I was in the house when the house burned down
I met the man with the thorny crown
I helped him carry his cross through town
I was in the house when the house burned down
The Christian references sound natural for a reason. It’s a strummy, acoustic folk song and when Warren sang those particular lyrics he affected a whoop-like blue-grass vocalization.
American folk music evolved alongside American gospel music. It’s the reason why we expect to hear Christianity more often in country and in the roots of R&B.
I was raised with an ethnic spirituality in a heavily Christian environment. This tradition came down through my mother’s side of the family. My father was raised with a soft Methodist emphasis but has been an agnostic for as long as he’s been making his own decisions.
My parents got divorced just before my eleventh birthday. My mom was approaching her late thirties and my dad was almost forty. He was open about how much the inevitability of death weighed on his thoughts.
This was an intense time for my dad and I but also a precious time. He began working at the printing press at the local newspaper, sorting papers and delivering them at night in his van. Consequently, he slept during the day more often and was forced to economize his energy. Between errands in town, he would often take naps in his van. He kept it well-stocked with junk food.
The van was also where I heard most of his music. Which brings us back to Warren Zevon. Dad had just discovered Life’ll Kill Ya, which was probably Zevon’s most recent album at the time.
My parents had shared custody so I spent time with both of them. Once, when a psychiatrist asked the right question in the right way, I became unusually open. I spoke plainly about gender dysphoria and constant sleep deprivation. Including the more gruesome intrusive thoughts.
Doctor told mom and mom told dad. I had already been aware of how news like this impacted them both and I had developed a sense of responsibility about it. Broaching these topics with them never helped.
Those events happened about a year after dad discovered Life’ll Kill Ya but both dysphoria and insomnia hallucinations were present well before that year. Death was on my dad’s mind for one reason and it was on my mind for another, but it was in both of our thoughts.
And it was in Warren’s thoughts because of cancer.
Warren Zevon being Warren Zevon, he could not separate spirituality from its relevance to death. For a million good reasons, of course- both spirituality and death are encounters with the unknown. Ditto for Christianity.
When I first heard I Was In The House When The House Burned Down, I wondered if my dad was reconnecting with Methodism. If he had been, it would not necessarily have driven any sort of wedge between us. I had Christian peers who were nasty little proselytizers but my dad was a very different person than them. And then I heard the rest of the album.
My dad and I both agree that the last three albums of Zevon’s career are extremely different from the rest of his discography. Warren Zevon was always a talented writer and lyricist but, in the final three albums, lyrics and ideas seized the foreground. Since Life’ll Kill Ya was my introduction to Warren Zevon, his earlier work felt different. Whimsical, witty and interesting, but different. I liked his simple and earnest approach to storytelling, exemplified in songs like Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, a ballad about a Danish mercenary who met his end in Africa. I was also captivated by Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels by then, so I couldn’t resist a romantic story about a phantom gunslinger named Roland. I was also taken by songs like Carmelita and The French Inhaler, which were emotional portraits conveyed with simple, poetic narratives.
This poetic storytelling is present in his last three albums, just situated in more of a conceptual framework. I was watching the Orville episode called Gently Falling Rain last night with my wife and afterward, while she was busy, I listened to Genius from Warren Zevon’s My Ride’s Here.
The episode had three main characters: a human diplomat, an alien demagogue and their half-breed child. Both the diplomat and the demagogue are exceptional, powerful people in their own right. The exceptional qualities that can amass power can also make one isolated. Power itself can be seen as a kind of isolation. In Stephen King’s final Dark Tower novel, the character Ted Brautigan says that gifted people usually feel like fifth wheels.
My dad told me, shortly after the divorce happened, that dying alone was one of his deepest fears. Judging from the albums Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, Warren was also haunted by the prospect of loneliness before unknown. In the song Genius, the explicit narrative is a love triangle with comparisons made to historical figures. On a less explicit level, the song describes how unique people can hurt each other in ways that others cannot. It insinuates that the experience of profound isolation can teach dreadful lessons of self-preservation that can prepare you to deceive and abandon the ones you love.
On My Ride’s Here, Genius follows another track called Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song), which follows You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared. Hit Somebody! is also about the pain of alienation. Our main character, Buddy, is a Canadian farm boy who “grew up big” and “grew up tough” but was let down by his coordination:
He saw himself scoring for the Wings or Canucks
But he wasn’t that good with a puck
Buddy’s real talent was beating people up
His heart wasn’t in it but the crowd ate it up
Through pee-wee’s, juniors and midgets and mites
He must have racked up more than six-hundred fights
A scout from the flames came down from Saskatoon
Said “We’ve always got room for a goon
Son, we’ve always got room for a goon”
Buddy loved the game and wanted to score goals like any other player. But his only value to the team was his ability to protect the fast players and beat the crap out of the good players on the other team. To a lot of people, this sounds like a quirky, off-beat story. It is quirky and offbeat, in a way. The quirkiness is accentuated by David Letterman yelling “hit somebody!” during the chorus. My dad ordered the CD single before My Ride’s Here was released. I remember the single disc had For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer after the Hockey Song.
On the album, though, the song is sandwiched between You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared and Genius. Someone like Buddy cannot escape his rural self-awareness. He is valued for something other than the game itself, which can make you feel out of your depth. Anything about you that sets you apart can make you self-conscious if your value in a group is incidental to the group itself. The quirky appearance is then equated with alienation. The chorus says as much: “(b)rains over brawn, that might work for you / but what’s a Canadian farm boy to do”. Buddy is constantly reminded of his difference from the rest of the team and he can only score his goal by exposing himself to a goon on the other team.
This narrative is also present on Life’ll Kill Ya. The third song is Porcelain Monkey, one of Warren’s iconic lyrical sketches of Elvis, opposite Jesus Mentioned. Both of those songs look back on Elvis from a time after his death. Jesus Mentioned is reverent and the earnestness is depicted by the path of reverence taking one beyond the ugliness of death and addiction. In contrast, Porcelain Monkey is like a bitter, spiteful look backward. A journey that starts as “an accident waiting to happen” and ends in a lonely death with a figurine used to smuggle drugs.
If one looks for songs that depict an obvious narrative on Life’ll Kill Ya, you might be tempted to stop at two songs: Porcelain Monkey and Ourselves to Know. Songs that rely strongly on idiomatic constructions tend to be more conversational than narrative, like the title track or For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer. Life’ll Kill Ya has some fun gray areas, though.
Novel uses of idioms and commonly understood metaphors engage a prior frame of reference. They rely on a base of knowledge that the listener might show up with on their own. They begin in a way that’s engaged with others. Songs like Hostage-O, My Shit’s Fucked Up and Don’t Let Us Get Sick derive strength from the opposite end of the spectrum, of something spoken in solitude.
I remember I was fifteen by the time I started to appreciate Ourselves to Know and it was because I was ripping my dad’s CD on a disc-writing machine my mom installed in her stereo. I had to start and stop each song. It required a little more attention than recording a blank tape. Since I pretty much had to listen to the whole album in order to make the copy, I had to make sure to stop the disc-writer at the same time the song ended. This was easier if I just hung out next to the stereo and listened to each song closely. When I got to Ourselves to Know, the second to last song, it became one of my favorite lyrics. It still is.
Among my favorites on the Life’ll Kill Ya song cycle, Ourselves to Know shares the title of favorite with Don’t Let Us Get Sick. Jill Sobule would perform that song often when she toured with Warren and he would cover her song I Kissed a Girl, lending his own quirkiness to a male gender-flip of a song about romance between females. After Warren’s death, she offered her cover to the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich and it’s probably my favorite from that collection. On a mix CD I made as a teenager, I put Jill Sobule’s cover of Don’t Let Us Get Sick after You Got Lucky by Tom Petty and before Exploration B / Haunted, by Poe.
That energy-exchange reminds me of a mix CD I made after finishing the Dark Tower series. After Warren’s song Genius, I placed a live version of Wash My Hands by Meredith Brooks. Before the end of Roland’s pilgrimage, he loses three companions who all gave him a second chance but were simply not meant to follow him to the end. In the past, he made grievous sacrifices for his grail…and he learns that to seek his grail is to acknowledge that it is meant for him alone. To love others is to know that their own paths are as binding as his own.
When I was planning the mix CD, Ourselves to Know felt like the perfect transition to the end, but it’s just so tranquil and reflective. What that story transition felt like, as I read it, was reflective but not tranquil. Musically, Genius to Wash My Hands was a better match. Meredith’s screaming, war-like chorus could have come from Roland himself.
I have vague memories of reading a biography of Warren Zevon that quoted a reaction that Jackson Browne had to Life’ll Kill Ya. He said that it began with the Crucifixion and ends with the Crusades. If Ourselves to Know is the Crusades, I Was In The House When The House Burned Down must be the Crucifixion. Sure enough, it mentions “the man with the thorny crown” and his cross. “I had to stay in the underground” has a number of probable non-religious interpretations, but thanks to Ourselves to Know and Jackson Browne I’m tempted to make a connection to both early and medieval Christianity. Early Christianity because of the persecuted Christians hiding in Mediterranean catacombs, medieval Christianity because of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris. Disputes between Parisian nobility and the Christian Church often centered on how to manage the overflowing volume of corpses in Paris throughout the Middle Ages. Andreas Vesalius made significant anatomical studies on the bodies crowded within Les Innocents. The grisly historical art in the album booklet make similar associations.
Ourselves to Know details the reflections of someone at the end of a “long hard road”. A journey may start with the most sublime visions but never cease to be true to yourself and those you encounter along the way. If nothing else, you will certainly know yourself better.