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.

In 2022…?

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…

I tweeted this video yesterday. It’s been a holiday favorite of mine for years, and since my followers enjoyed it, I’m posting a few more songs that I listen to this time of year.

First up:

This is just surreal:

This one will only make sense if you’ve read The Shadow over Innsmouth. You can skip it otherwise.

And finally, the Christmas song I love so much I mentioned it in my novella:

Doing this reminded me: the great Andrew Sullivan, back when he ran the Daily Dish, would take breaks from writing about serious topics like politics and war to post “Mental Health Breaks”—usually funny videos or beautiful pictures. I can see now why he did it.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

printed musical note page
Photo by Pixabay on

I was inspired to write this after reading Audrey Driscoll’s post on the same subject. Audrey lists the music that influenced her writing, some of which she worked into her books, and some of which, as she puts it, “lurk[s] unseen, despite its huge influence”. It’s a good post, and I encourage you to read it.

I don’t usually listen to music with lyrics while I am in the act of writing. That would just distract me. Sometimes I’ll put on a little atmospheric instrumental music that suits the mood, but that’s about it.

But as any author knows, writing a book is more than just the time spent hitting the keyboard. You spend most of the time “writing” a book thinking about it, mulling over plot intricacies and character motivations in your head. And then is when what you’re listening to really plays a role.

I didn’t listen to much music for The Start of the Majestic World, but I did listen to quite a bit of the radio show Coast to Coast AM while I was planning it. That definitely influenced the story. A few times while writing, I did cue up the soundtrack to Deus Ex, because that game was just the right vibe of weirdness I was trying to get in Majestic World.

The Directorate also has relatively few musical influences. I listened to “The Captain” by Leonard Cohen almost daily while I was writing it, as well as assorted military songs and marches, including “Heart of Oak” and “The British Grenadiers”, which probably influenced the militaristic tone of the novel.

For my current work-in-progress, I’ve been listening to Western music and soundtracks from Western films. Also, the folk song “The Bonnie Earl of Morey”, which I currently have referenced in the book itself, though I may yet cut that.

For the most part, in all my work, music is a minor influence. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I’m not very knowledgeable about music, and so don’t think about it that much. I couldn’t write about it the way Audrey does, for example.

But there is one other story I wrote that was much, much more influenced by music than any of the rest. It’s the super-dark tale I alluded to in this post. 

First of all, during the process of writing that one, I was listening over and over again to Kay Starr’s performance of “The Headless Horseman” song. It’s a children’s song, so it’s more cutesy than scary, but for some reason it was running through my head constantly when I wrote this book. I don’t know how to explain, but the light-hearted handling of a rather frightening subject somehow fit very well with my mood.

Then, while I was writing the story, a friend played Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” for me. I thought the unnerving blend of romance and death was exactly the sort of eerie dissonance I was going for in my book, so I included a reference to the song.

Coincidentally, on the same album that includes “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, there is also a song called “E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” that references The King in Yellow, which was a major influence on my book as well.

But the weirdest part of what was already a surreal writing experience didn’t become apparent until nearly a year after I had already finished writing the story, when I heard the song “The End” by The Doors.

I had heard the beginning before, in the film Apocalypse Now. But when I heard the full, uncensored version, I was immediately stunned by how well the disturbing imagery Morrison used in his lyrics matched the tone of my book. Images and motifs in each fit together eerily well, as did the song’s general feeling of a slow descent into madness. I felt like Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell could have had a field day with it.

What about you? When you write something do you listen to music, or otherwise let it influence your writing process? Any examples of a song that really fit your work?

Over the weekend, I’ve been playing with Garageband and iMovie; getting reacquainted with them after more than a decade. (I blogged about some of my “early works” here and here.) Here are a few things I put together as tests to learn the new features.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen this first one, but it’s actually the one I’m proudest of:

This next one was probably the easiest of the three. The graphic is a rejected cover design for my first book–it was the only cyberpunk-y graphic I had handy.

And finally, this track is meant to have a Twilight Zone feel to it. In truth, I put it together just because I felt like I needed to have three projects. Just two would seem weak.

I’m particularly interested in what you think of the music. I have basically nothing in the way of musical knowledge or training, so I’m very eager to hear any feedback people have in that regard.

In keeping with my criticism of the lyrics of old songs, let me talk about Marty Robbins’s 1959 country hit El Paso.  It’s about a cowboy who falls in love with a dancer named Faleena.

My love was deep for this Mexican maiden/ I was in love, but in vain I could tell 

The old “you love her, she doesn’t love you” problem, eh? Yeah, that’s no fun.  So far, a good, solid tragic tale of unrequited love.  But then, our narrator relates, one night a guy comes in and starts flirting and drinking with Faleena.  So how does our tortured love-lorn hero handle this?

So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden/ Down went his hand for the gun that he wore/ My challenge was answered–in less than a heartbeat/ the handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor

Wait… so he killed the guy who, for all he knew, might well have been Faleena’s actual lover or husband?  “Challenging his right” when he himself had none?  That seems… borderline psychotic.  Ok, so it’s a crime of passion and he says he regrets it but still, it’s a bit extreme.

Having done this “foul, evil deed”, our “hero” skips town and flees to New Mexico, only to decide he can’t stand to live without Faleena, and so he rides back.  (This takes Robbins about as long to sing as it took you to read it–the song has some pacing issues here, and you’re left with the impression he rode away and then immediately turned around and rode back.)

When he returns to El Paso, the citizens are waiting for him and they shoot him as he rides back into town.  It’s unclear what length of time he’s been gone, but apparently they recognize him instantly from hundreds of yards away and are waiting to kill him.

Finally, as he lies dying, he sees Faleena, who kisses him as he dies in her arms.  (Some have suggested this is just his imagination, which would indeed be the only possible way this makes any sense. Why would she kiss the man who apparently killed her boyfriend?)

It’s a testament to how pleasant the music, and Robbins’s voice, make this song sound that it’s such a hit.  Lyrically, it’s not a love song at all, but rather a song narrated by a psychopath.

I remember when I first read the libretto to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.  I was familiar with the “Big 3” Savoy operas–Pinafore, Pirates and The Mikado, but Ruddigore was the first of the others that caught my attention–probably because of the name and the fact it had ghosts in it. But as I read it, I was absolutely blown away by how good it was.  This is hilarious, I thought. Why isn’t it as famous as the others?

I’ve always loved Ruddigore the most of all the operas from that point on. The picture-gallery coming to life and Sir Roderick’s chilling song, the gorgeous madrigal at the end of Act I, the “Matter trio”, the brilliant plot resolution which is so, so much cleverer than those in Mikado or Iolanthe.

But while I loved Ruddigore, I never saw or heard a production that quite matched how it looked and sounded in my head. There are lots of good ones, to be sure, but never one that lived up to what I always wanted the show to be.

Until now.

To be precise, this performance by the Stanford Savoyards still isn’t exactly the Ruddigore of my dreams. It’s somehow better. These people are amazing.

Where to begin? The lady who plays Mad Margaret is incredible–she truly seems mad; without straying too far to the point where she becomes just pathetic. She somehow captures both the humor and the pathos of the role and balances them perfectly. Despard is absolutely splendid as a manipulative, but not wholly un-feeling bad Baronet. Richard Dauntless is excited and energetic without being over-the-top.  The fellow who portrays Robin does a great job as the meek-but-moral farmer, who is, I think, the greatest of all Gilbert’s heroes. Sir Roderick is properly confident and threatening as the leader of the ghosts, and in his second scene, seems extremely fond of his old love, Dame Hannah, who is also terrific.

They are all perfect; exactly as I pictured the characters in my mind.

And then you’ve got Rose Maybud. She is better than I imagined. The actress transforms Gilbert’s two-dimensional caricature into a still very funny, but also very human and sympathetic woman.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to so completely alter the character while still remaining completely faithful to the script, but somehow she did it.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the music.  That’s because I’m not musically savvy enough to really talk about it, but I know what I like, and I love the way they handle the score here.

There are so, so many moments I could point to as examples of why this is a triumph of theatrical magic 125 years in the making.  Watching the whole thing is really the only way to grasp it, but if I had to pick one scene, it would probably be in the Act 1 finale, at about the 1:21:10 mark, when Robin is trying to hand Rose the veil that she dropped at the revelation Robin is the bad Baronet of Ruddigore, and she refuses it.

It’s a funny set-up–the woman who defines her whole life by a book of etiquette is breaking up with the man who has just been revealed to be rightful legal holder of the accursed title of that requires him to commit a crime a day–except on bank holidays.  It’s absurd and ridiculous and funny.  But you know what else? There’s some real sadness in that scene–I automatically feel sorry for Rose and Robin, even though it’s all silly, and I know it’s all going to end happily anyway.

Sentiment and silliness. Horror and humor. Love and legalese. All these elements are mixed perfectly by the performers, into a unique blend.

That, my friends, is what the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are all about.


Contrary to what many of you may think, I do not listen only to Gilbert and Sullivan.  I occasionally listen to musical artists whose works were written as recently as this millennium, if you can imagine that.  One of my favorites is the late Warren Zevon. He was not a very nice person, to put it mildly, as I discovered from reading his ex-wife Crystal’s biography of him, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. But he wrote some great songs–here is a list of my ten favorites.

  1. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“. (1978, with David Lindell)  This tale mixes two of my favorite subjects: mercenaries and ghosts, and is coupled to a well-crafted narrative of war and betrayal.  The opening notes give me chills every time I hear them. It was fitting that it was the last song Zevon performed publicly, during his final appearance on the David Letterman show–I think it is his greatest.
  2. Mohammed’s Radio“. (1976)  I go back and forth on whether I prefer the studio version or the live version that appeared on Stand in the Fire.  The former has better lyrics, but the latter has better energy.  Either one is brilliant, however.
  3. Transverse City“. (1989, with Stefan Arngrim) This song is also the title of Zevon’s most unjustly neglected album. For the life of me, I don’t know why people didn’t like it. (Maybe the horrible cover art?) In any case this song is a very unsettling journey through a cyberpunk landscape.
  4. Mr. Bad Example” (1991, with Jorge Calderon) Again, this was also an album title, and this song was definitely the standout (though it’s a very fine album).  An amusing saga of outrageous misdeeds that probably didn’t seem quite so outrageous to the late Mr. Zevon himself.
  5. Ourselves to Know“. (2000)  This haunting song will creep into my mind at the oddest times.  I am not a religious person, but I do find the Crusades imagery the lyrics evoke to be curiously powerful.  Zevon at his most reflective.
  6. Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)“. (2002, with Mitch Albom) I played hockey as a kid–not very well, though. Like the enforcer hero of this song, I “wasn’t that good with a puck”.  It’s one of the few inspirational sports stories I don’t find tedious.
  7. Turbulence“. (1989) Another one from Transverse City.  I love his topical political songs, and this one also contains some very nice Russian singing.
  8. The Envoy“.  (1982) Note that this is the title track of what is by far Zevon’s worst album.  There are only about four songs that are not awful on it, and this is the only one that is really “good’.  I half suspect he made the whole album just to get this gem published.
  9. “Bad Karma“. (1987) This is a great song for when you are feeling down. It won’t make you feel better exactly, but it will kind of make you laugh.
  10. My Ride’s Here“. (2002, with Paul Muldoon) It sums up Zevon’s body of work perfectly; capturing both his witty, humorous side and his melancholy gloominess.  I suspect you don’t get the full effect of it unless you are pretty familiar with his other stuff going in.

Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan said one of his favorite bands is Rage Against The Machine.  The band’s guitarist, Tom Morello, wrote a response to him in Rolling Stone, saying that Ryan’s beliefs are antithetical to what the band believes, and what their lyrics say.  But, Morello notes, Ryan says “he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics.”

I’ve never understood that.  I don’t know much about music, so I just listen to it as background to the lyrics.  If I like the lyrics, I’ll like the song.  If I don’t, I won’t.  That doesn’t mean I don’t care at all about the music, but it’s definitely a secondary element for me.

That said, it’s easy to like music that is ideologically opposite from oneself.  I like a lot of Marty Robbins‘s songs, even though he was a hardcore conservative.  I think Warren Zevon was a conservative as well, but he’s still one of my favorite singer/songwriters ever.

Anyway, Paul Ryan says he likes RATM’s “sound”.  I’ve only heard a few songs by them, and they seem like the sort of thing he would like.  Too much random loud noise and screaming of the lyrics for my taste; makes them hard to understand.  It’s too bad, because the lyrics themselves are pretty good.  If Ryan is just in it for the “sound”, I’d have to say he’s lucky he still has his hearing.

As Morello is winding down his article, he writes:

But Rage’s music affects people in different ways. Some tune out what the band stands for and concentrate on the moshing and throwing elbows in the pit. For others, Rage has changed their minds and their lives. Many activists around the world, including organizers of the global occupy movement, were radicalized by Rage Against the Machine and work tirelessly for a more humane and just planet. Perhaps Paul Ryan was moshing when he should have been listening.

I think Morello is making a mistake here, because I suspect that most of the band’s success comes from those same “moshers”.  Morello shouldn’t insult them, even if he is understandably upset that one of them is a candidate for national office despite not listening to the band’s message.

While we’re on the subject, why are so many irrelevant details of Paul Ryan’s life making the news?  First there was the thing about his clothes, now it’s his musical tastes.  People are also excited about his hobby, bow-hunting. (Ugh!) Although at least that’s tangentially related to his policy decisions, because one of his major achievements is lowering taxes on arrow makers.