On Warren Zevon, forgiveness, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

His hair was perfect.

On Warren Zevon, forgiveness, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I have the cover story in the current issue of Maggot Brain, a publication of Third Man Books that is not available online in any way, shape or form. I talked to Lynn Melnick about her Dolly Parton memoir, and wrote about survival and music and fandom and how it all connects together. You can subscribe to Maggot Brain or buy single copies from the TMR website, and can also find it at indie bookstores (and even at Barnes & Noble!) as well as record shops.

I took an Ikea bag and a half of books to the used bookstore yesterday1, and used the credit on a handful of music books2. I’m always buying music books, in some cases re-buying books I once owned and got rid of. Whenever younger writers ask me for advice, one of my big ones is: buy music books. It is rare I am sorry that I kept a music book, usually the opposite. When someone dies in the middle of the night and you need a piece of information that is not online and the libraries are closed and it’s not digital, you will be very glad you have that library of reference material. And yes I say this as someone who now has an entire room for her library, but that’s because I carted these goddamned things across an ocean and a continent multiple times. 

One of the books that left the house in yesterday’s trip was the Warren Zevon biography, which I only picked up towards the end of last year. It was just one of those books on my ongoing list of music books I needed to read. But there was a conversation on Twitter six months ago where a bunch of musicians were talking about what a great rock and roll book it was, so I finally bought a copy. With the discussion around his Rock Hall nomination it seemed like the right time. I sold it in this recent batch because I couldn’t finish it, because I was one-third of the way through the book and the accounts of his physical abuse of his wife were so awful I couldn’t keep reading it.

Please note that I am not judging you if you enjoyed the book or didn’t have trouble reading it. I couldn’t get through it, and a long time ago my therapist asked me why I forced myself to read or watch things that frightened me or upset me, and noted that being upset by an episode of Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds was not some kind of personal failure on my part, that those shows were deliberately disturbing. It wasn’t an area of personal growth that necessarily required me to work to rectify it, like, say, an irrational fear of crossing bridges or a phase of terror over driving or being a passenger in New York City traffic. It was quite liberating to give myself permission to not have to be traumatized by what was supposed to be entertainment.

But I had to get the Zevon book out of the house. It couldn’t just sit in on a shelf in the library in case I needed it some day, like, say, the Keith Richards autobiography where I swear he uses the term “bitches” to refer to women six times a page. I don’t think Keith Richards is a terrible human being but I also wish he didn’t do that. It turned what should have been an enjoyable read into an assignment. It was funny how none of the reviews of the Richards book mentioned that3. The Zevon book was too upsetting to keep, I would always remember it was there, and I was confident in other references available to me in the event there was an opportunity for me to write about his music. I understand the book was written by his ex-wife. I understand he asked her to write it (btw, that’s also pretty revolting, and she didn’t need permission). 

I was a teenager when Zevon was at his prime; I heard him on WNEW all the time, I read the music magazine stories, I owned Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and Stand In The Fire. I liked his lyrics and his music but it never connected with me as deeply as others did. I still admired his talent and was glad I got to see him on the Sentimental Hygiene tour. I can quote Zevon, and reference him beyond “Werewolves of London”. I remember walking through London’s Chinatown on my first visit in the early 80s and coming to a screeching halt when I saw the sign for Lee Ho Fook’s4. It’s so dumb I feel like I have to present these credentials in order to have this discussion, but here we are.

I don’t know that I have a strong opinion, per se, on his Rock Hall nomination. I feel like he belongs in the Hall and it feels like he was definitely ignored for a while, and kind of agree with Billy Joel that musicians whose instrument is the piano got overlooked for being not rock and roll enough. But every year that deeply formative and structural influences like the MC5 and the New York Dolls are not in the Hall makes it really hard for me to take it seriously. I know that these should not be the lines drawn in the sand, compared to people like Elizabeth Cotton and Rosetta Tharpe not being early inductees, but rock and roll is the music of youth and those two bands were foundational for me so it is where I always go in these particular moments.

I do find it interesting, though, that Zevon’s entire history of abuse is being elided in all of the tributes and other serious think-pieces that are being published this year, in what was obviously a deliberate and active effort to elevate his work and get him nominated. It isn’t mentioned in the David Letterman piece (why are we letting David Letterman become an arbiter of musical history? There are so many other people who know their shit!) or this LA Times piece. This Uproxx “Beginner’s Guide” mentions it once, in passing. I don’t have an issue with this kind of orchestration for him or anyone trying to get a bandmate or a family member into the Hall. I see it, I salute it, I tip my metaphorical cap. I wish other artists had this kind of organized groundswell. But I also wish any one of these people had bothered to grapple with these particular facts. How long do we have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I don’t think we’ve done it enough to be asking that question.

I also find it interesting whose sins get forgiven and whose do not. I find it interesting what artists scream about cancel culture only to be back on the road a few years later. Do I think that we should deny Rock Hall admission to men who beat their wives or girlfriends or lovers? “Trust the art, not the artist” was said by D.H. Lawrence, who was born in 1885. I don’t know that we need to adhere to a statement that has been over-used, misinterpreted, and applied willy-nilly every time someone points out that a particular artist is doing bad things. No one was yelling that when the Chicks got run out of the industry. It only seems to be applicable to men, and at times it feels like men are waving the TRUST THE ART flag so vigorously because they have their own skeletons in the closet to worry about and want to make sure they’ve got an out when the time comes.

But, truly, what does a woman’s contribution to the canon -- to the universe, even -- need to be before she’ll be forgiven for anything she does? What accomplishments are we considering, and who gets to decide? Because it sure seems like ‘we” have decided that there is literally no offense a man can (allegedly) commit if “we” judge his art to be important enough. No one asks “us” what we think, or how we feel about these terrible people being given carte blanche. No one stops to think that maybe if we weren’t working overtime and extra shifts to defend bad things done by bad people we might have found someone even more talented. No one stops to think of the cascading impact of outsiders watching what doesn’t happen to the (alleged) offenders and what that scenario communicates to the world at large, that it tells other bad people that they will likely get away with it and be allowed to continue to both work and trespass, and it tells people who might want to create art in that particular orbit that they have to be careful. Or that no one will believe them or ultimately decide that it’s not worth the risk, so the words stay unwritten or the music remains unheard or the pictures are never painted.

Who decides?

  1. Detroit is home to a massive used bookstore, John R. King Books, but I took my books to a smaller store just over the city limits on 9 Mile Road. The Library in Ferndale is always buying, you don’t need an appointment, and if you want to take the proceeds in trade, you get double the cash offer. 

  2. The paperback version of the Beatles Anthology, the Liz Phair 33 ⅓, and The Rose and the Briar: Love and Liberty in the American Ballad

  3. But I’m not sure women are allowed to write about the Rolling Stones and they’re definitely not taken seriously when they do.I’m still annoyed at the dude who stood next to me on the front rail when I saw the Stones here in Detroit and exclaimed, “You’re taking *notes*???!” when he saw my tiny notebook. Sir, Mick Jagger is literally six feet away from us and you’re looking at what *I’m* doing? What is wrong with this picture?

  4. It is really too bad that I never screenshot the Yelp reviews for that place when it was still around. Every single person outdid themselves with clever references.