonio K. to be in any Hall of Fame.

DIED OUT LOUD

But that late-career sprint, those albums he made while confronting death, are on par with his best work. Remarkably, the first two, despite their preoccupation with mortality, were made before Zevon received his fatal diagnosis. Work on the third, "The Wind," began weeks after Zevon had been diagnosed with the mesothelioma that killed him. Zevon occupies a peculiar place in our culture because of the extent to which he died out loud, in public, with grim, bittersweet and beautiful humor. You could imagine it a good death.

You can call that a brave gesture, and it was -- Zevon turned his time of dying into a farewell tour, bearing up with grace and dignity and owning all the pain he'd ever caused. But it was also good business, and he enjoyed being a star.

That last album got a big budget and famous guest stars. I can't be cynical about it, even though I bet Zevon could. He recorded Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on a whim because he'd been to a Dylan show and Dylan had covered a couple of his songs. He told friends he knew the end was near.

NOT A DEFINITIVE WORK

It's not the definitive book about his work; there's very little in it about the man's musicality, the way he expressed complex and intricate musical ideas in songs that (usually) employed simple chord structures. A classically trained piano prodigy, Zevon brought the hammering authority of a bona fide virtuoso to his three- and four-minute morality plays.

There's not much about what a showman he could be. If you want to know how he lived his life, read the oral history recounted in his ex-wife Crystal Zevon's 2007 book "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." If you want a sense of what it was like to hang around him, see George Gruel's "Lawyers, Guns & Photos," re-issued as an e-book in 2020.

MacKinnon might agree with me that Zevon, with the possible exception of Randy Newman, is the most important singer-songwriter to emerge from Southern California, as important a describer and definer of the Los Angeles ethos as painter Ed Rushca, Charles Bukowski or Raymond Chandler.

This is a welcome addition to the conversation about him and his place in our culture.

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