Will Self’s liner notes for Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon (2002):
What I do is this; I leave the city and go about 50 miles away to a town in the county of Wiltshire called Swindon. This place has a bit of a joke reputation in England; it’s our dinky version of Motown, with a Honda factory and no Berry Gordy – but that’s besides the point. I have a friend there who keeps my alternative identity stashed in the back room above his shop (which sells model trains, cars and aeroplanes to serious hobbyists; but that too is besides the point). It’s a small room with a tired atmosphere, the single bed covered with a quilted nylon spread that hangs down to the floor. From the window you can see a stack of car tyres piled up by a chainlink fence and two small boys poking a dead frog with a length of bamboo.
All the years I’ve been going there and the boys have remained the same. In a freestanding wardrobe there’s a dark suit, a white shirt, a dark tie, dark socks, dark shoes, a tan raincoat and white underwear still in its cellophane wrapping. In the pocket of the suit there’s a cheap leather wallet with £500 in it and a driving license in my own name. I pay my friend generously to keep this stuff there and when, after one of my strange interludes, I return it – broken down and threadbare and soiled – to clean what can be cleaned and replace what has to be replaced. The key thing is that whenever I feel the urge I can quit the city, go there, and reassume my identity. Travelling as myself I can then return to London and seek out Laurie, a Soho transsexual prostitute with whom I’ve been conducting a strange affair these past 20 years or so. Laurie has been pre-op, then op, then post-op, then he/she strikes out once more, back across the hormonal torrent, breasting the flow. He/she has changed gender so many times now that her body has the crinkly desiccated feel which punks’ hair acquired in the late 1970s when they dyed it a different colour every day of the week.
But this is … well, you guessed … besides the point. Our affair has long since ceased to have much of a sexual component, instead it centres almost entirely on the music of the inspired singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. All we do, Laurie and I, is sit cross-legged (increasingly difficult at our age), opposite one another, on the sad, dun, worn carpet or her bedsitting room and listen to the exhaustive collection of Warren Zevon records that we’ve acquired over the years. Occasionally we’ll also fondle items from our collection of Zevonalia (old tour badges and T-shirts, a guitar strap, even a pair of our hero’s trademark über-nerd glasses). Three storeys below the open window of Laurie’s little room the workaday city mutters and smarms and preens itself, but inside all is sonorous and light. Occasionally a john will tap on the door and enquire ‘business?’ In a frail, found-out voice, but she’ll just ignore the interruption.
As Laurie’s often said to me, ‘I only prostitute myself for the money.’ Why Zevon? I hear you ask, and the answer is simple, we met in Lee Ho Fook’s, Laurie and I, in the summer of 1978, when Zevon’s song Werewolves of London was getting airplay, and the serendipity was inescapable. Now when we meet up it’s always in Lee Ho Fook’s where we have the same dim sum dishes (for those of you Zevonians unable or disinclined to visit London I can tell you that there is, in fact, no beef chow mein on the menu), while renewing our intimacy. Here is Laurie and mine’s assessment of the best — to date — of Zevon’s output, which you now hold in your hot/cold/tepid (delete as applicable) little hands. Poor Poor Pitiful Me is very much my choice, a carefree blend of raunchy guitar and bizarrely inappropriate self-pity, complete with Zevon’s trademark sotto, flatly-declarative admission of culpability: ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ French Inhaler is Laurie’s track, evoking perfectly — with its rousing, almost anthemic chorus, and its nicotine-stained verses — the way ingenues are sucked up and then evacuated by the naked city.
Carmelita with its surprisingly whimsical take on heroin addiction belongs, indubitably, to me. I think it’s the prettiest song about heroin addiction I’ve ever heard, and with my own two-decade-long addiction to songs about heroin I should be in a position to know. Hasten Down the Wind is a good old-fashioned love story, and like many whores, Laurie remains surprisingly romantic about relations between the sexes. I personally think the song appeals to her/him because of the line ‘he’s hanging on to half her heart’, which I imagine makes her/him think of one of those transitional moments. Werewolves of London is mine by right. When I first began eating in Lee Ho Fook’s it had a rose pink stucco frontage, overlain with a palimpsest of flyers for gigs at the Marquee Club, dance glasses, and trichological treatments.
Those were in the old days of London’s Soho, before the streets were pedestrianised, and when the district was seedy, dangerous and mundane all at once. Come to think of it’s still exactly the same, except that now Lee Ho Fook’s have capitalised on being immortalised in song and there’s a poster of Zevon in the window, looking as boyish as ever. If you sit inside and look in one of the numerous mirrors, you can see his winsome features staring back at you, as if he were joining you for mixed meat dumpling, glutinous rice in lotus leaves, and hot and sour soup. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a strange eulogy to a 1960s mercenary, is one of the darkest songs I’ve ever heard, and as for the final line I should imagine there are entire interdisciplinary schools of study dedicated to its interpretation. Laurie, who evinces no such scruples, says she merely find it ‘catchy’. Excitable Boy is one of mine, and I think vintage Zevon. It’s a jolly, rollicking slice of up-tempo Gothic insanity about a young fellow who in our enlightened age would surely be on the appropriate medication. Send Lawyers, Guns & Money has the air of an incantation, and begins with the Zevonian equivalent of an existential leap: ‘I went home with the waitress … ’ As for the hook, isn’t this the very crux of the human condition? Play it All Night Long reminds Laurie of his previous lifetime as a dirt farmer south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m inclined to believe him on this point, as he’s the only believer in metempsychosis I’ve ever known who doesn’t claim to have had an illustrious incarnation.
A Certain Girl sees Zevon at his most aw-shucks, gee-whizz, god-darn, five ‘n dimey as a singer and songwriter. It’s his schtick to make like he doesn’t realise the reason people won’t introduce him and this girl as anything but friends, when he knows full well it’s because this girl is a guy. At any rate, that’s what Laurie says. Of course, if this were a Bruce Springsteen song ‘The Boss’ would shout it out loud and prosaically: ‘What’s her name? Sheldon (ahhh….)’. I understand that Zevon and Springsteen once had a competition to see who was the biggest patriot by reciting from memory contentious Supreme Court judgments. Zevon — naturally — won, and got Baja California as his prize. Looking for the Next Best Thing demonstrates once again Zevon’s ability to go where no other contemporary lyricist will dare to venture. ‘Don Quixote had his windmills, Ponce de Léon took his cruise.’ Only Zevon could pen this, let alone sing it with the absolute conviction of a man who has himself attempted to circumnavigate Florida.
Boom-Boom Mancini is one of those songs rooted in the living American tradition of folk music that English people such as Laurie and myself can’t get our heads round. Zevon’s father was a boxer, mine was an academic, Laurie’s worked as a clerk in a utility company. I ask you, who’s likely to write the song? Detox Mansion is mine all mine. When I was in rehab in the mid-80s my counsellor was a waxen-faced young man who told me in great seriousness: ‘They call us brain-washers here, but we have to wash your brain — because it’s dirty.’ Which rather demands the rejoinder: ‘I washed my brain last night and today I can’t do a thing with it.’ Zevon’s take on the whole talking cure nightmare comes complete with withdrawing guitars and primal screams. Not for the fainthearted. Reconsider Me, heralded by ringing bells as our hero attempts the impossible. Splendid Isolation features a harp line that drives us right out into the sticks, or up into the air. Sitting in Lee Ho Fook’s eating little spicy penile sausages (interesting how these transcend all cultural differences), this track, listened to on a personal stereo, effortlessly turns me into the kind of toe-tapping, silently gurning person I hate. Raspberry Beret. You have the artist formerly known as Prince, on the walls of Lee Ho Fook we have the artworks formerly known as prints. Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead. Why does this city seem so minatory? On the face of it the place is airy, spacious and stands like an urban colossus bestriding the continental divide. Yet my memories of it include a vomiting bookseller in my bed at the Brown Palace Hotel and listening to creepy identical twins (one psychically dominating the other), playing four-handed Bach. It seems Zevon feels the same about the place.
Searching for a Heart is a painful ditty for Laurie and me. On the face of it our relationship is doomed to be a mesalliance – and yet it’s persisted longer than any of the others in either of our lives. Perhaps because heart didn’t enter into it, we too can go on searching. Mr Bad Example is a reeling kind of polka. Never before — I feel certain — has so much cupidity been detailed in such a jocose manner. Mutineer is a song based on a non sequitur, and establishes once again that while contiguity is never proof of causality in the physical world, it invariably is in the emotional one. I was in the House when the House Burned Down, Zevon sings and then ‘Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man, working on his universal plan / He was making out like Charley Sheen … ’ A moody invocation by one genius juxtaposing two others … Do In reply to: really mean that? Did you light a candle? Did you put on Kind of Blue? Irony, sophistication and faded allure braid together like the strings on Genius, and this album leaves us with memories as tangible and yet insubstantial as the cigarette still floating in a sunlit room when the smoker has left.
The truth is that Zevon’s art is close to that of a novelist — with every song he writes he constructs a complete and durable imposture, which is why, I suppose, Laurie and I like his work so much. And when it’s all over and the final track has played, she puts away the vinyl and the CDs and the tapes, while I take my leave. I have to walk to the station, take the train, walk from the station, strip off my clothes, pick up my other life where this one left off. If only everything were quite so complicated. Rest assured — so long as you listen to Warren Zevon’s songs, it is.
Will Self, Soho, London, 2002