Life Is Cheap and Death Is Free

Notes on the 30th anniversary of Warren Zevon’s Transverse City

Warren Zevon performing “Splendid Isolation,” one of the songs on “Transverse City.”

So what did Zevon do for an encore? Well, see, he’d been reading William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon…

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

I see movies and write about ’em. Old, new, makes no difference.

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