There’s a track on the last (to date) Dirty Three album called Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone. It’s quickly became one of my favourite pieces of music ever – certainly my favourite by the Dirty Three. It’s got a bit of competition, obviously – but what a lovely thing it is. A showcase for Jim White and gorgeously evocative (to me anyway) as a sound-painting; such a nice album to wander around with, a lovely walking soundtrack and that song in particular, as the piano makes room for the splashes of colour from the drums, this tune – probably a stretch to call it a tune – really does suit its title.
The mind will wander when you’re taking it for a stroll – as is often the way when the correct instrumental music is on – and I got to thinking about Warren Zevon. There’s really no link between him and the Dirty Three that I am aiming for. But with that idea of the Dirty Three’s song-title, Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone, I realised that the musicians we miss are of course still with us in song. And that is the only way that they were with us – in the sense that we “know” these people through their music. And we don’t even know them as “people”, we know them as songwriters, performers, musicians.
If I want to forget that Warren Zevon is gone I have any one of the incredible songs he left us with to take on board. And for me that list would include Hasten Down the Wind, Poor Poor Pitiful Me, Mohammed’s Radio, Lawyers, Guns and Money, Accidentally Like a Martyr, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Werewolves of London, Excitable Boy, Empty-Handed Heart, Play It All Night Long, Reconsider Me, Boom Boom Mancini, Searching for a Heart, Splendid Isolation, Dirty Little Religion, Mr. Bad Example, Life’ll Kill Ya, Porcelain Monkey, Hostage-O, Don’t Let Us Get Sick, For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer and Keep Me in Your Heart.
That’s a partial list.
But if I had to pick just one song I’d make it Empty Hearted Town. Some days that is my favourite song by anyone. Ever.
I just can’t imagine anyone else writing those songs. That’s the thing for me with Warren Zevon. That’s the mark he made. I can imagine a bunch of people wanting to write those sorts of songs, quality-wise, humour-wise. I can certainly understand people wishing that they could write a song as sharp and funny and nasty as the best material that came from the pen and mind of Warren Zevon. But it hasn’t happened.
He had a way with a cover-version too – as this sublime transmogrification of Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life shows. Or when he teamed up with most of R.E.M. to rip through this Prince ditty.
And he never lost the magic. Okay, in the rush to release material toward the end of his life My Ride’s Here didn’t contain his finest work – but The Wind (released just a couple of weeks before his death) had some lovely moments and I consider 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya close enough to a career-high.
I don’t think of Warren Zevon as a musician – though he was certainly very talented. One of my favourite albums is the collection of solo live recordings released in 1993, Learning To Flinch (it even includes a performance from an Auckland gig). And Zevon served his words well with just his own piano and guitar.
But he’s one of just a handful of musicians I think about almost entirely in writing terms; for me he was a songwriter first and foremost. I’d even go so far as to say he was a writer, a satirist – and sentimentalist – who just used the idea of songwriting (and the idea of the song) as his medium. It was a format that suited, or that he made suit his ideas.
We won’t get better than Warren Zevon. He wasn’t ever punk – but he was. He wasn’t quite folk – but he was. And when he slotted into the LA singer/songwriter scene of the 1970s you could almost see the sly grin on each and every one of his songs.
I often forget Warren Zevon is gone. Because I have his albums still to keep me company. And then when I get through one of his records – or a selection of songs, a compilation, even the well-meaning but ultimately half-baked tribute album – I realise that Zevon is gone. He won’t be back. And we won’t see his kind again.