May 10th, 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of the hardest, truest, saddest, sickest pop-rock album you’ve never heard. Maybe you listened to it in 1976 if you read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, or saw the Everly Brothers on tour, or loved the Turtles. Otherwise you probably missed Warren Zevon’s self-titled second album. Like Madonna, Metallica, Beyoncé, and Elvis Presley, Warren Zevon announced the arrival of a major recording artist. Or so Zevon hoped for the release of such an ambitious project, the result of a decade’s reading, songwriting, and drinking. On that album, Zevon asks a philosophical question that would motivate his work until his death from mesothelioma in 2003: what does it mean to be a good pessimist?
His provisional answer, that a good pessimist accepts masculinity as apocalyptic, acknowledges both the political crisis of being a man and its inescapability. Despite his influence on a generation of popular musicians (Springsteen, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, REM, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan), and writers like Thompson, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, and Paul Muldoon, there is no Zevon biopic; no retrospective, monograph, or MLA panels; nothing more or less than a rabid cult following. But 40 years after his artistic debut, as global climate change and Donald Trump’s presidential bid loom on the horizon, it is worth returning to Warren Zevon and Warren Zevon for a response to crisis that does not require despair.
Zevon’s lyrical sensibility parallels the thesis of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation: life is endless striving without satisfaction, suffering without relief. In 1986, 10 years after Warren Zevon, Paul Nelson wrote a Rolling Stone cover story on “how Warren Zevon after some heartwarming and colorful mis-adventures licked the Big A [alcoholism] and lived happily ever after.”1 Zevon told Nelson, referring to the period during which he wrote the songs on his second album, “I’m dying from having avoided the pain of living. This is suicide, the same as the gun barrel in the mouth, except that it’s infinitely more cowardly. It’s just the worst death—a chickenshit, shivering, quaking, whiny death.” In 1999, sober 13 years, Zevon wrote in his journal, “finally my headache lifted up, up away—fleetingly I thought about what Schopenhauer had said: happiness is only the cessation of pain. Na-a-ah.”2 Warren Zevon arrives intuitively at Schopenhauer’s negative definition of happiness, adding richness and nuance to what Zevon would later discover as Schopenhauer’s ethics.
For Zevon, pessimism means acknowledging the impossibility of achieving real connection with others or with oneself. “Loneliness and frustration” (as he sings on “The French Inhaler”) are inevitable. In “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” Zevon stares into his empty coffee cup, “thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’ / All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles / I’m gonna drink ‘em up.” “Desperadoes” is white-knuckled flight from dependency and longing for a love that never comes. Zevon’s “still waking up in the mornings with / shaking hands” and “trying to find a girl who understands me / but except in dreams you’re never really free.”
a good pessimist accepts masculinity as apocalyptic
The search for a masculine identity and love culminates in fantasy. “Desperadoes” treats that fantasy, and masculinity in general, as apocalyptic in its brilliant second stanza: “And if California slides into the ocean / like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing / until I pay my bill.” Warren Zevon and “Desperadoes” relocate disaster from planetary geopolitics (which figures more dramatically on later albums like The Envoy, Mutineer, and Transverse City) to a personal and systemic crisis of masculinity. Political attention returns to the body of the suffering, pathetic, and failed man, who is always, nonetheless, still a man. Which is to say that being a man—and likewise, existing in the world, in a state of longing—is an impossible project that cannot be renounced.
The problem of what it means to be a man and why it might matter at all resolves on Warren Zevon into exhaustion. Being exhausted (like being addicted) is an alternative to despair, one that ultimately rejects the longing for a salvation that will either never come or arrive too late. Zevon explores this alternative on the classic track “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” in which exhaustion triggers but cannot resolve a manic episode: “So much to do, there’s plenty on the farm / I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” For Zevon, to be a man is to be addicted, to be hopeless romantic and heartbroken, to fail and to be granted release in exhaustion. The surrender to heroin in “Carmelita” or the imploded desiring of “Hasten Down the Wind” (“She’s so many women / He can’t find the one who was his friend / So he’s hanging on to half her heart / He can’t have the restless part”) doom the endless striving toward and for masculinity; to realize the pointless, trivial nature of striving itself is to drain meaning from all social attachments or solitude. On Warren Zevon, masculinity is simultaneously the source of all value and evacuated, emptied by addiction and frustrated by futile hope.
What would be adolescent sophistry or glibness becomes, in Zevon’s voice (and I cannot replicate or transcribe his strange, persuasive intonations) a rejoinder to the insolvency of our contemporary crises. One cannot help but feel pessimistic about America’s electoral politics—the selection of a Republican candidate who reassures us that his penis is perfectly sized—or the threat of the ocean really sliding into drought-stricken California as the statistics now say it will. Yet Zevon expresses a faith, deeply human, that exhaustion offers a limited but nevertheless valuable freedom. Detachment, by virtue of surrender to a masculine identity that will never be fulfilled, to a world we have ruined, and to a striving that will never end, is not the end of all action. Instead, Zevon’s pessimism opens the possibility of a new ethics that might come after we have struggled against the grain of the universe and already accepted our failure.
- Paul Nelson, “The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon,” Rolling Stone, March 19, 1981.
- Crystal Zevon, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (Harper, 2007), p. 363. ↩