Magazine article The Spectator

Not Staying Alive

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Staying Alive

Article excerpt

Not staying alive Marcus Berkmann

Rock stars of a certain age seem to be keeling over all around us. Cause of death seems to change over the years. Thirty years ago it was drugs; 15 years ago it was Aids; now it's looking worryingly like old age. And amazingly, as in the real world, some people seem to go on for ever. I saw a photograph of Keith Richards the other day. His deathly pallor, with wrinkles you could canoe down, is now topped with one of those violently dyed mops of hair that make you look even older than you are, in human years or drug years. But his smile says Tm still here', and 'I can still walk unaided'. If he could act, a featured part in the next sequel of The Mummy would surely be his.

In the past two weeks, though, we have lost Warren Zevon and Robert Palmer. Zevon, aged 56, had been dying for a while from lung cancer, and had probably done well to hang on for so long. He announced his forthcoming demise over a year ago, as one of the unlikelier ways of promoting a new album. Actually, that sounds more cynical than it was, for Zevon's sense of humour was so bleak he made Randy Newman look wide-eyed. I seem to have been listening to his albums for most of my adult life, and indeed the first one I bought, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, came out in 1980.

It's a very strange album, but then most of them are. Launched in the mid-1970s as a sort of ironic Jackson Browne - you may remember the only hit, 'Werewolves Of London' - Zevon soon took a more interesting path. At times overly slick, more frequently hopelessly shambolic, he could write the quietest, most sensitive ballad, a fast and nasty punk song and then a parody of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then put them all on the same side of the same album. What bound everything together was this mordant humour, and an irrepressible tunefulness: the pop sensibility peered through even the murkiest of his records.

The voice, though, is not to everyone's taste. As with Richard Thompson and Neil Young and Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, if you can't bear the voice, you might as well give up now. Zevon's was a sort of quavery growl, although it was remarkably expressive, and almost perversely versatile. There is a Greatest Hits record, but those are for salesmen in cars. Instead, try Sentimental Hygiene (1987), which came after a five-year lay-off when he gave up drinking; the aforementioned Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School; and the wonderfully dark Mr Bad Example (1991). There is a new album out, recorded in a hurry earlier this year, but I haven't bought it yet. …

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