Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why Do Great Songwriters Live Such Tortured Lives? Part 3

I was lucky enough to see Warren Zevon live twice in the late 70's. First at the Bijou Theatre in 1978, when the Excitable Boy album had just been released. The second time was a year later when he played at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Both shows were full of great songs and soulful playing. I can still hear the notes of Desperados Under the Eaves echoing around in the Academy of Music. Great stuff. Those two experiences made me a Zevon fan for life.

 Many of Zevon's songs are well known. What can I say about a body of work that has put several expressions into the common vernacular: "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead", "Lawyers, Guns and Money", "His Hair Was Perfect"? What more can I say about about a body of work that includes lyrics that end up as the title of a Dylan Album (Time Out of Mind)?

 Bob Dylan was playing several of his songs during the cover version shows of 2002. To hear Bob warble Boom Boom ManciniLawyers, Guns and Money, Mutineer, and Accidental Like a Martyr is worth the price of the bootleg. "Went home with the Waitress"....indeed, Bob. I bet you didn't with that taco of a hat on your head.

 Dylan is one of many Zevon fans who are in the music business. Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne were early supporters. I know another Texas songwriter who was turned on to music by hearing Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner at an early age. Without this man, we would not know how far that road goes or when that party ends.   

There are many great Zevon tunes. Although not as well known as some of his bigger hits, Accidentally Like a Martyr is one of my favorites:

The phone don't ring, no no
And the sun refused to shine
Never thought I'd have to pay so dearly
For what was already mine
For such a long, long time

We made mad love, shadow love
Random love and abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder

The days slide by
Should have done, should have done, we all sigh
Never thought I'd ever be so lonely
After such a long, long time
Time out of mind

I never imaged that Warren was a model citizen. You can't write those kind of twisted songs and be too normal. Last year I read I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. It is the authorized biography written and collected by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon. In some ways, I wish I hadn't read it. A very ugly story. Zevon took alcohol, drugs, sex addiction and rock star behavior to a very, very high level. Worse than that, he ultimately crapped on everyone in his life. I will spare you the details. It is not a pretty story. Did all this pain and bad behavior help create this spectacular body of work? I think it must have.

From Amazon, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the greatest hits collection, contains most of the essential Zevon tunes. For your iTunes playlist, I recommend the following:

  1. Carmelita
  2. Mohammad's radio
  3. French Inhaler
  4. Desperados Under the Eaves
  5. Excitable Boy
  6. Werewolf of London
  7. Accidentally Like a Martyr
  8. Tenderness on the Block
  9. Lawyers Guns and Money
  10. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
  11. Jeanie Needs a Shooter
  12. Let Nothing Come Between You
  13. Reconsider Me
  14. Suzie Lightning
  15. Mutineer

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Do Great Songwriters Live Such Tortured Lives? Part 2

I have always been a big fan of The Byrds. Last year, I got excited again about their music because of the release of the compilation, There is a Season (Available at Amazon and highly recommended).

As part of this revival, I also read the Gene Clark biography, Mr Tambourine Man. This sparked an interest in the music of Gene Clark and his career after the Byrds. After reading the book, I began to see Clark and the history of The Byrds in a different light.

 Anybody who remembers the early days of The Byrds, probably thinks first of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, tinted granny glasses, and Dylan covers. Gene Clark was the lantern-jawed guy with the Prince Valiant haircut banging the tambourine in the band.  Although he looked a little uneasy on stage, he was the gifted songwriter who wrote most of the band's biggest hits. These include Feel a Whole Lot Better, Set You Free This TimeHere without You, She Don't Care About Time, and Eight Miles High. Unfortunately, he had a fear of flying and this combined with band politics and jealousy over his songwriting income led to him leaving the band in 1966. 

His solo recording career was full of bad timing, missed opportunities, and an inability to capitalize on his song writing success with The Byrds. Although he wrote and recorded some great songs, he never had a real solo hit. The record companies didn't promote his records and his inability to tour because of the flying issues worked against him. He came close a couple of times, but he never received the fame or recognition he deserved.

At the same time, his personal life was a mess. He enjoyed the typical rock star life full of drugs, drinking and hangers-on. This life style led to serious health problems. In 1988, he had an operation to remove part of his stomach and intestines. After that, with his finances at a low point, the party wound down and he became fairly sober. It looked like his life and career might be turning around.

In 1989, in a bizarre twist of fate, Tom Petty, who was a big fan, put Feel a Whole Lot Better on his album Full Moon Fever. It quickly created a $300,000 song writing windfall for Gene. This ended his sobriety and the party began again in earnest. Not surprisingly, this had a negative effect on his health. In May of 1991, at age 46, he died from a combination of drinking and a bleeding ulcer.

Gene Clark was one of the best songwriters of his generation. Unfortunately, a combination of bad luck and a destructive lifestyle led to a sad ending to his story. I am sure his musical reputation will be continue to rise. He wrote some great songs.

The best way to explore the work of Gene Clark is to buy American Dreamer, which is a very good greatest hits collection. His best solo CD is White Light. Recorded in 1971 and produced by Jesse Ed Davis, it includes the song, Spanish Guitar. Reportedly, Bob Dylan is a big fan of this song. Neither of these CD's are available on iTunes, but they are on Amazon. From what is available on iTunes, this is a playlist of essential Gene Clark:
  1. I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better--Byrds
  2. Set you Free This Time--Byrds
  3. She Don't Care About Time-Byrds
  4. Here Without You--Byrds
  5. So You say You Lost Your Baby--Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers
  6. Elevator Operator--Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers
  7. Gypsy Rider
  8. Full Circle--Byrds version
  9. From a Silver Phial
  10. Silver Raven 
Nest Post: Warren Zevon

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why Do Great Songwriters Live Such Tortured Lives? Part 1

What is it with really great songwriters? Do they have to live a life of booze and drugs, madness and misery to fire up that creative furnace? Why can't song writing be a normal 9 to 5 job? Judging from the subjects of my next few posts, I guess it's not possible.

"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."----Steve Earle

As many music fans know, Townes Van Zandt wrote some of the most beautiful and haunting songs of the last 30 years. His signature song, Pancho and Lefty, is well known because of the cover by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (See below for the Dylan/Nelson version). To me, it is a perfect country song. It can always bring a tear to me eye, I love it that much. 

 His songbook contains others that are the equal of that great song. To Live is to Fly, No Place to Fall, Tower Song, Flyin' Shoes, For the Sake of a Song are only a few of the great songs he wrote. There is a sweet sense of desperation and longing in his best work that draws you into his songs. He was very good with descriptive imagery as well. Note these lines from To Live is to Fly:

Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
Oh, but don't turn none away

 Townes was born into a wealthy Texas oil family. In the 60's, he dropped out of college to pursue music and song writing. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive in his twenties and was treated with shock therapy. Later, he used heroin and had a serious drinking problem. All this is well documented in the very depressing film, Be Here to Love Me. Is there a connection between all these problems and his amazing talent? I'm not sure, but it is a shame that he didn't live a little longer.

There are quite a few of his albums available on Amazon. I like Live at the Old Quarter and Rear View Mirror. Go to iTunes and buy this playlist. It includes his best work.
  1. Pancho and Lefty
  2. To Live is to Fly
  3. No Place to Fall
  4. Tower Song
  5. Flyin' Shoes
  6. For the Sake of a Song
  7. Tecumseh Valley
  8. Snow Don't Fall
  9. Loretta
  10. Rex's Blues
  11. If I Needed You

Next Post: Gene Clark.

Poncho and Lefty
Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson version:

To Live Is To Fly:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I was very surprised and saddened to read that Matthew Bruccoli died on June 4th. Anyone who has read or studied the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald should be familiar with his name. He wrote the definitive bibliography and biography of Fitzgerald, as well as 50 other books of literary criticism on Fitzgerald and many other authors. Matt's work helped launch the resurgence of  interest in Fitzgerald at a time when his stock was very low. He was also a passionate book collector who put together a wonderful collection of Fitzgerald first editions and manuscripts. This collection now belongs to the library of the University of South Carolina.

I met Matt a few years ago at the New York Book Fair. For an avid Fitzgerald collector like myself, it was like meeting a rock star. He was quite recognizable by the 50's style brush cut hair, big glasses and thick New York accent. We became friends and pen pals (no email for Matt). He was nice enough to invite me to South Carolina to see the collection.

Last spring, I went to Columbia and spent a very entertaining evening with Matt and his lovely wife, Arlyn. First, I went to their house for drinks and saw the Cugat painting from the cover  of the Great Gatsby, as well as many other interesting books. Later, we had a great dinner. Matt was never afraid to express his opinions on a variety of subjects and he did so that night in his distinctive voice.

 The next day, he showed me the collection that was his life's work. An entire room of Fitzgerald first editions, rarities, and signed copies. I could not believe my eyes. Pulling books from his shelves, I was like a kid at Christmas. The highlight for me was putting my hands on the galleys of the Great Gatsby.

Matt had a unique passion for book collecting. I was lucky to know him and see his great collection of books.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I really like novels. Unfortunately, if you demand a certain standard of writing, it's hard to find many good ones these days. Most books on the best seller list aren't doing it for me. They are too obvious or not well written enough for a grumpy old English major with high literary standards. Of the many novels I read in a year, only a handful end up passing my test. This is my book of year thus far.

This book has gotten some very good reviews. Although not that familiar with Andre Dubus, I was looking forward to reading it. If you have read anything about the book, you are probably thinking: "Why do I  want to read a book about strippers and terrorists?" Well, this book is about a lot more than that.

 Set in Florida in  the week before 9/11, it weaves the stories of several characters in a very clever, page turning plot. Once I started, I literally could not put it down. Somehow Dubus, working with a motley cast of characters, creates a gripping narrative that speaks to the topics of sex, parenthood, marriage and honor. Hard to describe, but very well written. 

If you are looking for that no-brainer summer read for the beach, this may not be your book. If you are looking for a well written novel that will challenge and move you, look no further. 

Check it out!

Monday, June 2, 2008


One of the finest R and B singers of the 1960's, James Carr was compared favorably at the time to Otis Redding and Percy Sledge. Unfortunately, he has never gotten the recognition his records deserve. Recording in Memphis for the Goldwax Label, he had several hits including You Got My Mind Messed Up, The Dark End of the Street, Love Attack, and the classic, Like Pouring Water on a Drowning Man.

With a pure Southern soul voice that was honed singing in church and gospel groups starting at age nine, James could sound like Otis on his up tempo songs (Love Attack), but his distinctive baritone may have been better suited for his sad songs. These are the strength of his work and are well represented on this CD.

The high spot of his catalogue has to be The Dark End of the Street. Written by the great Memphis songwriters  Dan Penn and Chips Morman, who wrote many classic songs including Do Right Woman for Aretha, it is a stark song of adultery and regret. I love it. Although it has been covered by many others, including Aretha, Linda Rondstadt and the Flying Burrito Brothers, James Carr makes this song his own. It is worth owning the collection for this alone.

After some success in the 60's, James' career stalled due to alcohol, drugs and later depression. He died of cancer in 2001.

Do your ears a favor, go to Amazon and order the Essential James Carr. You will not be disappointed. It is not available on iTunes, unfortunately.