Warren Zevon and Many Others

Warren ZevonIt was a very good day for the world on this day in 41 AD. Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated that day. (Or maybe two days earlier; it was a long time ago.) Of course, he wasn’t assassinated because he was a horrible emperor. He was assassinated because he was planning to move to Egypt. This would put an end to the power of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard. So they finally killed him. He was only 28 years old. This is very important, whether you were an Emperor of Rome or are the President of the United States: the poor really don’t much matter. But if you lose the support of the upper class, you are fucked. You should act more like Emperor Hadrian, who was born on this day in 76 AD. He was no saint, but he managed to not get killed by his own people.

On this day in 1670, the English playwright William Congreve was born. I have not read any of his plays. Like too many people, there is a big gap in my English theater knowledge after Charles I gets offed by his own people. (Again: don’t anger your fellow rich!) Anyway, Congreve was a very successful playwright during his lifetime, known more for his comedies than anything. But it is one of his tragedies that we most remember him for, The Mourning Bride. There are two very famous lines from the play. It starts with, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast…” Just to be clear here: it is “breast” and not “beast.” I think it is the word “savage” that has gotten the line so screwed up over the centuries. Think “savage” like “war weary” and “breast” like “soul.” The second line is, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” I think we all understand that one!

The Italian castrato Farinelli was born in 1705. You may well wonder why on earth I am mentioning him. After all, I’ve never heard him sing. After all, when I think of castratos, I think of Mozart in Amadeus saying, “I mean watching Italian opera, all those male sopranos screeching. Stupid fat couples rolling their eyes about! That’s not love, it’s just rubbish!” But there are two reasons. One is that Farinelli wasn’t just a castrato; he was the castrato. And also, when I wrote film reviews up in Portland, I was forced to watch the 1994 biopic Farinelli. I now learn that the film was not historically accurate. I can tell you, it is really not worth watching, although everyone was working very hard at it. Or maybe I’m wrong, I was young and it was a long time ago. But a film about a castrato that focuses on his sex life is just not a good idea for a film, even if the denouement was pretty good.

Singer-songwriter Ray Stevens is 75 today. I always thought that he was just a comedy songwriter, and indeed, he has done enough of that to have made a great career. But he is a pop music legend. Everyone knows one of his songs, “Everything Is Beautiful.” (I still wonder if he didn’t write it originally as a joke.) But I will always remember him for “The Streak,” which is not a great song, but it was a huge deal during my childhood:

Another great singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond is 73. When I was younger, I thought “Love on the Rocks” was pretty clever with its double entendre. Actually, I still think it is. It infinitely improves the rest of the whiskey-soaked lyrics, that normally I would hate. Like so much popular music of that period, it is really harmed by the synthesizer use. But let’s go way back, because Diamond did get unbearable after a while. Here’s a television (lip synced) performance of “Cherry, Cherry”:

Aaron Neville is 73 today. He has one of the best voices ever. I’m sure you know his megahit “Tell It Like It Is,” so here he is doing “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt:

The great comedic actor John Belushi was born in 1949. I admire his work and I don’t think people appreciate just how subtle it is. Check out the following clip from Animal House. Really! It still amazes me that Chevy Chase became such a big star. As an actor, he has almost no skill, and certainly nothing compared to Belushi.

Kristen Schaal is 36. She is one of my favorite comedians. Like other similar comedians (Albert Brooks, Emo Philips, Sarah Silverman), she does delight in abusing the audience. But that kind of thing tends to the create the best stand-up comedy. As a personal service, however, I will not show you anything that involves her talking about her taint. This is a good example of her surreal take on the art form:

Other birthdays: philosopher Christian Wolff (1679); the surprisingly good composer, Prussian king Frederick the Great (1712); the great Russian historical painter Vasily Surikov (1848); the American novelist Edith Wharton (1862); blues pianist Tuts Washington (1907); actor Ernest Borgnine (1917); independent filmmaker Coleman Francis (1919); most likely the last remaining “munchkin,” actor Jerry Maren (94); physicist on every documentary that comes close to the subject in the last ten years, Michio Kaku (67); actor and teenage crush, Nastassja Kinski (53); gymnast Mary Lou Retton (46); and actor Matthew Lillard (44).

The day, however, belongs to the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon who was born on this day in 1947. He was one of my favorites when I was younger. I even went to see him once. It was after (or between) drinking. It was an excellent show with a surprisingly together X opening. Here he is doing one of my favorites of his later period, “Boom Boom Mancini”[1]:

Happy birthday Warren Zevon!


[1] The song is fundamentally about the title fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. I don’t agree with Zevon’s take on it. Mancini seems to have been devastated by Kim’s death. But he is right that a lot of people were hypocrites about it.

4 thoughts on “Warren Zevon and Many Others

  1. Well, Diamond is . . . well, Diamond. He wrote some good songs for the Monkees. As far as his stuff goes, I think my fave is "Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show." But in terms of crafting dramatic stories with his songs, I think Lightfoot stomps all over him. Still a gifted guy, though!

  2. @JMF – There’s no doubt that Diamond was one of the great pop songwriters of the last century. But it also meant that he was able to turn out polished crap when he wanted to, and that happened increasingly. I think fame is highly addictive for a lot of people. Although I don’t understand why he felt the need to be in the charts given that he was always a huge draw at concerts.

    You are right about Lightfoot, but that’s not really a proper comparison. They aren’t alike at all. Like most American pop songs, Diamond’s don’t go anywhere. You really have to go to country and to a lesser extent the blues for that. I mean, "Rocks" could have the bridge, "First I’m gonna wallow, gee, how I’m going wallow. Suddenly you find you’re out there, wallowing some more!"

    But I did not know he had written for The Monkeys. It isn’t surprising; they were the Linda Ronstadt of their day.

  3. If Diamond didn’t write "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You," I’ll eat my hat. Or something else that’s more edible than a hat but which generally I don’t eat. The opening riff is almost exactly the same as "Cherry"’s:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnMuwzm7kw4

    I could look up who wrote what on the Inter Web thing but doing it by ear is much more fun.

  4. @JMF – You are right! I wasn’t questioning you, though. I think they both are just "Wild Thing" ripoffs, but then so is pretty everything else over the last five decades.

    [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnMuwzm7kw4[/youtube]

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