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Sunday, November 18, 2018

Accidentally Like a Martyr - The Book

While the back cover of Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon only promises "twelve essays on seminal Zevon songs and albums," music journalist James Campion delivers a baker's dozen, and in doing so manages to tell the late singer/songwriter's often sad, sometimes heroic story. Campion has written a book that only a Warren Zevon fan could write. Who but a fan would devote fourteen pages to "Studebaker," a song that was never recorded to Zevon's own satisfaction and therefore doesn't appear on any of his official albums? Campion's challenge is to make such minutiae compelling enough that readers unfamiliar with Zevon and his unique and impressive musical canon want to come along for the ride. For the most part, he succeeds.

The book really hits its stride with the final four essays: about the songs "Searching for a Heart" (expressing Zevon's undying capacity for love); "The Indifference of Heaven" (whose protagonist, like Paul Muni's character in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, finally crosses the line from desperation to criminality); "My Ride's Here" (Zevon's most perfect song--among his many--about death; and the album The Wind (detailing what went into its recording and completion before the songwriter's death on September 7, 2003).

If the book accomplishes nothing else (and it does), it gives due credit to musician Jorge Calderón for how important he was to Zevon's songwriting process. The information Campion gleaned from his interviews with Calderón are enlightening, as are the comments and insights of several of the other interviewees, especially guitarist Waddy Wachtel and poet Paul Muldoon.

Full disclosure: Campion generously mentions my Paul Nelson bio-anthology when writing about Nelson's magnificent Rolling Stone cover story, "The Crack-Up and Resurrection of Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward's Death," and how the magazine brutally mangled it in publication. Campion writes: "Up until his death in 2006, Nelson was haunted by the full piece having never been given a proper presentation. Ultimately, it would appear years later in its entirety in the posthumous collection Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson."

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