Notes on the 30th anniversary of Warren Zevon’s Transverse City
Even by Warren Zevon standards, 1989’s Transverse City — Zevon’s seventh studio album, and his second since getting sober — is perverse and bizarre. Zevon had bottomed out after the general non-reception of his 1982 album The Envoy, and had spent the better part of five years in the wilderness recuperating, reading, filing the occasional live gig. Then, in 1986, things started to happen. Martin Scorsese, one of Zevon’s idols (he’d dedicated his 1980 live album Stand in the Fire to the filmmaker), gave prominent placement to Zevon’s hit “Werewolves of London” in his Paul Newman/Tom Cruise vehicle The Color of Money. Within a week of the movie’s release, we saw the first (but by no means the last) best-of-Zevon comp, A Quiet Normal Life, featuring “Werewolves” front and center. The next summer, in August 1987, brought Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon’s first sobriety record and his first for the label Virgin. Critics and fans embraced it.
So what did Zevon do for an encore? Well, see, he’d been reading William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon…
Transverse City landed with a heavy thud in October 1989. Zevon’s one and only “concept album” — I’ve also seen it described as a “song cycle,” and that seems to fit better — it was steeped in the language and paranoia of the dense cyberpunk fiction Zevon had been devouring. Such was its reception that Zevon was let go from Virgin. If the label thought Zevon was going to be a good commercial boy and serve up “Werewolves of London, Part 2,” they must’ve been thinking of someone else named Warren Zevon.
This goddamn thing kicks off, on the title track, with elaborate mouthfuls like “Here’s the song of shear and torsion/Here’s the bloodbath magazine/Here’s the harvest of contusions/Here’s the narcoleptic dream,” like an apocalyptic street vendor showing off his wares. Just in case the album hadn’t sufficiently alienated the hoi polloi, track 2, “Run Straight Down,” opens with Michael Ironside droning the names of poisonous chemicals, leading into Zevon announcing “I went walking in the wasted city/Started thinking about entropy.” Take that, new fans! Ahoooo, werewolves of dystopia!
The conventional wisdom is that, if Sentimental Hygiene was Zevon’s personal detox album, Transverse City was his post-detox album, where he peered around through clear, sober eyes and saw a late-’80s wasteland. Some have claimed the album as a barbaric yawp of fear and loathing. It’s very likely that during the writing, Zevon was venting anxiety and weltschmerz. But the Zevon I hear on the album — and I’ve listened to it a lot in the last two weeks or so, even before realizing its 30th was approaching — sounds almost elated at times. Take that title track: Zevon is rattling off all the diseased nooks and crannies of the futuristic society he’s painting, and it could come off as a hectoring litany like Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” except it doesn’t. Zevon sounds as if he’s gloating over all the new rhetorical toys he gets to play with. He’s thrilled as fuck to occupy himself in the vast sandbox built by Gibson and Pynchon, just as he loved to evoke Ross Macdonald (another idol) in his many walkabouts through the back alleys of criminals and screw-ups. Zevon loved language, and it’s by no means clear that the voice we hear is especially fearful. To him, this nightmare world of loneliness and toxicity is just another patch of noir territory, sealed with an intellectual’s smirk.
I first started to suspect Zevon was actually grooving on what he was supposed to be decrying when I heard “Down in the Mall,” track 9, for the hundredth or so time. Now, this could easily be mistaken for a banal anti-consumerist pie in the face of the ’80s shopping ethos. And it certainly sounds satirical, what with the refrain “Up on the escalator/Darlin’, we will ride” presenting itself as a parody of outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde (or Frank and Jesse James, stars of the first song on Zevon’s breakthrough self-titled second album) going for a ride, whether on horses or behind a wheel — except here it’s to go from, like, Sears to Sam Goody’s. Irony, of course, was one of Zevon’s frequent tools, but let’s also remember this was the same man who had an OCD thing about buying scores of identical gray Calvin Klein shirts. He would go from department store to department store on the lookout for the damn things, and then stash them, never taking them out of the package. To my ears, “Down in the Mall” is more interesting as an acknowledgment of the excitement, the hunting/gathering aspect, of shopping to get what you want than as a condemnation of mallrats.
Like any good dystopian author, Zevon was doing two things with Transverse City. Number one, he was having a ball for himself world-building through sometimes incongruous turns of phrase — building not so much a world, really, but a mood, an atmosphere. Number two, he was ostensibly writing about the future — once referring to the album as his “2010 sci-fi project” — and one song, “The Long Arm of the Law,” refers to “the war in Paraguay back in 1999,” which at the time was a decade in Zevon’s future, and is now two decades past. But really the album is more about 1989, or the ’80s, than about whatever far-flung cyberpunk milieu the narrative occupies. Part of the job of the better sci-fi, after all, is to comment on the artist’s own world using the vocabulary and design of the world to come.
Zevon is at his grimmest in “Run Straight Down,” which — talk about perverse — was released as a single and as a video. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, one of the album’s many guest stars (as per usual for Zevon, who was a musician’s musician), drizzles some gorgeous guitar noodling over the main character’s account of wandering around the city of crap and deciding he’s better off just surveying the societal/climate damage from his couch on the late news. For the most part, Zevon isn’t terribly adventurous musically; he lays down engaging but basic rock/pop melodies (which give songs like “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” their particular infectious quality) and then ladles verbal weirdness on top of them. A wrought iron fence can be ornately designed, but it still has to function as a fence, and most of Zevon’s songs serve as fine structures underneath the rhetorical finials. “Run Straight Down” is different; it doesn’t seem to owe much to rock or pop. Eerie and dissonant, it plays on one’s inner Spotify when one least wants it to — it’s the soundtrack to the wolf hour.
More often than not, the songs on Transverse City could appear on any other Zevon album in terms of theme and content, aside from a slight tickle of the future. Such is true of “The Long Arm of the Law,” track 3, which sounds much like the theme song for an action TV show about outlaws a step ahead of Boss Hogg or somebody. Except for the aforementioned 1999 dating, the track may as well concern another in Zevon’s thick tarot deck of crooks, lowlifes, and scofflaws. Some things will never change; there will always be low scum challenging the order of things, as well as high scum. In the context of a paranoid cyberpunk album, though, it’s thematically plugged into the same power strip as the other songs. It’s different electricity, and it makes “Long Arm” sound different than it would by itself or in the company of songs like “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Zevon knew he couldn’t go too far afield — in his words, he couldn’t indulge in a song about “11th-century Indian architecture” in the middle of what was supposed to be a dark-futuristic album — but a few of the songs attach themselves to the larger Transverse City theme, like remoras to a shark, without necessarily being organic to it. (I will say, though, that when Zevon works up to “When the judge says ‘Who done it?’/You’ll be crying ‘Not me! Not me!” he really acts that not me! By golly, he means it.)
That’s also true of the next track, “Turbulence,” with its frequent refrain “Turmoil back in Moscow brought this turbulence down on me.” Turmoil/turbulence — Zevon had a real talent for this sort of assonant larking (even Zevon’s loathed gravestone hit has the impeccable sequence “little old lady got mutilated late last night” — “lady/lated/late last night”). The song gives Zevon license to play with geopolitics, one of his favorite toys, and again it wouldn’t seem out of place on The Envoy. Zevon liked to tongue the sore tooth that was Russia (his dad, née Zivotovsky, was a Russian immigrant who developed mob ties in the new country), but this song doesn’t seem to have anything much to say about the future of Russia or of its place in American nightmares. It’s another song that’s more about the time in which it was recorded than about 2010 or whenever. The implication, though, is that Russia will go on being mired — in self-doubt, in war in Afghanistan — for the foreseeable future.
One of my favorites comes next, the creepy “They Moved the Moon,” which shakes out as the album’s closest thing to a true love song. The narrator can’t process change, is deeply confused by it, and needs a partner to be his anchor, to stabilize him. “They changed the stars around,” he keeps complaining, and he was expecting you to be there to get him through it. But you weren’t. (Sorry, man.) Tonally, “They Moved the Moon” seems to float in the same strange brackish pool that hosts “In the Air Tonight” — spacey but grounded in bold, basic emotions, fear, anger, tension, release. It feels like someone trying to breathe inside a tightening chest. Whoever Zevon is singing to, she (Zevon was nothing if not staunchly heteronormative) has the power of clarity over him. He can’t see straight without her. An OCD alcoholic needs familiar things, needs routine. They can’t just keep moving the moon and changing the stars around, for Christ’s sake.
Onward to track 6, “Splendid Isolation,” the one song on the album you stand a fair chance of having heard, since it’s on a couple of the Zevon compilations. We are assured by the man’s grown children, Ariel and Jordan, that reclusiveness is in the Zevon DNA; “The family crest is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign,” cracked Jordan. The narrator sings the praises of solipsism; unlike the poor quivering bastard in “They Moved the Moon,” he doesn’t need you — or likes to claim he doesn’t. On one occasion, the use of double negatives either trips up or reveals the narrator — “Don’t wanna wake up with no one beside me,” he sings, which could mean either that he doesn’t want to wake up alone or that he doesn’t want to wake up with someone beside him. The rest of the stanza, though, re-affirms the reclusive context. To tie the song into the surrounding dystopia, the narrator confesses, “I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows/Lying down in the dark to dream/I don’t want to see their faces/I don’t want to hear them scream.” They? Why would they be screaming? Again with the (tinfoil) paranoia. Whatever else it is or isn’t, this must be the weirdest bit in a single since “And it rained like a slow divorce/And I wish I could ride a horse” in Robyn Hitchcock’s “Balloon Man.”
But isolation has its limits, and the next card Zevon deals from his deck is the internet-as-sex song “Networking,” wherein Zevon the writer and lyricist delights in all this nerd terminology he probably got by eavesdropping on IT guys, not unlike Mark Knopfler breaking out the notebook when a guy in a hardware store started venting about how that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it. “It’s a long hard road and a full hard drive,” he writes, probably chuckling to himself over his cleverness. Zevon got by with this sort of thing because he was clever, and he used it to cut to the chase. “I will upload you, you can download me” is an undeniably fine — and, in 1989, prescient — turn of phrase; it could be dirty if squinted at, with the side benefit of being the correct use of these terms in a less poetic sense. The 2003 reissue of Transverse City signs off with an acoustic demo of “Networking” as a bonus track, and while this means the album no longer ends on the wistful note it once did, it at least sends us back out into the world with the affable, analog grumble of Zevon accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica — he really sounds as though he’s “truly basic” and “installs with ease.”
Recently, thinking about Synchronicity and the rest of the Police corpus, I decided that Sting (another clever lad) was driven by anger and a need to prove he wasn’t just some dumb pop-star pretty boy — he’d been educated as a teacher, thank you very much. (Sting seemed to chill the hell out as soon as he went solo and his nerves weren’t being stomped by Stewart Copeland.) So a song like “Synchronicity II” stands outside the Jungian agonies of its protagonist, while his rage builds up, taking the form of a monster casting a shadow on a lakeside house. When Sting sings about rush-hour workers “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes,” he’s too busy sniffing the perfume of his own schoolboy simile to occupy that car himself. He feints towards compassion, but the real mission of the song is to help illustrate a thesis. “Gridlock,” track 8 on Transverse City, is a much more engaged and American pass on similar material. Since it focuses exclusively on the frustrations of traffic jams, it’s free to climb into the narrator’s crawling skin. The music, perhaps ironically, is the most basic hard rock on the album, coming on like your standard roll-down-the-window (and let me scream) summertime cruise anthem. The lyrics express constriction and rage (“I feel like going on a killing spree”) while the music — featuring Neil Young on crunchy, aggro lead guitar — evokes escape. Prophetic as always, Zevon seemed to have written the theme song to the sweaty, buzzing-fly opening ire of 1993’s Falling Down. (“I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?” is the finest thing in that movie and could easily be a Zevon lyric.)
Zevon leaves us (on the original album, anyway) with the gently sorrowful “Nobody’s in Love This Year,” which again would fit as well on a non-dystopian album, and again only seems apocalyptic in proximity to its neighbors. The air is dead, the water is dead, experience is dead, love is dead. Zevon starts this whole journey with a carny-barker list of inhuman things to observe in Transverse City and ends on a very human entreaty: “I don’t want to be Mr. Vulnerable/I don’t want to get hurt.” Much as The Wall was Roger Waters’ response to fascism everywhere he saw it, foremost in himself, Transverse City (an urban sprawl crossing at an angle to humanity?) diagnoses societal ills through the author’s own symptoms. Zevon set out to fashion his very own Neuromancer and came back with one of his most autobiographical (and certainly most neglected) works. “The muse is a tough buck,” said S.J. Perelman, and sometimes it takes you down weird side roads. You wanna write a cyberpunk novel, kid? Okay, you do that. You’re gonna end up just writing about your own shit, but fine. What else is new?
As I said, Transverse City tanked, and Virgin gave Zevon his walking papers. They’d sunk a lot of dough into Sentimental Hygiene, and weren’t in the business of playing patrons-of-the-arts to a cult favorite. I’ve heard all of Zevon’s studio albums, and this one speaks to me most directly, for whatever reason, maybe because Zevon uses future-shock themes as a Trojan horse to sneak past his own gates. He can’t look at the eclipse of his soul directly, so he peers at it through the sunglasses of sci-fi. (The future’s so dark, I gotta wear shades.) What we end up with on Transverse City is apprehension not about the future in general but about Zevon’s own future as a still newly-sober artist. The booze and drugs had done a good job of blunting his reception of reality, but now he’s at risk of being Mr. Vulnerable, isolated down at the mall. His antennae are clean, pulling in disturbing signals with no interference. And yet, being Zevon, he’s going to be dryly witty about it all, and even amused on some level. (“I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years,” quipped the dying Zevon to David Letterman at the top of his final appearance on Letterman’s show in 2002.) That’s where his instinct as an entertainer kicks in, despite himself.
Usually concept albums have a unifying figure — Pink, Tommy — but any attempt to pry one out of this album is a fool’s mission. Is the rough tough creampuff in “The Long Arm of the Law” the same narrator who issues an amiable geek-cred come-on in “Networking”? I don’t think so. There’s no Jesus of Suburbia here, no Kilroy. Generally Zevon’s songs don’t share any fictional narrator, but listening to him across the decades, we don’t get the sense that all the songs emerge from distinct voices, either. There’s one voice on all the albums, and that’s Warren Zevon. That’s why, despite some of the strongly late-’80s production, Transverse City sounds newly minted thirty years later. Although it can be inadvertently predictive (accidentally like an oracle?), it’s a walking tour through an artist’s preoccupations, griefs and grievances, the world filtered through ostensible dystopia filtered through Zevon. I’m convinced that the album, much moreso than “Werewolves of London” or “Excitable Boy” or even his masterpiece “Desperados Under the Eaves,” is key to deciphering him. It’s just this gnarled, overlooked Rosetta Stone for the rest of Zevon’s work and life.