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Mr. Bad Example

For 20 years, Warren Zevon has danced with madmen and outlaws

Warren Zevon's characters are mad, desperate, frightening, pathetic sorts. They are sociopaths who smear pot roasts on their chests and rape and kill their prom dates only to build cages with their bones; down-on-their-luck outlaws who need lawyers, guns and money; junkies stranded on the outskirts of town; paranoids who stockpile weapons and huge dogs; stickup men with hearts of poets; junk bond dealers hooked on Indian bingo; has-been Hollywood icons drying out in Detox Mansions. And they are dangerous people, though usually only to themselves.

These characters, about whom Zevon has written and sung for more than two decades, are a breed of humanity for whom self-pity does not exist, perhaps because they do not feel anything at all -- even when they are heartbroken, devastated, abandoned by lovers and friends. Maybe that's because Zevon does not create "losers"; rather, his subjects are refugees from life, men and women cut off from normal emotion but always seeking to somehow rejoin the human race. They are, as he once sang quite beautifully, "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," destined to spend their lives paying off debts real and imagined.

"I think there is an effort on my part," Zevon says, "to lend a certain amount of implied musical nobility to the otherwise confused, shithead character."

It was easy in the late 1970s to see a bit of Zevon in his characters. During that period, when such albums as Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy were garnering him Springsteen-like acclaim, Zevon was as much a drunken, bleary anti-hero as the people about whom he wrote. One People magazine story about him from that period called him, with typical subtlety, the "boozy poet of weirdo rock" and celebrated his screwdriver-then-vodka-and-coffee-then-just-vodka lifestyle with vicarious glee.

He was characterized in the story as a "darling desperado" who often brandished his .44 Magnum; his drummer at the time, Rick Marotta, explained that Zevon's "crazy stuff really puts an edge on things." Then there is the infamous story about the time he put a bullet through the Excitable Boy album cover -- which is a picture of Zevon's head.

He was the music world's equivalent of writer Hunter S. Thompson -- the embodiment of the so-called gonzo ethic, speeding through life under the influence of demons and drink. Though Zevon gave up the booze almost 15 years ago, he still clings to Thompson as one of his great influences and heroes, enamored of someone who sees so well in (or into) the dark. Zevon, who dedicated his new album Mutineer to "HST," cites Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- along with Norman Mailer's An American Dream -- as one of his favorite works, most certainly because it celebrates a life spent on the fringes of the fringe.

"When Fear and Loathing came out, it certainly had an explosive effect on my consciousness," Zevon says. "I think that Hunter was a very great influence on me. And Mailer, too. I went into this nice used bookstore in Portland, Maine, and found an original copy of American Dream. That book was an overwhelming influence on my youth.

"In the fullness of time, I've come to regard Thomas Mann as one of my heroes. And Graham Greene. But the initial impact of [Thompson and Mailer] is like nothing else. It's always puzzled me that the influence of Thompson hasn't been more obvious to journalists. Maybe it's too obvious. To me, 'Werewolves of London' has always been my contribution to that; you can always point your fingers to it and remember where there are allusions to Hunter Thompson."

It might be more appropriate now to compare the songwriter's subjects -- maybe even Zevon himself -- to Chester Pomeroy, the heroically pathetic narrator of Thomas McGuane's novel Panama. Pomeroy is a former rock star whose best years, if they ever existed, are long past him; he's a wreck of a human being -- a "depraved pervert," as he's often called by those around him, whose mouth is a gaping maw devoid of teeth -- surrounded by people he believes to be dead or those who have actually cheated the Big Man.

Pomeroy, who often carries a pistol and is unafraid to pull it on anyone, lives on the outskirts of existence -- on the Florida Keys, where there's "not one boat between me and an unempathetic horizon." As he narrates early in the novel, "I was home from the field of agony; I was home from it. I was dead." Pomeroy, in fact, speaks almost like a song lyric, his phrases clipped and to the point, his sentences structured not just for meaning but for sound; his pain resounds within the syllables, within the spaces between the letters.

Zevon -- whose new album comes complete with a map of those very same Keys on which Pomeroy barely hangs on -- writes of men who'll sleep when they're dead; of men who look for things to do in Denver when they're dead. They are men and women like Pomeroy who resort to violence for emotion, who just look to feel something, even though they're resolved to deaden the pain and live no life at all. "I'm gonna hurl myself against the wall," Zevon sings on "Ain't That Pretty At All," "'Cause I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all." (If McGuane's characters speak like songs, Zevon's sing like accidental poets.)

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