Book Review: Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon

The book is an elaborate, literate, sometimes difficult yet always rewarding work.

Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon
By James Campion
(Backbeat Books)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There have been a handful of books already written documenting the life and career of late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. This one is different.

Rather than just running down his life from either a chronological or personal standpoint, author James Campion chooses 10 songs and three albums — divided by a chapter each — he feels best encompass the mindset and “tortured art” that make Zevon’s work so exceptional. It’s a unique and somewhat unusual approach. Campion uses that structure to examine not only each of Zevon’s 13 albums, but the personal, political and business circumstances that impacted and instigated their creation.

Over three years in the making, Campion interviewed 22 individuals close to the artist — everyone from his grown children and ex-wife Crystal (who has her own narrative about Zevon’s life, 2008’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon), band members Waddy Wachtel and David Landau along with friends/supporters/producers or co-songwriters Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Jorge Calderon — to provide a vivid, warts-and-all-portrait of a multifaceted individual other legendary artists such as Dylan and Springsteen considered a peer.

Like many gifted individuals, Zevon’s darker demons — alcoholism, excessive drug use, a sexual appetite some called an addiction, a predilection for firearms and an inability to show affection to loved ones, among other issues — combined to create a self-destructive streak that negatively affected his friends, family, fellow musicians and ultimately his career. The popularity that peaked early with 1978’s Excitable Boy, his second major label release, enabled those impulses. And even though there were plenty of superb albums that followed, unpredictable live shows, unscrupulous record deals and Zevon’s own inconsistency resulted in a downward commercial spiral he never broke out of. Zevon’s untimely death from a virulent form of lung cancer called peritoneal mesothelioma was diagnosed in the fall of 2002 and took its toll a year later. But not before the completion of his final statement, The Wind, which appeared a month before his death. It ultimately nabbed him two posthumous Grammy awards.

For Zevon newcomers, it won’t take long to grasp his pitch-black sense of humor. It’s evident in “Werewolves Of London,” incorrectly pegged as a novelty, when he sings, “I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s/ His hair was perfect,” or in “Excitable Boy”’s serial killer protagonist who “rubbed the pot roast all over his chest.” In that way he shared a wry lyrical sensibility with Randy Newman, also known for his sly, supple way with words and irony.

It’s only 241 pages, but Campion’s tome is not a fast or breezy read. On the contrary, he digs deep into both his subject and the songs/albums, taking detours and spitting out head-scratching sentences such as the beginning of this one on the chapter about “Splendid Isolation”: “When translating the biting humor of Warren Zevon’s theoretical anthropophobia into a literal construct …” He then explains the genesis of the term “splendid isolation” in a historical sense, with a few intensely detail-heavy paragraphs about mid-late 1800’s European politics, concluding with this humdinger: “If Britain were a man, it might be an anachronistic figure swallowed up by the times that threaten to leave him obsolete.” Thankfully, the entire book isn’t quite so cumbersome, but there are enough scholarly side roads and dense, some might say unwieldy, writing to make even the most sophisticated reader, stop, rewind, and re-read numerous pages, paragraphs and even entire chapters to unpack the erudite word-salad Campion throws at us repeatedly.          

For all the writer’s complexity, he does a wonderful job providing illuminating and often esoteric background information on Zevon such as the impact of William Ford Gibson’s “Neuromancer” on the Transverse City album, one of the artist’s most misunderstood and unsuccessful discs, and discussing Zevon’s love of classical music. He was classically trained and friends thought his goal was to someday write a symphony, something only hinted at in short interludes included on Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. Campion enlightens us on Zevon’s appreciation of writers such as Norman Mailer, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and how their words, characters and vistas influenced his lyrics.

One of the most provocative chapters discusses and dissects “Studebaker,” a raw ballad Zevon never even put on an album (it appears in rough demo form on the posthumous Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings). This allows Campion to explore the artist’s childhood, his affection for piano and the fractious relationship with his dysfunctional parents.

Occasionally, the author gets overly muddled with his references and wanders too far chasing down oblique symbolisms in the songs. But overall, this is a fascinating methodology to understanding and explaining Warren Zevon’s considerable mystique and generally underappreciated talent. The book not only sends readers back to the music, but will make them appreciate specifics, creative qualities and lyrical complexities they might not have noticed.

Like its challenging subject, Accidentally Like A Martyr is an elaborate, literate, sometimes difficult yet always rewarding work, well worth the time and effort it takes to absorb all its intricacies.