Zevon Never Dies: ‘Accidentally Like a Martyr’ Epitomizes That Wonderful Feeling of Being a Zevon Fan

James Campion's touching, personal study of Warren Zevon's music serves as a reminder of the lasting intimacy of Zevon's songwriting.

Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon
James Campion
Backbeat Books
Jun 2018

Everybody needs a place to stand
And a method for their schemes and scams
If only I could get my record clean
I’d be a genius.
—Warren Zevon, “Genius” (from My Ride’s Here, 2002)

To write about Warren Zevon after his 2003 death, it seems, is to do the work of hagiography. Nearly every sentence written about Zevon since his fatal case of mesothelioma took him from the world drips with a sense of injustice, a sense that he never got his proper due. The primary Zevon Facebook fan community sports the imperative title, “Induct Warren Zevon Into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame”. The first and so far only academic volume on Zevon’s music, George Plasketes’ Desperado of Los Angeles (which I reviewed for PopMatters), routinely augments its excellent close readings of Zevon’s lyrics with the exuberant language of fandom, which Plasketes admits was inevitable, given his passion for Zevon’s work. When I wrote about Zevon’s 1978 breakthrough LP Excitable Boy earlier this year for its 40th anniversary, one commenter mused, “I’ve always wondered why Zevon never received the recognition he deserved.”

If one rewinds the clock to 2003-2004, barely over a decade ago, she could make the argument that Zevon’s time for appreciation was realized. Zevon’s all-too-quick departure from earth, which in a morbid twist of humor befitting Zevon came only one year after he released a record called My Ride’s Here, loosed a tide of critical and popular adoration, culminating in a touching, star-studded posthumous tribute at the 2004 Grammys, during which the late Zevon was awarded the Best Contemporary Folk Album (for The Wind) and Best Rock Vocal Performance, Group or Duo (from the Bruce Springsteen duet “Disorder in the House” from the same album).

Looking back on the treatment Zevon received in his final year, one would be hard-pressed to say that people didn’t show up to give him the respect his songwriting commanded. Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, and Billy Bob Thornton appear on The Wind, and a tribute album called Enjoy Every Sandwich – a personal dictum of Zevon’s – featured performances by Adam Sandler, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan. (The latter’s rendition of Mutineer‘s title track, garbled as it is, would have flattered Zevon, given he credited Dylan for “inventing his job”.) For a singer/songwriter many (incorrectly) view as a one-hit wonder, Zevon received a farewell that any musician would envy. It wasn’t just that folks were happy that, now dead, he could finally sleep, as he promised on his 1976 debut. He may not have attained a Dylanesque stature in the annals of pop music, but the outpouring of love in his final months confirmed what was long known but infrequently acknowledged: there truly was no songwriter like him in the 20th century.

Like Plasketes not long before him, music journalist James Campion wants the world to know of Zevon’s brilliance, and is not content for what has been said of the man to simply suffice as his cultural obituary ad infinitum. His new book, Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon, opens with this framing idea:

There is a special corner of our tickled soul that gets Warren Zevon that is not available to other artists. For nearly three decades, Zevon managed to fit a great deal into that corner. Until now, I am not sure anyone has dared divulge its contents.

I now humbly take on the challenge.

Welcome to Zevon Corner.

Of course, some have dared to put their understanding of what Zevon represents in print and the web, albeit without the specific phrasing of “Zevon corner”. Plasketes’ book, Campion acknowledges in the closing pages of Accidentally Like a Martyr, expresses much of the same deep personal fe≠eling that Campion bares here. But unlike Plasketes and other critics before him, Campion eschews a systematic approach, like the one used in the core analysis section of Desperado of Los Angeles. Campion touches on a great deal of the Zevon songbook, but he has no aspirations to systematically catalogue its contents, ground Plasketes covered just two years ago. Instead, Campion culls specific selections from Zevon’s discography, zeroing in on particular songs and records to illustrate his own understanding of Zevon corner, that macabre and hilarious world.

In further explaining the “Zevon Corner” framework, Campion writes, “I have randomly chosen ten songs and three albums that I believe provide listeners insight into what best exemplify Zevon’s life and art. I did not seek direction or curry favor in regard to these selections. I merely dove into the heart of the matter through the music that best reflects it.” This brief but crucial passage captures the difficulty that comes in trying to distill one’s relationship with Zevon’s back catalogue, which spans 13 solo records and a host of other musical contributions. Accidentally Like a Martyr, structured mostly chronologically although in an essayistic, piece-by-piece fashion, is at once comprised of “randomly chosen” examples of Zevon’s music that also “best exemplify” what represents him as an artist. It becomes evident not long into Accidentally Like a Martyr that these selections feel far from random. As written in this volume, these songs and albums look like fixtures of Campion’s life, rather than a grab-bag, best-of collection. Perhaps they were chosen randomly at first, but in writing they become an episodic yet coherent account of Zevon’s effects on Campion, both as a person and a writer.

The experience of writing Accidentally Like a Martyr must have been a true privilege for Campion. Not only was he able to publish a book on someone he considers a major personal and musical influence, but Campion also earned access to personal interviews with many of Zevon’s living family members, including his son Jordan, his ex-wife Crystal and their daughter Ariel. With Accidentally Like a Martyr Campion tells his story with the benefit of testimony from those who actually knew Zevon. Campion’s readings of Zevon’s work feel a lot less speculative when he can turn to the deep trove of interview access he had in writing this book, which included not only Zevon’s family but also many of his frequent collaborators, including Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, and Paul Muldoon, among several others.

Those familiar with Zevon’s backstory, especially those who have thumbed through the meticulously catalogued pages of the Crystal Zevon-compiled oral biography of her late ex-husband, 2007’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, will recognize many if not most of the personal stories Campion folds into his interpretations of Zevon’s music. The common themes of Zevon’s personal life recur, signaled by the book’s subtitle The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon: the alcoholism, the lashing out, and the troubled childhood all factor in to Campion’s narrative. Yet the purpose of Accidentally Like a Martyr is not to tell Zevon’s story; though he’s still a cult artist, his biography is well established by now. Campion gives the audience something deeper and richer than a standard biographical narrative or a thematically organized string of interpretive readings, even as both of those elements do play a role here. Instead, Campion tells the story of his experience with Zevon, bolstered by a sharp critical eye and an obvious expertise of Zevon’s music.

From his descriptions of the mid-to-late ’70s Los Angeles music scene (“an ego-mad, cocaine-fueled cesspool of backstabbing millionaire freaks”), to LA geography (he describes Gower avenue as a road which “reinvent[s] itself over the miles before ignominiously expiring”), to his insightful analysis of Zevon’s lyrics (such as the echoes of his childhood in his final album The Wind), Campion exhibits an ardoration not just for Zevon the musician, who put out some really good albums. By continually weaving in personal detail about Zevon’s life and contextual information about the various social and musical scenes in which Zevon participated, Accidentally Like a Martyr paints a portrait of the art as a complete reflection of the man. The first direct quotation of Zevon that Campion incorporates in the text is wisely chosen: “In the songwriting field, there isn’t a section for fiction and a section for nonfiction; they’re all mixed together.” We come to see, for example, that the seemingly slight orchestral interludes in the much-slept on 1980 record, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, serve not merely an interstitial purpose on the record, but rather showcase Zevon’s interests in classical music and composition, which began in his early years as a teen piano player but was set aside as he became enthralled by rock music. In big-picture readings like these and in small asides, as when he describes Zevon as a “jester pessimist”, Campion writes with a familiarity that could easily lead one to think he and Zevon were close friends.

In some instances, Accidentally Like a Martyr‘s analysis leans too heavily on the autobiographical elements, resulting in a perspective that makes it appear as if Zevon’s life entirely determined his music. An otherwise marvelous chapter on the unreleased tune “Studebaker” throws out several interpretations as to the potential meaning of the eponymous vehicle, most of them centered on the time Zevon spent growing up in the hot, polluted environs of Fresno, California. (Since I grew up two hours south in the equally hot and polluted Bakersfield, I use those adjectives with pointed yet familiar, even familial, purpose.) Zevon’s parentage is fascinating, and explains why he ended up the curious mix of personalities that he was.

Born of a Russian Jewish gangster and a Mormon-raised mother, Zevon experienced a tempestuous adolescence and adulthood, dealing with multiple separations of his parents and domestic abuse on the part of his father, who once threw a knife at Zevon’s mother’s head, missing only by an inch. The downtrodden protagonist of “Studebaker”, whose car makes a sound that “cracks [his] heart in half” and makes him remember he only has “a half a half pint of vodka left”. For Campion, the repeated refrain in the chorus — “My studebaker keeps on breakin’ down again” — highlights a “cyclical curse, a branding from childhood that will be played out again and again for Zevon”, who seeks to escape the rough patches of his past but ultimately cannot.

When juxtaposed with the details of Zevon’s personal life, Campion’s reading certainly holds up, and Zevon never made any bones about trying to erect a firewall between his music and his life. Yet — and perhaps this is just my own singular experience with Zevon’s music — “Studebaker” also beautifully and tragically captures life in California’s Central Valley in general, all the dusty roads and ramshackle buildings that don’t get depicted in popular imaginings of California. “Studebaker” is a snapshot of the part of California I know and love, the same part of California that would factor into Zevon’s life as well: long highways laid across cracked desert ground, vast wide skies cloaked in smog, aqueducts thinning out by the year, half a half of what they used to be.

But of course, I, like Campion, am just one person, and my experience with Zevon’s art is shaped by my own life circumstances. I can’t say that I would emphasize the same stuff in Zevon’s songwriting as Campion does, but I do know that as I flipped through the pages of Accidentally Like a Martyr, I was reading the words of someone whose investment in Zevon’s music feels as deep as mine. (Though Campion obviously gets the better of me here: he’s got a book to prove it.) Even as I scanned over personal stories and quotations of Zevon’s that I encountered in other texts before, placed in the context of this book Campion reminds me, and any true appreciator of Zevon’s music, that you can still come back to the artists you love and they can feel new to you all over again. Those who want the juicy details of Zevon’s life in its broadest sweep, Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead should be the first place to go. Anyone wanting a thorough, academically-inclined overview of Zevon’s music and its cultural contexts would benefit from Plasketes’ Desperado of Los Angeles. But for those who are even a little initiated, Accidentally Like a Martyr epitomizes that wonderful feeling of being a Zevon fan.

RATING 8 / 10