Everybody’s Restless, And They’ve Got No Place To Go

October 14, 2007

Warren Zevon’s been dead for a few years, but I’m not so sure anyone has told him.

Zevon was hardly an iconic member of the music industry. He remains largely unknown to the public, aside from the lamentable novelty recording “Werewolves of London,” his signature song detailing what appears to be a dapper werewolf hanging about in SoHo. This, clearly, was a story that needed to be written down, accompanied with lyrics and catchy piano samples.

Zevon was somewhat of a prankster musician, writing tales of quirky individuals and offbeat topics; his repertoire included since timeless singles as “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” He stretched his creative masterpieces to deal with such diverse topics as alcoholism (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”); drug addiction (“Charlie’s Medicine”); divorce (“Empty-Handed Heart”); rape (“Excitable Boy”); lawyers, guns, and money (“Lawyers, Guns, and Money”); and, to knock on all the doors at once, suicide, abuse, and sadomasochism (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”). Once presumes had he ended just one day of his life smiling his head would have collapsed out of sheer lack of originality.

A product of the 70’s California music scene, Zevon’s relationship with the Los Angeles music industry was tenuous at best. When his addictions and proclivities prevented him from maintaining a stable work ethic, he withdrew in a sweaty pool of drug-addled resentment, calling the stars of the era friends while simultaneously burying an emberous jealousy he kept bottled up and eventually converted into another chartless song, no doubt about addiction to stimulants, or, perhaps as a creative change of pace, addiction to depressants. (When your high-water benchmark for success is tied to the achievements of Jackson Browne, you know you’ve sunk to a rather low artistic point.) As such, he gained only modest hits from time to time, and much of the 80’s and 90’s was spent on cheap, low-key solo appearances to pay the bills, the bulk of which I doubt involved receiving an actual W-2 at the end of the year.

Zevon was, of course, hailed as a genius within the music industry itself. The artists participating in his albums read like a Who’s Who Of People Winning The Awards You Probably Could Have Won Had You Kept Yourself From Getting Boozed Up All The Time, You Irresponsible Prick. Luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Neil Young, and members of R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and The Grateful Dead all collaborated with Zevon, with mountains and mountains of highly original material that never had a chance of ever making any money or charting on any charts.

Early in life, Zevon apparently stumbled across (one presumes in Michael Hutchence’s billfold) a checklist of incredibly hedonistic things to do to reinforce the image of the wild-man musician. He was a notorious womanizer, consumed more drugs than the rabbit warren at Pfizer, and treated ex-wives and associates with detached disdain. Humorously, he also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, an affliction he shared with (of all people) Billy Bob Thornton, his neighbor. One can imagine how THAT dinner conversation goes:

Zevon: I wash my hands sixteen times a meal, the number of original albums I’ve released.
Thornton: I open and close my mailbox twenty-five times, the number of movie releases I have starred in.
Zevon: I once injected horse tranquilizers in my rectum.
Thornton: I once drank a cocaine milkshake.
Zevon: I once had a threeway with Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown.
Thornton: Angelina Jolie reaches climax when I recite dialogue from Pushing Tin.
Zevon: I am scared of certain shades of fuscia.
Thornton: I’m afraid of antique furniture and silverware.
Zevon: Cool. Coffee?
Thornton: Yes, please. In three cups filled four-fifths of the way. Two and a half sugars, .25 liters milk, 4%.

OCD, of course, was the least of Zevon’s worries. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer, something that almost went undetected. Zevon was scared of doctors, so never went to them, and even after he found out about his cancer refused pretty much all treatment, deciding instead to do his most important creative work to date: filling in for Paul Schaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman. Oh, and recording some material, as well.

Despite his rather irresponsible lifestyle, he managed to keep his wit. Well, sort of. When you’ve spent a large portion of your life swimming in and out of alcohol, powder, and patented prescription drugs bought out of your pharmacist’s trunk, when you get the news that you’re terminal it’s Katy bar the door. With little repercussions, he spent his last years recording material, ingesting pills, and gaining limited respectability in the public’s eye, not necessarily in that order.

Zevon epitomized one of the greatest contradictions of classic rock. Most of his singles dealt in the abyss of his own character flaws, using music to either legitimize or eradicate them. And yet, unusually for the genre, the songs themselves are rather cheery and pleasant to listen to, something that forces you to drive 90 on the highway instead of sitting in the dark corner of the gym feeding off of your own self-pity at the high school dance. One of his final acts was to bless his ex-wife’s project, the recently released biography of himself, dictating to her that it show all sides of him, positive and negative, a rather tall order to give an ex-wife. Zevon, however, found hopeless escape in his music, as do we.

Road to the Wodehouse

July 11, 2007

A new collection of stories by P.G. Wodehouse has recently been released, reigniting interest in one of the most underapprecitated writers of the 20th century, as measured in references to newts, aunts, and antique cow-creamers.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of those peculiar British institutions, much like queuing and standing six hours hovering over a kitchen sink scraping a carrot and calling it a soap opera. Most people may not realize the impact that Wodehouse has on American popular culture, mostly in the form of Jeeves, the impenetrable and iconoclastic butler.

In the Wodehouse stories, Jeeves is in the employ of the much lesser-known Bertram Wooster, an elite ne’er do well who goes about his daily routine pissing the afternoons away at social clubs with other like-minded fortunate sons and getting invited to stay at country estates where the chance of getting engaged to a member of the opposite sex that he dislikes with an intensity normally reserved for Klan members and meter maids is approximately 100%.

Personally, I find it appalling that “Wooster” hasn’t entered the vernacular with as much integration as “Jeeves” has. I wouldn’t mind there being a proper noun appropriated for the representation of a born-to-comfort, out-of-touch, trust-fund busybody who assumes that they know what is best despite never having to deal with any aspect of the real world whatsoever. The only phrase in currency that approximates this idea is “presidential nominee for a major political party.”

Technically, as all proper Wodehousians know, Jeeves really isn’t a butler at all. He’s a valet, a distinction that is nearly as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is paid attention to about as much as the terror warning alert system. Jeeves is a butler, by jove, and there’s not much in the American mind that’s going to change that. (For the record, a valet, or gentleman’s gentleman, took care of their employer’s personal attire, such as laying out clothes and drawing baths and the like. A butler is the head of the domestic help. Butler is Dad, valet is your little brother you made your personal slave.)

The plots were clever, witty, and—let’s face it—incredibly redundant. As anyone who has watched Keeping Up Appearances or the Liberal Democrats knows, the British are very fond of using the exact same situations over and over and over again, apparently finding newfound humor in excrementally minute differences in execution. The standard Jeeves & Wooster plot would be something like the following:

1) Wooster purchases some ridiculous item, such as a lavender safari hat, that he is convinced is the height of fashion;
2) Jeeves bitches about it
3) An aunt comes to visit and deliver an ultimatum, usually in the form of:
a. Becoming engaged to a female;
b. Breaking up an engagement
c. Committing some nefarious crime, such as pilfering a pinch of table salt, for some incredibly insufferable reason
4) Wooster screws the pooch on the deal
5) Jeeves fixes it
6) At some point everybody ends up at a country estate
7) Wooster agrees to destroy the item mentioned in the first page of the book that was never mentioned again up to this point.

(Sorry about the outline. Writing about Jeeves and his overcompensating orderliness to rectify the Katrina that is Wooster’s daily routine, one can hardly be helped slanting passionately towards the formal.)

While Wodehouse was a voluminous writer—he has written over ninety books, including eighteen Jeeves & Wooster novels to his name, though one would kind of be hard pressed to claim that there were eighteen different stories—other forms of media bearing the Jeeves & Wooster brand have also been perpetuated. In the early nineties, a well-regarded series was created starring Hugh Laurie (known to us Americans as Dr. Gregory House) as Wooster and Stephen Fry (known to us Americans as “Stock homosexual British guy” in every major motion picture that calls for such a character) as Jeeves. The episodes are largely faithful to the spirit to the books, in characterization, setting, and dialogue. And yet it’s very hard to compare the two; Wodehouse’s ability to stretch even the most minute detail into eight pages of decidedly purple prose just can’t be matched by a youthful Wooster you expect to yell “Is Cameron on the rag again?” at any given moment.

In certain senses, Wodehouse himself could easily have been mistaken for Wooster. While he lived a reasonably gentle life, he was decidedly detached from the real world. I mean, very, very, alarmingly detached. As in during World War II he chose to stay in France because he didn’t realize that this war might, in fact, turn into somewhat of a big deal. And once captured by the Nazis, he was “persuaded” to record some witty bantering about the war, which pretty much boiled down to “Nazis, British, what’s the difference? We’re all just men,” a sentiment that understandably went over just about as well as the Blitz did. (George Orwell, of all people, defended Wodehouse, the defense pretty much boiling down to “Rich guys don’t know any better.” The Home Office officially declared him “naïve and foolish but not traitorous.” With friends like these, and all that.)

Stained as a collaborator, he permanently moved to New York, where the disappearance of policeman’s hats reached an all-time high. The correlation was impeachable. As Jeeves may say, in that amazingly understated manner only Jeeves could do, If you say so, sir.

Road to the Winehouse

May 6, 2007

We don’t do too many personal endorsements here at American Lament. I have a rather personal belief that there is a certain level of subjectivity that affronts all forms of media entertainment, and making such judgments often will elicit equal parts praise and condemnation, and my self-esteem just can’t handle that 50/50 split. But there’s one thing that I’m rather certain about, and that’s the fact that if listening to Amy Winehouse doesn’t cause you to wet your pants with any of the three eligible methods, you are clinically a jackass.

It’s not that Amy Winehouse is a household name in the states. And it’s a bit surprising that I’ve fallen madly and deeply in love with her, since her demographics and genre normally don’t fit into my tastes. As a general rule, anything written, recorded, or produced after approximately 1975 has to meet the increasingly demanding threshold of a J-curve of rockability. And unless a female artist 1) makes me cry, 2) is unafraid of massive displays of cleavage, or, preferably, 3) both, it’s highly doubtful I’m all that interested. And once instruments that require you blow into them to make the appropriate noise required in the song are introduced, there’d better be a color guard unit or a Mexican chain restaurant commercial handy, else I’m gonna be pissed.

And yet Amy Winehouse stands tall and firm atop the crushed skulls of those she has defeated for my heart. Winehouse would hardly fit into my CD collection, which a gay observer once described as “really gay.” I got my first exhilarating taste of Winehouse whilst riding in the car with one of my friends, when the intimately replayable “Rehab” came on. I was transfixed by the throaty vocals, the almost deceptively childish lyrics, and the aggressively forceful meter (or, perhaps, metre).

It was a rather odd thing for me to perk my ears up at. I mean, the songs I usually enjoy listening to involve the inability to receive satisfaction in a sufficient manner or how you cannot change those birds that have had that glorious opportunity to be free. And here it is, emitting through the airwaves, a rather blatant harkening to the days of Phil-Spector-produced manufactured oldies, before he started killing B-movie actresses and using microwaved crude oil as hair gel.

It wasn’t long until I learned a little bit more about her biography. As is the wont for pretty much every rock star ever in the entire course of all of history, she has had repeated issues with drugs and alcohol, often showing up at awards shows and bat mitzvahs for rich professionals either lit up or thumbing rides on passing kites. While she claims that she’s lost weight by hitting the gym more frequently as an alternative to smoking pot (if only!), many assume that repeated offhand comments by catty columnists about her weight tapped into some sort of long-suppressed anorexic and/or bulimic impulse. And she has occasionally reacted violently in embarrassingly public forums, such as heckling Bono and suckerpunching grateful fans. In one fell swoop, then, she has tapped into the angst of elderly African-American blues artists, young blonde starlets, and Madonna ex-husbands all at once.

The most important thing to remember is that Winehouse is attempting to infuse a little bit of originality into the modern music scene. Granted, she’s just kind of ripping off every single girl band from the years 1962-1965, but what form of music isn’t an unashamed plagiarism of style of a form of music that became popular when whites performed it about ten years after blacks perfected it? And the music today, it’s probably yet another boy band or sluttily dressed preteens belting out studio-corrected vaguely defined prevarications about “being together forever” or “living life to the fullest” and spelling words in their song titles like they’re sending a telegram that costs by the syllable. The jazz-inspired songs of Winehouse are a fusion of many of these things, but with the attitude of not wanting to sound like everybody else. While this hasn’t necessarily translated into commercial success, of course—and, let’s face it, it never does—it’s caught the critics’ eyes and has made her a remarkably prescient music entity in the Commonwealth.

Still, one can only hope that this errant strain of creativity will continue to produce ever-increasing results. Listening to one of Amy Winehouse’s full albums, alas, makes one wonder if her drum machine is rented by the bridge, and the smooth, tender vocals make you eventually believe that significantly more depressants might actually make her sound much brighter. One suspects that if things don’t become a bit more diverse by the third album, she’ll be relegated to coffee shop muzak and a coaching slot on American Idol 14. Still, rumor has it she’s one of the select few to be chosen to compose a James Bond title track, so she’ll always have that. At least in the context of a second-rate moderately successful artist with more exposure on British late-night tabloid shows than on the actual live radio or album sales, if you’re a Jewish British faux-little-l-lesbian jazz artist, you can make it big in this world.