Why, why, why did I wait so long to listen to Warren Zevon? It was only a few years ago that I started to listen, to seriously listen, to what he wrote, to what he sang and played. Before that, I’d written him off as something of a novelty, a guy who did “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and some other stuff that he thought was funny. I was so, so wrong.
His music is funny, of course, but it’s also so much more: insightful, heartbreaking, cynical, satirical. Like the best writers who shared those characteristics (George Saunders and Mark Twain come to mind), Zevon seemed to have a direct line to the human condition, an eye on how people treat themselves, and each other, in the modern world. He also made a very funny song about werewolves.
Having said all that, my favorite Warren Zevon song doesn’t seem as barbed, or cynical, as much of his other work. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” is staunchly middle-of-the-road, a midtempo love ballad reminiscent of the Eagles (a couple of whom, incidentally, provide lovely backup vocals). The world has plenty of “I miss you since we broke up” songs, but Warren Zevon made one that only Warren Zevon could: “we made mad love, shadow love, random love, and abandoned love,” he sings, “accidentally like a martyr.” In other words, it was better, and worse, and weirder, than we even knew at the time. And I miss it.
My favorite thing about this song is that piano interlude, those triplets that sound like Randy Newman by way of Aaron Copland. That section provides a kind of sad wistfulness that lessens the song’s bite, just a touch.
What made Warren Zevon’s death so hard was that he was one of the writers we turned to for understanding and wisdom about things like death. “Enjoy every sandwich,” he famously said to David Letterman after he learned about the cancer that would kill him. It was a perfectly Zevonesque thing to say: concise, witty, and above all, real.
The first Cars album is ridiculous. Just look at the track listing, which reads like a greatest-hits album. The insane part is that there were so many good songs to come, like “Shake It Up,” “Let’s Go,” “Dangerous Type,” and “Drive.” Some bands just have a million great songs.
In the case of the Cars, they not only had a million great songs, they had a fantastic sound. I love their combination of new-wave synths and dirty guitars (so, apparently, did Weezer, who enlisted Cars frontman Ric Ocasek to produce their own self-titled debut). Given that synths didn’t become more popular until the eighties, I’m always surprised when I remember that this record came out in 1978 (my dad would joke that the release year helped him remember what year my sister was born).
“All Mixed Up” is interesting because it has plenty of the Cars’ pop sense but some of their darkness. The intro alone is like the score of a scary movie (especially since it contains the leftovers from the fade-out of the equally creepy “Living In Stereo”). I also love the way the song uses the chorus as a moment of brightness: the chords turn major, if only for a moment. The fact that the title phrase is repeated over these major chords is ironic. And unsettling.
The Cars released an album a year for four years, an impressive run for any band, but especially for this band, who hardly ever included filler on their records. And each of those records has a consistent energy, a steadfast, pop-sure sense of confidence. Every one of their songs could be called “Let’s Go,” even bleak ones like this.
Ex-Big Star member Chris Bell had a very rough time after he left his band. For Bell, the seventies consisted of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. His decade also included some very good music, but aside from one very good single, Bell didn’t get around to releasing it just before his fatal car accident in 1978.
Much of that music was released as a compilation called I Am the Cosmos, whose title track was the A-side to that aforementioned single. The B-side was a gorgeous song called “You and Your Sister,” a track that shares a lot of musical DNA with the classic Big Star song “Thirteen.” It also marked a brief reuniting of Bell and his former Big Star bandmate Alex Chilton.
Hearing Bell and Chilton sing together after years apart is moving enough, but the song itself is gorgeous. As Mark Deming of Allmusic points out, “You and Your Sister” “make[s] more emotional than literal sense.” But the underlying meaning—don’t listen to what everybody says, I love you and need you—more than comes through. And lyrics like “Plans fail every day” sound beautifully tragic coming out of the mouth of Chris Bell, a man whose plans failed more often than not. This time, however, they very much didn’t.
The first Police album is amazing. While their later work is soft, reverb-filled and abstract, Outlandos d’Amour is fierce, lean, and funny. Just look at the track listing: “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Next to You,” “So Lonely.” Damn!
“So Lonely” is my favorite Police song, because it accomplishes so much with so little. The song has only three chords, but, as proved by countless other pop songs, it doesn’t matter. In many ways, that makes it much more impressive; just listen to what Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers do with just three chords. (See also: The Ramones.)
I love how young these guys sound, especially Sting. He’s years away from being Old Man Gordon Sumner, and his voice shows it. Listen to how he hams it up singing “one-man show.” In the hands of a lesser performer, this would sound ridiculous, but coming from Sting, it works. For me, anyway.
In an interview with Revolver in 2000, Sting claimed that “So Lonely” was a shameless rip-off of “No Woman No Cry.” I get what he’s saying, in that it’s the same chord structure, but I think he’s selling himself, and his bandmates, short. Countless pop songs use this chord structure, but very few of them sound this great. The next thing he says almost makes up for it: “What we invented was this thing of going back and forth between thrash punk and reggae. That was the little niche we created for ourselves.”
And what a niche it was.
I just read something crazy: “Sunday Girl” wasn’t released as a single in the US. What! This is the singliest-sounding single in Blondie’s discography. More than “Heart of Glass,” more than “One Way or Another,” more than “The Tide Is High.” It’s so sweet it’ll rot your teeth.
I recently reviewed the new She & Him record, and I was pleasantly surprised that it’s an interesting album. One of its highlights is a cover of “Sunday Girl,” a song that serves Zooey Deschanel’s childlike persona without playing into her kookiness. And that’s the interesting thing about this song: it’s obviously very poppy, but it’s not cloying or irritating, even with one verse in French. Good work, Blondie.
A friend of mine recently said something to the effect of, “Billy Joel sounds like he thinks he has both more and less money than he actually has.” I thought that summed him up pretty well. Sure, Billy Joel is a bazillionaire, but the songs in which he adopts a stately English accent on certain words (“Victor was bohhhn the spring of fauuuhty-fauuuh”) make him sound ridiculous. On the other hand, so do the ones in which he’s hanging with the scrappy lower-to-middle class. Sure, Joel grew up with the scrappy lower-to-middle class before becoming filthy rich, but he doesn’t sound comfortable singing about Brenda and Eddie and their paintings from Sears.
Maybe it’s just that Billy Joel doesn’t seem comfortable in any setting. Just look at that picture: “Oh, hi,” Joel seems to be saying, “I didn’t see you there. I was just standing here in this alley with my trumpet, and you gave me quite a start.” He can’t even pull off standing against a wall.
Then there’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” which finds Billy Joel, he of the New York state of mind and Davy who’s still in the Navy, singing about how much he loves the “Cuban skies” in the eyes of a woman named Rosalinda, occasionally rolling his R’s like Alex Trebek. It doesn’t sound right, but it works.
You may disagree, and I’d understand. It’s a dopey song with some generalized exoticism about Latin America, and it has the line “I’ve got a chance to make it, it’s time for me to take it.” But I love that, after some (to my ears) musically complex verses, the chorus releases some of that tension with a very pretty melody. And I’ll be damned if the corny “Cuban skies” stuff doesn’t work on me, too.
Freaks and Geeks used this song in a really sweet scene about adolescent love, and I thought that was brilliant. The boys in question are especially awkward and nerdy, just like this awkward, nerdy song about loving someone who seems to come from another universe. And love, for all of us, is awkward and nerdy. We’re all trying to impress somebody. We’re all, at one point or another, standing in an alley with a trumpet.