By Patrick Vecchio
(CAUTION: Contains naughty words)
The cleavage of men into actors and spectators is the central fact of our time. We are obsessed with heroes who live for us and whom we punish. â€” Jim Morrison, from â€œThe Lords and the New Creaturesâ€
Iâ€™ve been a fan of Warren Zevon since his live album â€œStand in the Fireâ€ came out in 1981. But Iâ€™m nowhere as big a fan now as I used to be, and itâ€™s got nothing to do with the music, everything to do with the musician.
At its best, â€œStand in the Fireâ€ races well past the redline on the rock â€™nâ€™ roll tachometer. Zevonâ€™s best-known tunes â€” especially â€œExcitable Boyâ€ â€“ take on a fun-filled ferocity that makes the studio versions of those songs seem as safe as milk (to borrow a phrase from Captain Beefheart).
I listen to â€œStand in the Fireâ€ when Iâ€™m working out. I have 400 or so high-octane songs on an iPod playlist to motivate me during 45 minutes of the treadmill drudgery of stride-stride-stride-stride. Yesterday, though, when those Zevon tracks came up, I realized I donâ€™t like him nearly as much as I used to.
This is because of a book I read last year, â€œI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon,â€ written by Zevonâ€™s ex-wife, Crystal. Iâ€™ll spare the details; letâ€™s just say Zevon, who died not quite five years ago, comes across as a narcissistic, drugging-and-drinking, womanizing lout.
So how does that make his life different from, say, episodes in the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton or any one of countless rock stars? Answer: It doesnâ€™t â€” except that Hendrix, Clapton and Jagger are from a different world, while Zevon was a guy I could relate to. Example: In the live version of â€œWerewolves of London,â€ in the last verse, Zevon howls that the werewolf, whose hair is perfect and was last seen drinking a Perrier at Trader Vicâ€™s, is â€œlooking for James Taylor!â€ Personally, I wouldnâ€™t mind seeing James Taylor being torn to shreds. Personally, Iâ€™d like to get up on a stage and roar and rave like Zevon does on that album. Iâ€™d like to be a hairy-handed gent and run amok in Kent. But those notions became less appealing when I learned Zevonâ€™s inner excitable boy was a creep.
I guess Iâ€™m punishing the hero, although Zevon is, in a literal sense, no more a hero to me than, say, Tennysonâ€™s Ulysses. In any case, once we peer behind the faÃ§ade and see heroes are flawed, their luster fades. These days, when I read â€œUlyssesâ€ and the hero proclaims, â€œDeath closes all: but something ere the end,/Some work of noble note, may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods,â€ Iâ€™m afraid somebodyâ€™s going to discover a manuscript that has Ulysses next saying, â€œOn second thought, fuck this shit. Letâ€™s go get a cask of mead and chase some wenches.â€
When it comes to heroes, the less I know about them, the better. I have been interested in the art of Salvador Dali ever since I first saw an image of his â€œPersistence of Memoryâ€ in a college art class, and as recently as last week, I was thinking about how brilliant his melting watches are, given the title of the work. But the closer one examines Daliâ€™s writing and painting, the more repulsive he and his work become. George Orwell considered this in a 1944 essay called â€œBenefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali.â€ The springboard for Orwellâ€™s essay is a then-recently published Dali autobiography. Orwell observes, â€œA man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats,â€ and then he details the fantastic excesses that Dali probably fictitiously details in his Life. Orwell concludes:
The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even â€” since some of Dali’s pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard â€” on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.
Itâ€™s worth noting that Orwell writing about Dali in 1944 would have been exactly like writing about Madonna at her self-promoting peak â€” say, the publication of her coffee-table photo book Sex in 1992. Both Dali and Madonna mastered the art of capturing the mediaâ€™s attention; Dali, after all, was the first artist to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Itâ€™s beyond my ability to offer social critiques on Orwellâ€™s level, but sociology wasnâ€™t troubling me on the treadmill yesterday. Rather, I was questioning my need for heroes, and I recalled an essay Lester Bangs wrote about Lou Reed in 1975, â€œLet Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.â€ An excerpt:
The central heroic myth of the sixties was the burnout. Live fast, be bad, get messy, die young. More than just â€œhope I die before I get old,â€ it was a whole cool stalk we had down or tried to get. Partially it has to do with the absolute nonexistence of real, objective, straight-arrow, head-held-high, noble, achieving heroes. Myself, I always wanted to emulate the most self-destructive bastard I could see, as long as he moved with some sense of style. Thus Lou Reed. Getting off vicariously on various forms of deviant experience somehow compensated for the emptiness of our own drearily â€œnormalâ€ lives. Itâ€™s like you never want to see the reality; itâ€™s too clammy watching someone else shoot up junk and turn blue. It ainâ€™t like listening to the records.
Re-reading Bangs made me feel like Wally Cleaver. I donâ€™t want to believe in Bangsâ€™ â€œabsolute nonexistenceâ€ of â€œnoble, achieving heroesâ€ because I need the inspiration and motivation they provide. I have a list of writing heroes, for example: Annie Dillard. Anna Quindlen (her essays, not her books). Dan Barry. Charles P. Pierce. Their writing moves me, inspires me. As Saul Bellow once observed, â€œA writer is a reader moved to emulation.â€ I never will write as well as they do, but that doesnâ€™t mean Iâ€™m not going to try to jump over the bar they raise.
I canâ€™t imagine what it would be like to learn something unseemly about any of them. I want â€” no, need, their personal lives to be â€” well, ordinary, as ordinary as my own life is, so that as I chase the dream to become a better writer, I donâ€™t feel as if theyâ€™ve been given any undue head start because they lead extraordinary lives. And should one of them turn out to be a reprobate, it would be doubly disappointing because he or she would have succeeded despite shortcomings and because somehow, I would be less able to relate to that person.
On the other hand, my expectations may be unfair. More Bangs:
An old song was ricocheting through my head, some faint memory of a time in 1968 when I told my nephew about this kid who was hero-worshipping me because Iâ€™d turned him on to Velvet Underground albums, speed, etc. â€œI donâ€™t wanna be anybodyâ€™s fuckinâ€™ hero,â€ I snarled at the time. My nephew made up a two-line song on the spot: Donâ€™t wanna be a hero/Just wanna be a zero.
All of this actually may point to a flaw in my character, not theirs. Should I have to rely on someone elseâ€™s example to inspire? Shouldnâ€™t I be able to reach deep within myself to find the creative spark plug? Why should I need Tennyson or Zevon to fire me up? I donâ€™t know.
All of this leads to Morrisonâ€™s observation about how we punish heroes. In our media-saturated age, celebrities fall into the â€œheroesâ€ category â€” and look how we treat them. Stalkers sniff the trails of celebrity scents, looking for warts or worse, all of which are duly splashed on magazine covers and television shows for people with ears that hear what they want to hear, eyes that see what they want to see â€” for people to draw glee from, to gloat at. â€œAll of those rich, beautiful people,â€ we think, â€œand they are no happier than we are.â€ But I am better off not knowing.