‘Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles’ and the Balance of Fandom and Criticism

George Plasketes has to balance fan appreciation and critical detachment here. He succeeds in providing a deep compendium of all things Zevon.

If there’s a single American songwriter who has openly invited himself to academic study, it’s the late Warren Zevon. He knew Robert Craft and Igor Stravinsky as a young musician. Even when he went on to write rock records, he regularly cited Bela Bartok as a key influence. Among his friends and admirers are literary types like Hunter S. Thompson and Paul Muldoon. (Both of those men would go on to write songs with Zevon.)

During interviews he proved a hyper-articulate subject, incorporating strange turns of phrase and oddball references like “a baboon from Newcastle trying to get a job in a toothpaste commercial” (189). In an interview with radio host Jody Denberg, Zevon gave this incredible reply when asked if he worried about his core audience dropping off after poor sales for his ’90s studio records: “I don’t think it’s ever been a case of there being a big audience that stopped taking a ride with me so much as a big audience that accidentally stepped on a Mr. Toad’s ride on the way to the funhouse, on the way to the Michael Jackson expo” (167).

Literate yet not overbearingly so, Zevon is a scholar’s songwriter, a book nerd’s rock musician. Some academic essays about Zevon have cropped up over the years, including Tara Christie Kinsey’s “Rave on John Donne: Paul Muldoon and Warren Zevon” and Michael Flood’s “Lord Byron’s Luggage: Warren Zevon and the Redefinition of Literature Rock”. The latter of the two expressly calls for a framing of Zevon as a kind of literary songwriter, a claim that has long been made about him.

Yet the only book-length treatment of Zevon is his oral biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead which he commissioned his ex-wife Crystal Zevon to write as he approached his death. That book is, to use Zevon’s own phrasing, an account of his “dirty life and times” in the most unflinching manner possible; in reading that book, it’s easy to get the impression that all of Zevon’s soul is bared in those tormented pages. Warren suffered from alcoholism for extended bouts of his early career, and Crystal (per her departed ex-husband’s wishes) lets the interviewees of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead say what needs to be said. The result is one of the best rock biographies in recent memory, a compelling read for Zevon diehards and newbies alike.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a fine resource, but it’s surprising that it has taken until 2016 for there to be a book-length academic study of Zevon, given his widely known literary proclivities. Auburn professor George Plasketes inserts himself into this critical gap with Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles, a 200-page volume devoted to the master of song noir. (That term is owed to Zevon’s friend and collaborator Jackson Browne, who to this day plays Zevon’s songs at his shows.) Desperado of Los Angeles is structured chronologically, beginning with Zevon’s early years and near-flush with classical composition, and ending with what Plasketes calls Zevon’s “deteriorata”, his final three albums prior to his death from mesothelioma in 2003.

Plasketes, who quotes liberally from I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, knows that the definitive biographical account of Zevon has already been written. As a consequence of that fact, Plasketes centers his academic narrative not on Zevon’s major life events but rather his discography. Each chapter features an extensive track-by-track analysis of Zevon’s recorded output. Zevon released 12 studio albums — 13 if you count 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive, an album that Zevon distanced himself from — which is more than enough for Plasketes to use in crafting his academic narrative of Zevon.

The track-by-track approach is not formulaic or rote in Desperado of Los Angeles; Plasketes connects individual album cuts with biographical information, cultural allusions, and references to other artists who have covered a particular Zevon tune. By taking Zevon’s music chronologically, pulling each record apart down to its smallest constitutive parts, Plasketes crafts a highly readable account of Zevon’s life that is also chock full of information. Even the tangential factoids, such as a lengthy aside about how the rise of MTV led to the reinforcement of the music industry, feel relevant and closely tied to Zevon’s under-the-radar career.

Desperado of Los Angeles is an undeniably thorough account of Zevon, but Plasketes’ approach is not purely academic. The final paragraph of the book’s prologue cites a quotation from Steve Earle: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Plasketes then applies Earle’s sentiment to his view of Zevon, calling Desperado of Los Angeles his “coffee table case for Warren Zevon as a significant and singular songwriter; one of the brilliant and best in the world” (xliv). A less honest critic would have omitted that paragraph entirely, but Plasketes wisely places it at the start of his volume.

Some might be quick to cry “fanboy”, an easy label that doesn’t fully fit Plasketes’ extensive research and documentation, but in actuality Plasketes is putting his cards on the table: he is both an academic and a fan of Warren Zevon. Being forthright about the latter is preferable to a more pedantic alternative, such as coming up with uncomfortably forced detached judgments that frame personal opinions as objective academic facts.

Plasketes’ honesty about his adoration of Zevon can only go so far, however. On the whole, his treatment of the Zevon discography in Desperado of Los Angeles is balanced; he recognizes musical weak spots (such as the oddly short tracklisting of the otherwise adored 1980 live album Stand in the Fire) and Zevon’s personal flaws (including his frequent refusal to promote his records to the standards of his record labels). But in some of the song analyses, Plasketes’ prose morphs from the language of an academic to the language of a PR firm. Take this passage from an early chapter in the book:

Musically, Zevon was a mutineer who resisted fully committing to the predominant country-rock genre resounding in L.A.’s idyllic canyons, strip, and boulevards. He preferred to remain on the fringe with a piano-fighter presence rather than deliver an album that conformed to a melodic, radio-friendly 70s sound.” (37)

The inclusion of two Zevon song titles in that passage, “Mutineer” and “Piano Fighter”, makes the paragraph read less like an academic analysis of Zevon as a songwriter and more like a pull-quote from a press release. This issue crops up occasionally in Plasketes’ readings of Zevon’s songs, a confounding move because Plasketes is clearly a good close reader of Zevon’s lyrics. Plasketes will sometimes lapse into lyric paraphrase as plot summary, which happens in his reading of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”: “Snare drum flutters pat gallows-march textures, as the headless ghost of Roland searches the continent, stalking the son-of-a-bitch who done him in.” This rephrasing of Zevon’s lyrics is surprising, given that Plasketes’ reading does not require it.

The impulse to inflate Zevon’s stature is an understandable one. He is too often given the reductive label of “the guy who wrote ‘Werewolves of London'”, a lone if hugely popular song in a 12-album discography. Plasketes, along with many other of Zevon’s critics, argues that it is Zevon’s self-titled debut, not “Werewolves of London” or the Excitable Boy LP that houses it, that stands as “the quintessential document of Zevon’s brilliance as a songwriter [and] composer” (38). Even Christopher Alexander, who accuses Zevon fans of “revisionism” in a 2007 Cokemachineglow review, says of the Warren Zevon numbers “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” and “The French Inhaler”, “[They] may be two of the best rock songs ever recorded.”

Zevon seems destined to be known as a perpetually underrated member of the league of great American songwriters, but that is no reason to give into the excess of a superfan’s zealous exultation. Fortunately, Plasketes never becomes the fanboy that Alexander had in mind while writing his Cokemachineglow review, even in the moments where the language of Desperado of Los Angeles takes on a non-academic tone.

In writing Desperado of Los Angeles, Plasketes has to balance his admiration as a fan with his analytic schematics of a scholar. This book is as informed by his love of Zevon’s music as it is his scholarly interest in Zevon’s literary and musical inventions. This is not to say that “fan” and “scholar” are hats that can be worn one at a time, trading one out for the other when the situation calls for it. Part of the challenge in writing a book for a series like Rowman & Littlefield’s Tempo collection, of which this Zevon monograph is a part (the series also includes titles on Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, among others), is the recognition that academic detachment can’t be fully achieved when one writes about an artist he greatly admires. English professor and Matmos musician Drew Daniel writes,

I’m a white male, and I’m a Shakespeare professor to boot, so I make my living as a white male celebrating another white male to all who will listen. But when I do that, I don’t make the preposterous assertion that Shakespeare was “The Greatest Writer in the English Language”, because I don’t believe that the word “Greatest” has any meaning other than as shorthand for a highly over-determined, highly particular nest of assumptions, historically specific practices, ongoing critical conversations, and methodological quagmires about the criteria of aesthetic judgment.

In that same article, Daniel argues that words like “objectivity” and “favorite” are “doomed to fatal incoherence” when it comes to describing music because of the numerous meanings embedded in each word; he goes so far as to say that such words “would be best abandoned”. When a critic like Plasketes approaches a subject like Zevon, one whom he loves as a fan and appreciates as a thinker, ultimately there has to be a recognition that those identities cannot ever be fully bifurcated. After all, the very things that make Plasketes and other Zevon devotees appreciate him as a “literary songwriter” are the same things that lead them to love his music.

Desperado of Los Angeles thus finds itself a player in an ongoing question in the realm of music criticism: can there be genuine objectivity? Do music reviewers approach albums differently when they are listening to them for their own edification rather than reviewing them? Are there criteria by which varied forms of music can be evaluated? Methodological quandaries like these are the bread and butter of academia, but Plasketes doesn’t tackle them in Desperado of Los Angeles. This is hardly a knock against him; this book is clearly a labor of love not just for Plasketes’ appreciation of Zevon, but also for the work that went into it. This is the kind of research that is actually fun to read.

In spotting the inevitable complications that arise when a scholar also has a profound attachment to a subject, however, I can’t help but think about the broader implications for scholarship on this subject. A position of unsullied objectivity — a “view from nowhere”, as Thomas Nagel put it — is a fool’s errand. But the impossibility of pure objectivity does not then open the door for unhinged fan editorializing. The responsible approach must rest somewhere in between those two poles, however nebulous that territory may be.

Plasketes does acknowledge the complicated obligations and incentives of music critics in brief moments of Desperado of Los Angeles. In reviewing the situation of Zevon’s final album The Wind, which he recorded thinking he only had three months to live, Plasketes writes,

The Wind cast critics in an unusual position. Considering the album’s inescapable context of finality, the renowned supporting cast, and their outstanding contributions to the record, any critical disapproval could be delicate, and potentially viewed as insensitive and nit-picking. At the opposite end of the evaluation spectrum, tour-de-force proclamations might be read as opportunistic overstatement fraught with sentimentality. (190)

Because the majority of critical conversation about Zevon following his death has to do with how underrated he was in his own time, writing about Zevon is, by extension, writing about the politics of artist perception. Plasketes is in the “Zevon is underrated” camp, as his framing device of a “coffee table defense” reveals. But in select portions of Desperado of Los Angeles, he also acknowledges that critics are motivated by a lot more than likes and dislikes.

What Plasketes has achieved with Desperado of Los Angeles is a book that on the whole resides somewhere between the fandom/objectivity continuum, the tenuousness of that construction notwithstanding. Zevon has been long overdue for a scholar’s examination, and Plasketes proves himself more than up to the task. This volume is both a helpful bedrock for future studies of Zevon’s music and an interesting case study in what it means to do academic music writing.

Fans of Zevon’s music will quickly gobble up Plasketes’ carefully assembled critical history, and curious newcomers to Zevon’s oeuvre would do well in using this book as a guide. But Plasketes’ research has value beyond the reaches of Zevon’s musical output; anyone interested in the business of writing about music critically would learn a great deal from the strengths and weaknesses of analysis in this book. Undoubtedly, Zevon would be proud that his work has inspired conversations like these.

RATING 7 / 10