Books Go Deep Digging into Warren Zevon, the Clash, and Steely Dan Excavations

Warren Zevon in concert, 1976, Germany. He is opening for friend/producer/champion Jackson Browne.
Warren Zevon in concert, 1976, Germany. He is opening for friend/producer/champion Jackson Browne. WikiCommons/Klaus Hitscher
Outside of musician/band biographies, autobiographies, picture books, general histories and memoirs, there’s one subset of Rock Lit only the die-hard fan delves into. These are the tomes that give an album-by-album or song-by-song account full of trivia and often author analysis. So if you are only cognizant of “Werewolves of London,” “Rock the Casbah” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from the following three acts…this article may not be for you!

Accidentally Like a Martyr: The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon
By James Campion
290 pp.
Backbeat Books

As far as I’m concerned, there cannot be enough books on the criminally underrated Warren Zevon, and the man’s Great Bio is still to be written (though ex-wife Crystal Zevon’s oral history I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is pretty damn good). Here, music journo Campion uses 10 individual songs and three albums as the subjects of elongated essays on Zevon’s music, but that’s something of a misnomer. Through original interviews, archival quotes, and his own analysis, the books covers far more of Zevon’s catalog and life story than just passing mentions.

As he says in the intro, Campion sees Zevon songs as chapters in the great American novel. “We never seem to know if we’re looking in a mirror or peering through a window; we only know that when we listen, we see something.”

And for sure Warren Zevon brought a writer’s flair for character development to his stable of song protagonists that include werewolves, gorillas, Old West outlaws, decapitated machine gunners, mentally ill rapist psychos, and Hula Hula Boys—a whole bevy of Mr. Bad Examples. But then he could turn on a dime and deliver the most heartbreaking ballad of lost love in which he’s often the bad guy. And—like Zevon himself—frequently drunk (Zevon’s issues with booze and drugs, and how it affected his career and family, are well covered).

Campion’s music dissections are marvelously written, and often tie back into Zevon’s actual life. Like how the officially unreleased “Studebaker” was an elegy for his 1950’s Russian-Jewish gangster dad. Or how he did actually go home with a waitress for a romantic tryst as he describes in the opening line of “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” but turned the car around before getting there to finish writing the song because inspiration had struck.

Campion does a great job of interspersing the contributions of collaborators like Jackson Brown, Waddy Wachtel, and Jorge Calderon (often based on original interviews) to shaping Zevon’s writing and playing.

While Campion does let his personal preferences for Zevon’s catalog and fanboy attitude seep through occasionally, it’s overall a very trenchant and insightful look into the madman of L.A.-based ‘70s singer/songwriters who was more than happy to play the part both on disc and in real life.

The Clash: All the Albums, All the Songs
By Martin Popoff
240 pp.
Voyageur Press

The insanely prolific Popoff – who has penned nearly 8,000 record reviews – turns his attention to deconstructing and illuminating every song by the band on every studio album (yes, even Cut the Crap….)

And yes, while there’s little new info here that would surprise a Clash die-hard, it’s nonetheless a solid summation of the band’s work, featuring background on the writing of every song and sprinkled with archives quotes from band members and associates, with band history and the occasional Popoff observation (he thinks Sandinista! is far too bloated as well). And for the diehard, a look at the band’s deep cuts that would never make any greatest hits compilation.

But the book’s real strength is the amazing cache of band photos – many of them live and not familiar – as well as shots of Clash record and single covers, memorabilia, ticket stubs, and show flyers. Overall, a good-looking primer on “The Only Band That Matters.”

Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion
Edited by Barney Hoskyns
352 pp.
The Overlook Press

There is one other type of book geared toward a band or musician’s superfan, and that is the interview compendium. Here Hoskyns, the esteemed music journo and guiding light of the archival site gathers examples from 45 years of articles about Steely Dan from scores of writers.

Material spans from a 1972 interview with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker prior to the release of their debut Can’t Buy a Thrill to an appreciative obituary of Becker upon his passing in 2017 (in a piece from 2000, it’s Becker who accurately describes the band’s music as “a sleek exterior with a turbulent lyric”).

The book also quotes Becker as saying of a lot of the group’s unconventional song subjects “A lot of what you’d call bitter or cynical, we’d call funny…we may have a slightly blacker sense of humor than your average person. I’m always surprised that divorces and things aren’t funnier than they are. The American Dream? That’s very funny too.”

There are historical essays and record and concert reviews, of course – and not all laudatory. A 1975 review of third album Katy Lied starts with the sobriquet “When I first received this album, it engendered dispassionate dislike but the more I play it, the more I become merely ambivalent…all in all, not the hot poop we’ve come to expect from Steely Dan.” Ouch.

But the meat of the book is in the articles in which an often hapless interviewer sits down with Fagen and Becker in person and together. Highly entertaining, the duo’s wry back and forth with the intrepid journalist and each other makes for some often funny reading as the reader tries to sift through what is sincere and what is a put on. In fact, I’d love to hear the raw tapes of these sessions, if only for all the offbeat references to other musicians and literature (Steely Dan was always lauded as “a thinking rock fan’s group”).

Their reluctance to participate in said interviews often comes through in body language. Like this trenchant observation from 1975: “Donald Fagen’s chiseled face looks as if it had permanently clamped itself in that grim expression in order to support the weight of his eyebrows. He sits crouching like a gargoyle and glares straight ahead, as if he is about to pounce on something.”

What is compelling about books like this is the juxtaposition of then-contemporary opinions and reflections by both Fagen and Becker along with the journalist. The weakness of interview collections, though, is the repetition of information. Here, the Steely Dan Origin Story becomes as ingrained through many retellings as that of Superman or Spider-Man. And it’s the most references to William Burroughs and Bard College you’ll see anywhere.

Still, Major Dudes is required reading (along with Brian Sweet’s Reelin’ in the Years and Anthony Robustelli’s Steely Dan FAQ) for fans of the Dan.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero