Quick, name a Warren Zevon song.
Okay, now pick one OTHER than “Werewolves of London”. A-ha.
Most people can’t, and that’s tragic. Warren Zevon was a brilliant songwriter that had a talent for looking at America from oblique angles and capturing his observations in music. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Excitable Boy”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, “Detox Mansion”, “Boom Boom Mancini”, “Mr. Bad Example”, “Carmelita”, “Frank and Jesse James”, “The French Inhaler”, “Searching For A Heart”, “Mutineer”, “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down”. And plenty more. An embarassment of riches, but “Werewolves” is the only song of his that I’ve ever heard on terrestrial radio. Satellite radio does slightly better, but Zevon still deserves way more airplay than he gets. The songs are sarcastic, unflinching, and uniformly great.
My favourite Warren Zevon song, and the one that fits this category, is “Splendid Isolation”, from 1989’s Transverse City album. This piano-driven song has a great melody, and a Neil Young-styled harmonica ties the whole thing together. It’s a toe-tapper, which creates quite a juxtaposition to the subject matter.
The first few times I heard this song, it sounded like the story of a frustrated guy who is fed up with modern society and just wants to head for the hills, metaphorical or otherwise. Go off and live in a boarded-up shack in the desert, totally off the grid, in splendid isolation from the rest of society. It doesn’t even have to be out in the sticks – a walled-off compound in the middle of a city would also work just fine. So long as there’s no need to interact with anyone, no forced conversations, just time to be alone.
I want to live alone in the desert
I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe
I want to live on the Upper East Side
And never go down in the street
I don’t need no one
Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the World of Self
I don’t need no one
Don’t want to wake up with no one beside me
Don’t want to take up with nobody new
Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first
Don’t want nothing to do with you
But then I started hearing the double negatives in the lyrics. On one level, it sounds like Zevon is pushing everyone away. But he’s saying “I don’t need no one” and “Don’t want to wake up with no one beside me”. After reading the Warren Zevon biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” (which is excellent, by the way), the double meaning made a lot more sense to me. Zevon was notoriously reluctant to re-marry after his first marriage fell apart. However, reading between the lines in his biography, it sounds like he remained something of a serial monogamist for much of his life. As much as the protagonist wants to push away society and live as a hermit, he also needs someone on the inside to share his isolation.
To my ears, a song that’s ostensibly about angrily retreating from the insanity of modern life is really also a lament for a lover to join him in his fortress of solitude. That’s a pretty cool idea for a song.