You probably know Warren Zevon, if you know him at all, as the “Werewolves of London” guy. Maybe you remember his appearance on the David Letterman show when he was dying of cancer.
But Zevon was more than just a one-hit wonder with a poignant final act. He was a hardboiled, sardonic, and tempestuous man. A Byronic rocker, particularly in the sense of being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” From his ’70s mercenary anthems “Jungle Work” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” to his more sensitive ruminations on death, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” “Life’ll Kill Ya,” and “Ourselves To Know,” his body of work contains far more than just a goofy dance tune about Lon Chaney Jr. walkin’ with the Queen.
Of all Zevon’s albums, Transverse City is probably the least popular. Even his friends didn’t like it. And it’s true, it has a vastly different sound compared with all his other albums.
Yet, the more I listen, the more I become convinced it is his finest work. Maybe there is no standout track like “Roland,” “Mohammad’s Radio,” or “Mr. Bad Example,” but the album as a whole has no weaknesses. Moreover, it’s a concept album with thematic coherence. Rather than just a bunch of songs, it’s a series of variations on a single motif.
And what is that motif? Haha, you must be new here. Seasoned Ruined Chapel veterans know my critical style is very much that of a shaggy dog story; we work our way gradually to the punchline.
But okay, let’s start at the beginning. Track one, side one, and it’s also the title track. It is setting the tone. Right off the bat, we get a whirlwind tour of a cyberpunk wasteland: “Past the shiny mylar towers / Past the ravaged tenements / To a place we can’t remember / For a time we won’t forget.” Zevon had apparently been reading William Gibson, and the influence is pretty clear.
From that, the music segues into a weird electric buzzing that bleeds into the next track, “Run Straight Down.” Once again, we get another techno-hellscape, this time with a more direct commentary on the annihilation of the environment: “Pretty soon there’s not a creature stirring / ‘Cept the robots at the dynamo.”
And again, there’s a weird effect of sirens and helicopter rotors that introduces the next song: “The Long Arm of the Law,” which paints a picture of a post-apocalypse dystopia full of corrupt authorities: “First words I ever heard: / ‘Nobody move, nobody gets hurt!'”
These first three tracks form a coherent vision of nightmarish high-tech cities and the nihilistic decadents who populate them, of the destruction of nature by machines, and an evil government that oversees it all.
To me, this is almost a mini-album in itself, and these three songs would be worth the price. But Zevon is just getting started.
Next up is “Turbulence“. At face value, this is another of Zevon’s signature “obscure warzone” songs, in the tradition of “Roland.” (And later, the little-known “Bujumbura”) This time, Zevon has made his narrator an unfortunate young soldier in the U.S.S.R’s occupation of Afghanistan: “But comrade Shevardnadze, tell me / What’s a poor boy like me to do?” The song also includes (in Russian) the following haunting lines:
“Lost city on the red desert
I hear voices of enemies from everywhere
I miss my mother very much.”
Following “Turbulence” is the moody and atmospheric “They Moved The Moon,” which is lyrically pretty thin but which captures the feeling of eerie discombobulation perfectly.
Now, if you’re listening to this on a record, this is where the side change occurrs. I only know that from Wikipedia. I first heard this on CD. I admit, I’ve never listened to an actual record on an actual record player. I’ve seen them, and I’ve listened to electronic recordings of records, but have not, ever, listened to one. Yet, even when I was born, it was common for music to be released this way. It really blows my mind.
But, we proceed. The first track on Side 2 is “Splendid Isolation,” which sums up the attitude of the extreme introvert nicely from its opening line onward: “I want to live all alone in the desert.”
And then we have “Networking.” This may well be the most prescient song on an album filled with prescient songs. It opens with an elegant statement of how our own technological advancement has outstripped our own biological capabilities: “There’s a way to live that’s right for us / Like Mayans in Manhattan and Los Angeles.”
From there it goes on to deliberately mix up the language of socializing and dating with computer lingo, culminating in the rather suggestive, “I’ll upload you, you can download me.” Nor is the spiritual element forgotten in this computerized social scene: “There’s a prayer each night that I always pray: / ‘Let the data guide me through every day.'”
There were such things as electronic dating services as far back as the 1960s. But in 1989, they were little more than curiosities. If you asked the average person in 1989 to envision a world where socialization is done primarily through computer interfaces, they’d probably say that it sounds either impossible or extremely sick. They would certainly have been wrong about it being impossible.
The next song, “Gridlock,” is about the frustrations of L.A. traffic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Zevon wrote it while sitting in a traffic jam, because it definitely captures the impotent rage of being stuck in an endless line of cars.
Then there’s “Down In The Mall,” which sounds more incongruous to modern ears now that malls are becoming a symbol of the past, seen only through the lens of nostalgia. What you have to realize is, malls were at one time a symbol of consumer culture, only to be replaced in their turn by online shopping, an even more streamlined competitor in the Darwinian struggle to create the most de-humanized, atomized, and efficient consumer experience.
Still, Zevon’s critique of materialism comes through loud and clear. Mindless consumption is the only thing that ties the characters of the song together: “We’ll go shoppin’ babe; it’s something we can stand.” This is a more realistic, but no less dystopian, riff on the theme of “Transverse City”: a couple losing themselves in a vast, artificial, sensually dazzling but fundamentally hollow experience.
The album ends with a twist on a familiar staple: “Nobody’s in Love This Year.” Zevon usually has a few love songs on most of his albums, but this one, as the name suggests, is more of an anti-love song. Not only has this relationship failed, but all relationships have failed.
All right, I believe I promised you a payoff for all this. I said that Transverse City is organized around a single motif. We are now in a position to see what it is.
The unifying motif of Transverse City is… the pervasive alienation created by modernity.
This is, of course, a very old theme. Really, it’s as old as the first machine, I suppose. And it hasn’t stopped the machines from getting better.
Moreover, 1989 was probably the worst time in history to bring it up. We were poised on the cusp of the 1990s, and as I tried to say in my series on ’90s action movies, the ’90s were an era of overwhelming optimism. In the United States, at least, there was a sense of excitement at the potential of all the wonders the marriage of liberal democracy and modern information technology had in store for the coming millennium.
And certainly for the next decade or more, such optimism proved to be largely justified. The ’90s were a time of peace, plenty, and prosperity. Technological change did create a booming economy and previously undreamt-of conveniences.
Small wonder Transverse City was a flop. Small wonder even Zevon’s closest collaborators thought it was lousy. To be either a commercial or critical success, art must be in harmony with the prevailing feelings of its time. Like a plant needing the proper soil and climate to grow, art is no less dependent on its environment.
No, there’s just no sugarcoating it: In 1989, Transverse City was a dud, pure and simple, and in some sense, deservedly so.
Transverse City gives us songs for a world of atomized individuals who socialize mainly through a little box in their pockets, a world where mega-corporations control nearly every aspect of the economy, a world scarred by wars waged by criminal governments equipped with the latest high-tech weaponry, a world where every day another patch of what had once been wilderness is buried beneath the girders of metastasizing megacities. Well…
But I’m not in the business of telling you what to think. You know modernity at least as well as I do, and you can listen to Transverse City as easily as I can. You may think my interpretation is too jaundiced. Maybe you’re right. Then again, maybe you’re Pollyanna. Either way, Warren Zevon has a message for you:
Told my little Pollyanna,
There’s a place where we can stay.
We have come to see tomorrow;
We have given up today…