September 18, 2003

Eternal Resonance

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Jake Gittes: I know you’re too respectable to want your name in the papers.

Noah Cross: I’m old. Ugly buildings, whores, and politicians all get respectable if they last long enough.

— Chinatown

Respectability comes too easily in music. Merely live into your 40s, continue to play without falling on your face and people will cut you any amount of slack just for being alive and picing. Credibility, however, that true respect which is not duty, comes to far fewer people. It is not a matter of age, or even, always, of talent. But there is that handful who are inscribed in music’s upper echelon, in the pantheon, immortal, and with their reputations untouchable. We can no more explain their enduring relevance than we can explain why a handful of notes played in sequence should have the power to move us to tears or laughter. Of course, that won’t stop us from trying.

Warren ‘The Peckinpach of Rock” Zevon and Johnny “The Man in Black: Cash, both of whom died in the past two weeks, were different in almost every regard except this: they were both genuinely mourned. Their deaths actually affected thousands of people, so that when the talking heads said: “he will be missed,” we believed it. They had both achieved that kind of regard for themselves, Zevon as the adored cult figure who is invariably described as a musician’s musician, named by other, more famous people as someone to be watched and appreciated. Cash was an honest-to-god legend who started out playing roots music and went onto become an integral part of the rock revolution, all without losing his credibility with his original fans. Though they had vastly different careers, they each made a similar kind of music: that which, even if you do not particularly enjoy, you can’t help but appreciate for the soundness of its construction: the genius and the craftsmanship. They were, above all, credible, in a world where credibility is everything, and becomes an increasingly rare commodity with age. This is how they managed to retain it to the very end.

The Origins

Warren Zevon was born in Chicago in 1947. His family moved to Los Angelos when he was in middle school, which is where he was exposed to the disparate influences that formed his imitable style. While the conductor Robert Craft introduced him to Igor Stravinsky and the classics, Zevon became interested in folk music and taught himself to play the guitar. Before his career as a solo artist, he worked as the Everly Brothers’ bandleader and wrote several songs for Linda Rhonstat.

Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932. After a stint in the US Army, he auditioned for Sam Philips at Sun Records as a gospel singer. Turned down, he developed a more bass and guitar driven sound with Luther Pickins and Marshall Grant (the Tennesse Two), and signed with Sun as part of the rockabilly generation lead by Carl Perkins.

The Sound

Cash and Zevon displayed great variety in their output, writing in every conceivable style and genre, yet they always managed to maintain a signature sound. By chance, both wrote almost exclusively about the violent margins of society. Cash helped pioneer the chugging bass lines which came to so pervade modern music that they became almost subliminal. His forceful, crackling baritone could express incredible emotional range, exposing the inner world of even the most one-dimensional character. Zevon, a trained pianist, managed to inject every song, no matter how gory, with an elegant lyricism. His guitar was wonderfully offkilter, which was reportedly due to his accidentally teaching himself the banjo parts of songs instead of the guitar.

The Significance

Zevon was part of the later, ’70s generation of singer-songwriters who found themselves half in the folk tradition, half in rock. Zevon tackled some of the same territory as the earlier musicians. He wrote allusive ’60s style narrative songs informed by the cynicism of the ’70s. His “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” for example, is virtually a reworking of Richie Havens’s “Handsome Johnny” taken to its logical conclusion. It’s typical of Zevon’s approach to the material that he takes what in Havens’s hands was an earnest, pedagogic moment and turns it into cheerfully violent, cynical satire. Zevon was heir to that darker side of the folk tradition: storys of mythic violence set in fantastic locations. Zevon wrote modern murder ballads.

Zevon’s music, like that of so many others, would never have existed without the influence of Johnny Cash. Cash’s tales of outlaws and outcasts bridged the gap from the primordial American stew of cowboy ballads, prison songs, and roots music to the modern amalgam that is rock. Cash began early enough that the Seeger / Dylan movement of the early 60s occurred when he was already established as a star. Rather than dismissing it, he embraced the folk/rock revolution, and collaborated with everyone from Dylan to Bono without losing his distinctive voice. Cash played music drawn from every facet of the American repertoire, so it’s only appropriate that he devoted his later years to becoming a later day Alan Lomax, collecting just about every kind of music imaginable onto his American Recordings, and proving in the process that there was nothing he couldn’t sing and make it sound important and true.

Johnny Cash: 5 Defining Moments

Folsom Prison Blues — He shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. The original outlaw song. A train, a prison, a dead man and the protagonist “movi