Life’ll kill ya, but when you’re a writer with a resume like Zevon’s, you can take comfort in the fact that your words will outlive ya, too. In 2000, Zevon sat down to talk about the record that influenced him the most, along with side commentary on the Judds, Iggy, Dylan, Bukka White, and William Shatner.
BY THOMAS ANDERSON
Ed. note: Let’s get this out of the way: Songwriter/rocker/writer/journalist Thomas Anderson is smarter than you. And me. He’s been in this game since the ‘80s, and he’s seen plenty and done plenty. Meanwhile, though, the late Warren Zevon—you may have heard of him—was smarter than you, me, and Anderson combined. If you don’t believe that, go ask David Letterman. Or listen to any number of his albums. (I suggest starting with 1980’s live album Stand in the Fire, but don’t feel obligated to. You’ll probably see what comes up first on Spotify—which Zevon would probably hate, incidentally. But I digress. Three years before Zevon’s untimely death from cancer in 2003, Anderson had the privilege of interviewing the songwriter. For various reasons, the interview never really saw the light of day. Until now. Using my superior powers of persuasion—plus a little bit of the roccrit magic mojo juice, aka a favorable opinion of Anderson’s recent, and frankly remarkable, album, Heaven—I talked him into going up to the attic and digging the interview out of his archives. Here it is, so blow the dust off, cue up your battered copy of Excitable Boy or the aforementioned live album (to “Werewolves of London,” natch), and see what was on Zevon’s mind that Austin afternoon in 2000. Ahhhhhowwwrooooooo!
The following interview took place on April 5, 2000 at LaZona Rosa in Austin. The idea was to do a piece with Zevon discussing the one album that had most influenced his decision to become a musician himself. He had a new album at the time–Life’ll Kill Ya–and a new record deal–with Artemis Records–so he was making himself available for interviews. There had been some snafu with his hotel reservations the previous night, which had resulted in him driving straight through from Santa Fe to Austin without any sleep in between. Still he was gracious and extremely generous with his time.
The album he chose to talk about–Northern Journey, by Ian & Sylvia–is doubtlessly available online and is as great as Zevon says. Not just for the reasons mentioned in the interview, but also simply for the pristine beauty of their voices. It is highly recommended.
When Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer a couple of years later, I ordered a CD of the album and sent it to his publicist, asking him to pass it along. Awhile later, a friend sent me a Jon Pareles interview with Zevon in the New York Times, in which he said that he’d been listening to some of his old favorites, including Paul Simon and Ian & Sylvia. So who knows.
God rest ye, Warren Zevon.
THOMAS ANDERSON: I’d like to ask you about the music that influenced you to become a songwriter. I know that you’re a big fan of blues singer John Hammond; I wonder if there was any one album that inspired you?
WARREN ZEVON: I don’t want to slight John Hammond–remember, for all of us who listened to John Hammond on Vanguard, he was a conduit to the original songs, which was all he wanted to be. That’s all he WANTS to be; he’d be more than pleased to hear that. It occurred to me in Toronto a couple of weeks ago that there was one album that had a vastly bigger influence on every aspect of my songwriting and performing and everything else, and it’s by Ian & Sylvia.
I think in trying to remember and describe Ian & Sylvia, I’m conflating more than one album; but it’s mostly the album Northern Journey. This album, I remember, had really violent narrative songs–both historical songs and original songs. There was an amazing cowboy song called “Four Rode By”, an outlaw/cowboy ‘they hung this one, this one shot the whole family’ kind of song written by Ian. It was filled with those specific kinds of times and places and names and middle names and the kind of detail work that influenced me very much in the way I wrote things. The song “Brave Wolfe” is on the album, which is a famous late-eighteenth century song about the French And Indian War, about Montcalm and General Wolfe. It’s got that stark, modal harmony–rarely did a third enter the picture in their harmony.
Heavily fifths-y stuff; fourths-y, fifths-y stuff. Ian sang with that tremolo that it’s taken me thirty years to even try to wean a little out of my singing, and with the little yodeling things at the ends of the long-held notes. I go through that and it actually amazes me. Then they had pop songs. I don’t know how big of hits they were, “You Were On My Mind” I think was a real hit. Their more pop/less folk-archival authentic stuff had this wonderful candor for the early sixties that I don’t remember hearing anyplace else. “He just got out of the service and he joined the rodeo,” y’know? Real nice talky stuff like you’d expect from a Judds song–a GREAT Judds song–thirty years later. Plus, they both wrote.
Tell me the circumstances when you first heard the album. What was your life like back then?
Oh I don’t know. I don’t know what my life was like when we left Santa Fe yesterday.
How did you discover the album?
I don’t know. I was interested in classical music, actively interested in modern classical music, from almost earliest recollections. At some point–it must’ve been in the very early sixties–I started hearing folk music and that’s what I liked. I wasn’t interested in rock’n’roll, and I’m still not interested in rock’n’roll. Give me a specific instance (laughs) and I might be interested in rock’n’roll. It’s what the deconstructionists call a metastory. Lyotard calls it a metanarrative–a big, cultural story. Rock’n’roll is one of those big, cultural stories, like democracy or the French Revolution. It’s a big story that culture tells us.
You mean it’s like an abstraction and you can’t really…
It’s a formal myth, created like…Dave of Wendy’s (laughs), y’know? But in this case it’s to live and die for rock’n’roll, with the big belt, and let me kiss the stage where Iggy stood and the whole deal. I dunno, nothing interests me less. This is interesting though, because I’m raving! The alternative was to postpone this [interview] ’til I’d had some sleep.
It’s better this way. You’ll say things you wouldn’t ordinarily say.
Oh yeah (laughs). OH yeah. I like Iggy though, don’t get me wrong.
Yeah, he is.
You obviously heard the Ian & Sylvia album on LP originally.
Yeah. In fact–it might be of mild interest–I remember having the vinyl, then having the cassette for a decade and a half, and then when it came out on CD I would notice it and remember how important it was, with each evolving media.
I can remember buying records when I was fourteen and now I’ll see and hear them on CD, and sometimes they don’t sound the same. It’s always the combination of the original format–vinyl or tape–and the system you heard it on originally. That can make a huge difference, at least for me.
Not in my case. My hearing is…impaired now, but it was always bad. I think I grew up with a real out of tune piano. I understand what you mean, but I wouldn’t make the aural distinctions. See, I’m drawn to such low-fi gear anyway. I have the “Jackson Browne model” mini-disc player. It has…a speaker.
What–like a little three-inch speaker?
Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. That’s the kind of thing I’ve always had.
Did Ian & Sylvia’s songs directly inspire any of yours?
No, I don’t think so. But it’s one of those things where you listen to the album for the first time in eight or nine years, and you realize how strong the influence of many different tracks is. One of my earliest decent songs is “Frank And Jesse James,” which I kind of wrote about the Everly Brothers; and when I hear “Four Rode By,” it seems quite similar. The intentions of the lyrics seem quite similar.
You mentioned the fact that a lot of Northern Journey’s songs are narrative songs. A lot of your stuff is like that, like “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.”
Very much so. “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” I wrote in an Irish bar that I worked at in Spain, with a guy that taught me to sing Irish songs. We didn’t see it as any kind of departure from the kind of songs I was singing every night. A pounding-on-the-bar, violent, payback song.
I’ve always thought that the line, “In a barroom drinking gin” sounded like something from a folksong or a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad.
Well, undoubtedly we were in a barroom drinking something when we wrote it; and also the man who wrote it with me–aside from the fact that he was supposed to be an ex-mercenary–I think that his popular music knowledge was probably limited to Marty Robbins and Irish songs, and Kristofferson maybe.
Another song of yours, “Worrier King,” has the old blues lines, “I have a bird that whistles, I have a bird that sings.” It’s interesting to me, when I hear songwriters who will take something from a very old song, and if they work it into their song in the right way, it’ll reinforce that song and give it a great strength.
That’s what Dylan did better than anybody. Since Dylan after all did everything better than anybody. That’s what he started out doing, which is what’s called the folk tradition. That’s exactly what the folk tradition is–you are supposed to take this song, pass it along, and change it according to your own needs.
Dylan can change those lines in radical ways and still make them work; and he can come up with lines that no folksinger would ever sing, and make them sound like something that did come out of that scene.
I think it’s interesting that we’ve learned to re-hear the songs through Dylan in such a way that by the time he did Good As I Been To You, that you had to go back and find the songs and then you realize he’s NOT changing them. He’s taught us to listen so that when we hear (singing) “It was early on Christmas morning,” you have to go back and find “Arthur McBride” on a Planxty record, and it IS the lyric. A Dylan irony, it sounds like; but it’s an 1814 song.
But people also give Dylan credit for coming up with a lot of things–things that he just presented to people who wouldn’t have heard them otherwise, sort of like what Richard Thompson has done with a lot of Celtic and Scottish stuff.
But in Dylan’s case no one will ever give him as much credit as he deserves for what he did do, so perhaps it balances out. On the other hand he probably doesn’t have to drive from Santa Fe to Austin, so it’s all relative.
Did you ever see Ian & Sylvia?
No, and I never met them. In fact, I heard that Ian became a horse raiser, like Thomas McGuane–the most elegant possible retirement from show business.
I hear that William Shatner has a horse ranch now, too.
He’s a pretty elegant guy, too.
Like Dylan, a hundred years from now people will still be captivated by Captain Kirk, y’know?
As well they should be. They won’t be getting TV series heroes with middle names named after Roman emperors. I worked for him, y’know.
Right–the song “Real Or Not” from TekWars. Did you do any other songs for that show?
No. It only ran a few times. But he WAS Captain Kirk. He renewed my faith in…everything.
Did you see many folk performers back in your early days?
The one I saw more than once for sure was Bukka White. I’d sit as close to him as I could, and catch his asides. Oh yeah, I loved him. I tried desperately to learn “Sic ‘Em Dogs On Me” for a year, but it was undecipherable, I’m afraid.
(pause) I’m sorry…I can hear “Texas Rangers”–one of the songs Ian & Sylvia sing a capella in fifths–and it makes your spine go (hunching his back) like the Alien, and it’s VIOLENT scary. But I can only picture the song, I can only picture it in the blackness of my brain. I can only picture those two voices in my head. I can picture the story, because it has all the details and it’s a graphic, violent western, and I can hear the sound, but it’s just in a void. Undoubtedly, the way you hear Ian & Sylvia or John Hammond is, it must start somewhere with someone like the Kingston Trio on the radio. That’s got to be the evolution–from the most obvious acts of “the folk boom” or whatever they call that movement. There was the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio and all those other guys, then you went back beyond ’em–not that Ian & Sylvia were too far beyond them or behind them in terms of popularity. It was a ways from the Kingston Trio to Clarence Ashley. Ian & Sylvia were halfway between Peter, Paul & Mary on Ed Sullivan, and Folkways Records.
I sang Ian’s “Four Strong Winds” at the show in Toronto. It’s always chancy, you have to be…pure of heart (laughs) to sing a regional song like that. It could be perceived as something cynical or patronizing; but the whole audience sang along. The whole audience–isn’t that wonderful? It’s nice that they embrace him and are proud of him, and that they know him and it’s important to them.