Testimony – Jasper Schlaffer and F.W. Dullmore
September 7, 2023
Warren William Zevon was born January 24th 1947 and died September 7th 2003, 20 years ago to the day.
Jasper Schlaffer, artist, poet and ¾ of a novelist, was born April 13th 1997 and died in a miraculous aviation accident in October of 2022. He was one of Zevon’s most ardent enthusiasts and made it a chief goal of his artistic production to renew interest in him.
For Jasper, the artist, writer and layman historian of the present, the late 1970’s were an artistically fruitful period. With the cultural power of the cold war’s heavier contender slowly ruminating — the same one Jasper fell for – and an increasingly tense and tragic feeling of disorientation on the rise, it provided an impeccable soil for tragic art to flourish. Jasper thought the image of the mirror hall would never be worn out. “Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice." Now, that’s the Eagles. “Hotel California." “You can check out any time, but you can never leave." But it could have been: “Don't the sun look angry through the trees? Don't the trees look like crucified thieves? Don't you feel like desperados under the eaves? Heaven help the one who leaves." That’s “Desperadoes under the Eaves." Released, three weeks before “Hotel California."
The counterculture dreams of the 60’s were meeting their dying end. Gene Youngblood writes in one of Jasper’s favorite books, Expanded Cinema, written in 1969: “We are haunted by our own disenchantment as much as our parents are offended by it. The human condition, as this millennium draws to a close, is one of decreasing intervals between increasing emergencies until nothing but emergency exists. We have nothing to lose. Spiritually we have nothing to lose because there is only sorrow in the values of the past and we have no tears left. Physically we have nothing to lose because we know that wealth can neither be created nor spent, that it goes nowhere and always increases [“I don’t know about that part” said Jasper when he recited the paragraph to me]. “Dylan swears he sees his reflection so high above that wall upon which he once drew conclusions. Seeing that reflection is the revolution. It tells us old reasons for doing things that no longer exist.” Mr. Youngblood then tells us that the art/life dichotomy, he was a real Avantgardist, would now be broken. It would coalesce and that “We shall be released. We will bring down the wall. We’ll be reunited with our reflection.” The heaven and earth will be reunited. After long divorce. With what joy on both sides, Jasper! What joy!
Jasper very nearly interviewed this guy, Mr. Youngblood – what a name to begin with — but sadly he died of a heart attack. Jasper had contacted his publisher, who forwarded his e-mail to Youngblood himself. Unfortunately he would never read Jasper’s oh so heartfelt words. The young man extracurricular – that’s Jasper — followed him two years later, not of a heart but of a brain attack.
Youngblood thought that what was rising in the counter-culture late 60’s was the “paleocybernetic age” and that in the future we would be given the gift of “Oceanic consciousness,” instead of another Bronze age collapse. Kudos to him for trying. But what really came of it now except a whole lot of insurance salesmen?
“Between the conception and the creation…. falls the shadow." Warren Zevon stepped into this shadow with both feet. It was the same shadow that was slowly engulfing Jasper in those last months.
Some people point to Jackson Browne as the disenchanted hippie songster and they have a point. “Running on Empty” is the anthem of a generation that has run out of ideas. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and took advantage of this situation of general cluelessness and nostalgia, establishing what we may as well call “it-is-what-it-is economics." This is to say, leaving things to the free market to work its wonders, cutting back on social spending as well as on taxes for the rich and large corporations. Generally he furthered an idea of economics centered on seemingly endless growth. The reward he reaped was a GDP growth of one third and the paradigm was to persist well into the 2000’s. But what is excessive growth if not cancer? The C-word, as Warren Zevon referred to it. We know now that our resources are in fact finite. So is our attention. MTV was launched in 1981 and undergirded music with visual overstimulation. What a time. Not all musicians weathered the record store to mall transition. The better ones didn’t.
The songs of the pretender, that’s Jackson Browne, however disenchanted, are tender and sentimental. Jasper always mentioned the car driving away at the end of The Late Show as particularly endearing. But Jackson Browne has a dark twin. The offender. Mr Bad Example, the Travis Bickle of song writing. A man who’s had enough. A man who would not take it anymore.
Besides “Werewolves of London,” the thing that Warren Zevon is remembered for today is his biting cynicism and it was this cynicism that had enthralled Jasper the most.
The dutch philosopher (contemporary) of line 3 is in actuality two philosophers named Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. They wrote an essay entitled “Notes on Metamodernism." What they say in there is that this present aesthetic is shaped by an ability to be sincere and ironic at the same time. Jasper thought this was really wise but that he would make some minor adjustments. In order to transcend the binary you really had to exaggerate one or the other, preferably the other. You had to be so cynical and ironic that you “come out at the other side." This is where Warren Zevon comes in. Especially in his early career he was frequently labeled a “parodist." He however never understood himself as such. It was something more innate and more complicated. A very precious and complex entanglement of pathos and irony that was not based on the idea of oscillation, a pendulum swinging back and forth. It is more like a 360 degree pendulum swing. Warren Zevon was never a parodist but only the product – note that it didn’t sell – of a time that slowly started to parody itself. The cultural theorists call it postmodernism.
There are different remedies to the p-word. Metamodernism is one of them. Jasper had another in mind. Warren’s sincerity, said he, was “Like a carapace. You have to penetrate the outer layer. Buried deep down is a sincerity that is hard-won and luminous." Barrage of adjective was thrown at it: hard-won, luminous, lucid, sublime, ethereal…
It was paid for, so to speak. If the product was not paid for, with excess and debauchery, both in real life and in philosophy/literary schemes, Jasper would file it under the category of what he called “supermarket sincerity,” sincerity without carapace, cheap thrills. The way to becoming sincere was not through simply presuming sincerity. You had to become so cynical you came out on the other side. This motion of the pendulum swing was to become the central image of what Jasper famously called “Pissmodernism." It also includes what he infamously called “lived iconoclasm."
A tragedy could become so tragic it turned out a farce; a farce could become so farcical it turned out a tragedy. Affirmation through heightened denial. A strenous affair of course, and it can go dramatically wrong. But these things are also true for writing of poetry.
Just as sincerity could be reached through extended non-sincerity, the self, Jasper deduced, could only really be accessed through the not self. And this could be achieved through autofictional literary schemes. I really don’t have an idea where he was going with that. He did not elaborate further.
Warren Zevon the cynic had become so cynical he had become sincere, or so Jasper reasoned. And he had become sincere in those dying days, even before.
Via this route of exaggerated cynicism you could get back to the sensibility Gene Youngblood, as one of the last exhibits, had in 1969. Yellow tainted oceanic consciousness. This had always been one of the central concerns of Pissmodernism. It’s more about the modernism than about the piss. But you can’t get to the modernism if you don’t swim through the piss. “Sweat, Piss, Jizz and Blood” to quote Warren Zevon.
Not only was Warren Zevon the transcendentalist of cynicism, he was also a fierce intellectual.
As Carl Hiaasen recalls: “The most intimidating thing about him was the breadth of his intellect. A prodigious reader, he could talk knowledgeably about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Mickey Spillane, all in the same conversation. Likewise, a casual chat about music could carom from Radiohead to Brian Wilson to Shostakovich, at which point all I could do was nod and pretend I understood what the hell he was talking about." Now, this really reminds me of someone.
Jasper, who was also working tirelessly on his novel while he wrote “Testimony,” told me the following thing: “I really didn’t want to write poetry again. And with the novel it was hard to justify to myself. The only way that I could be satisfied with it is if it is more or less meticulously researched. C.M. Kushins’ biography is absolutely priceless and The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon by James Campion, also really sweet.” C.M. Kushins interestingly enough points to this same research penchant in Warren Zevon in his biography (see page 81 among others).
Jasper then would extrapolate on that research point, utilizing – very unpretentiously — the always faithful The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: “You see, not a lot of people get this. It is not a testament to nihilism, or ennui or anything like that. Rather Eliot wants to show reverence for these cultural debris.” Maybe Warren Zevon would have understood what Jasper was talking about. He had dedicated his 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School to fiction writer Ken Millar, a.k.a. Ross Macdonald with “il miglior fabbro.”
“When Frank Zappa got the C, and he got it bad, he said that he didn’t want to be remembered. And it took me a while to understand. And I don’t know… something’s happening to me, I think it’s coming around to me. These are juvenile vanities, really. I don’t want folks to remember me. And I’m the most narcissistic guy you will find in a 13 kilometers radius.” He never shook off that metric system. “But who I do want them to remember is Warren.”
Jasper didn’t live to see Warren once again not be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. “Testimony” remains to be his last and longest completed poetic work.
– F.W. Dullmore
For Warren Zevon
Requiescat in pace
That's all she wrote
Begin over and over again the never attainable praising ;
consider : the hero lives on, even death was for him
merely a pretext for being : his ultimate birth.
Can I get a witness?
As Jackson Browne put it:
He could satirize and mythologize all in one stroke.
A Dutch philosopher (contemporary) argues
that the present day aesthetic is marked by an oscillation
between irony and sincerity.
your Renaissance is imminent.
he put The Triumph of Death
– a painting by Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Breugel –
in the inside sleeve of one of his later albums.
The “Empire of the Ants”
in Life’ll Kill Ya’s title track
to a short-story by H.G. Wells
The song of Roland
the Headless Thompson gunner
A reference to a French epic from the 11th century.
The poor man’s T.S. Eliot.
Except T.S. Eliot didn’t know how to drink.
After passing out in drunken stupor at a bohemian soirée
— which is undoubtedly what he would have called it —
Eliot spent 10 minutes on the phone apologizing to Virginia Woolf
See Peter Ackroyd’s biography page 137.
Hart Crane wrote The Bridge
as a sanguine answer to The Waste Land
which he deemed too pessimistic.
He missed the point
There may not be a broad academic consensus
I don’t wanna rock the boat…
I’m standing close to the railing myself…
But at its heart
it is an affirmative poem.
It’s just that its affirmation
is the hard-won affirmation
of one who breaks down weeping in front of the Pieta
As hard-won, Warren, as your sincerity
The poor man’s T.S. Eliot except maybe
Warren’s grip on the canon
wasn’t quite as firm.
More like a friendly handshake
Hello goodbye and a sideways look.
Even a dog can shake hands,
Trembling as they may be.
In 2017 Warren’s ex-wife Crystal had organized a book sale of his books
– over 3000 in total –
to finance a domestic non-profit
which has since been terminated.
Dogeared books for page markers weren’t invented yet.
— curious omission —
and other stories
Delmore Schwartz’s only successful book,
hand-signed by Lou Reed
Warren was a true collector,
and an avid reader
It’s well-thumbed and with thick pencil underlinings:
I am anonymous and I have forgotten myself. It is always so when one goes to the movies. It is, as they say, a drug – page 4.
Delmore was onto something:
“Relieve me of the bondage of self”
– old alcoholics’ proverb.
Once hailed as “the first real poetic innovation since Pound and Eliot” by Allen Tate
he then swiftly, as soft as snow
fell from grace.
Well, I know another:
“A sarcastic, world weary rock star, far too smart for his own good, and in a constant state of amnesia regarding full decades” -C.M. Kushins
No wonder nobody remembers them
they could hardly remember themselves.
“Know thyself” as it is carved
into the weathered ruins of Delphi
but did they ever consider
that losing interest was a possibility?
I’m losing interest in myself
but not in the great men I admire
Pills and drinks and rifle cocking
the usherette in leather stocking
Blackbirds sing and sleep subsides
The moon punches holes into dry-wall nights.
Is there one who has not sat anxiously before the curtains of the heart?
It’s tough to be somebody
it’s hard not to fall apart
these two right here have learned those things by heart
Lighting strikes, then dry, sterile thunder
my favorite iterations of the American one hit wonder.
When asked whether he considered himself an intellectual Warren just winced awkwardly and poured himself another glass.
“Well, if you like to read books and stuff…”
“Drinking Tequila does that make you an intellectual?”
“Makes you real wise real quick.”
Now think of Warren and these phonies,
these friends of his in those Hollywood bars
Behind those Hollywood bars
Cigarettes make the sun come up
Whiskey makes the sun go down
and until it doesn’t, it thus starts a new.
Life writes its score in the scars
on livers, lungs and arms
and still born dreams dissolve
in the drainpipes of Gower avenue.
There is what I would like to coin
the mannerist period of rock music
in the late 70’s
where the glitter slowly rubs off
like egg-tempera off a Renaissance painting.
And with fortifying doubt
you’re down and out
either lonely, an alcoholic or both.
that’s Hotel California and Baker Street
and also Desperadoes Under the Eaves
which everyone seems to forget about.
It’s a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom
Warren’s belated valediction, after decades of sobriety:
“You can dream the American dream
but you sleep with the lights on
and wake up with a scream”
The slumber of debauchery produces reason.
When Goya was struck deaf by a mysterious illness
when illnesses could still be mysterious
it darkened his palate substantially.
Warren’s paint strokes were at their darkest and most refined
when the cancer was already ticking in his bones….
American inaissance; unbirth —
If they want to become classics they have to know which sides they’re on
If they want to climb the ladder of success they have to adjust to market forces
In one drunken fit Warren tore the banister
– 12 steps and no banister! –
from the stairwell of his small family's apartment.
One of the roughs, as Whitman would put it.
You better stay away from him
He’ll punch your nose in, Jim.
He’s been reading Norman Mailer.
That was mere weeks after his daughter had been born
the very night him and Jackson Browne wrote "Tenderness on the Block."
– One interview or another
Then I heard he got a divorce
Laying low at L'Ermitage, of course
-Not the French literary journal
The “rowdiest guest in Hotel California”
thrashed rooms, relations and friendships alike.
But for the “tin-pan alley poet laureate”
“thinking man’s rock and roller”
there was always the option
of fashioning it lived iconoclasm.
Vandalism that might harm those closest to you
ruins friendships and professional relationships
even break ties with the most famous music magazine at the time…
but the near-sighted can’t help themselves.
It’s a common misconception
that Bob Dylan handed the torch of song-writer of a generation to Bruce Springsteen.
He handed it to Warren.
But Springsteen was more palatable to the commercial ear
His irony so thin it could be taken for the real thing
They play “Born in the USA” at CPAC.
The New Yorker has Rolex ads
and I’m supposed to not get cynical about it
For culture’s sake
and I’m not a lost cause
Sincerity takes its time
Warren’s fervent cynicism
– questionable to those who don’t ask questions –
starts to glimmer venerably over time
or how do they call it?
“Better not hope and don’t rock the boat and we’ll all make a few hundred grand”
Warren, Your cynicism has to stay where it is
even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pain. The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed,
hastening down the wind.
The pity of it smarts
Makes hot tears spurt, dreary eyes squint
and blue blood boil
what’s a diamond worth if it never leaves the soil?
Warren Zevon and the sublimation of decline.
That is what is sequestered.
From the Latin sequestrare
confiscate (in jurisprudence)
or else – as the root suggests –
as in draining from a wound.
When Asylum records
gave Warren a beating
Three years, several rehabs and twelve hundred cigarettes later
he was back in the ring.
Sentimental Hygiene was another round of commercial disappointment
But when you can take the punches
It don’t mean a thing
Transverse City had him yet again in
“In this gallery of grim scenarios” observes New York Times critic Stephen Holden
“Mr. Zevon expresses a generalized disgust and despair in his characteristically punchy style. What is missing from most of the new songs is the sardonic sense of humor that has given his best work an antic zing.”
That’s called maturing
you’re not getting paid for that.
Marked in Warren’s own copy of
John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer:
“If I could only do what I wanted we’d be the greatest people in the world. You’d be the greatest actress…I’d be the greatest producer, the unseen builder., d’you understand?
But the public don’t want art, the people of this country won’t let you do anything for ‘em.”
Flaubert thought the first world war
could have been prevented if people read his Sentimental Education.
Sentimental Hygiene couldn’t prevent a career from slipping into mediocrity.
It was 1995’s Mutineer that
nearly killed off the archduke, proverbially speaking.
“I’ve said it before: My career is as promising as a civil war leg wound.” – Warren Zevon
„Even though you’ve been making music for about 30 years” says Jody Densberg of KGSR radio Austin “Warren Zevon is not a household name like Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan.“
What matters it?
All the best men are laughed at
in this dying land.
And there’s another thing:
We probably wouldn’t even talk about Parmigianino
if Vasari hadn’t written about him.
And maybe Warren knew what he was doing,
befriending all those writers
Like Paul Muldoon, Hunter S. Thompson and Stephen King.
Then again it’s an orb.
quite close to witchcraft,
Innovative in its own right….
what some people can do to reality…
Pope Clement was stupefied.
Warren Zevon, The postmodern troubadour:
“Remember what we always said
in the song writing field
there isn’t a section for fiction and
one for nonfiction.”
It’s all lumped together,
a ball of fictitious factuality that doesn’t affect anything
You can hop on the band-wagon,
You can put your shoulder to the wheel.
You can become acquainted with the pavement
and thwart the whole ordeal.
Takes a real artist to drive it into the moat
to figure out that you can’t rock the boat
and expect to stay afloat.
Giant axed Warren
After Mutineer was criticized for its low production value
And also a commercial failure
It showed him at his most sincere
Warren: “You know, I don’t think it’s ever been the case of there being a big audience that stopped taking a ride with me so much as a big audience that accidentally stepped on a Mr. Toad’s ride on the way to the fun-house.”
For whom is the funhouse fun, Warren?
For Rock’n Roll poets?
We were speedin' south on 99
When the manifold started smokin'
He ran us off the shoulder
And now the axle's broken
Made a sound that cracked my heart in half
With less than half a-, half pint of vodka left
and thoughts of Warren and the aftermath
Take a nap look around and find yourself in an abandoned movie theater
“I’ve been writing this part for myself for thirty years and I guess I need to play it out”
Take a nap look around
and make sure that you’re still here
and it’s just another day
in a cold-hearted town
the windowsill shining with a lip of snow
and the morning already begun.
Tough to imagine an audience
in all the mental movie theaters
The screen is a dim page spread before us
populated only by dots and ray and characters who talk too fast
the light is bad, glances are exchanged, mock tears are shed
Only the final whimper is sincere.
It drags itself into the cold light and through theater door
along the empty streets wondering what exactly it came here for
The long shadows of cathedrals and of the lights of liquor stores
The wordless music of nightfall
Disturbed only by the bang of someone else’s handgun in someone else’s shed
far far away.
The balloon pops
Then again the other dreams
trivial events and their rehearsals
which prove that you are smart
The barren anthems of love’s defeat
Love for cynically transcendent art
Love for women who worry bout nightly ventilation
or that other part
“Is it worse when you sleep?”
“Zevon began to feel ill in 2002, so as was his custom, he asked his dentist, who advised him to see a doctor. The diagnosis was pleural mesothelioma; the prognosis was bad. He went to work.”
The grainy smell of death
Seeps under eyelids and fingernails
A little boy playing in a sandbox
Under a small breeze
Or in mother’s asbestos ridden attic.
Grain by grain shaken off
onto black piano keys
Death is one thing
but dying is another.
It’s not the departure from life
so long as you have packed your luggage
It’s not mortality
not the final exit
but the disease that frightens.
This is what it means to say:
Don’t let us get sick
Don’t let us get old
At the record company meeting
on their hands a dying star.
Death is lucrative and nothing to refuse
works just like on the internet or in talks at the bar
the stuff that sells: Death, Sex and the News.
Warren’s final album won him two Grammy’s
which he didn’t live to receive.
He also didn’t live to see
the tragedy that printed itself
into the earliest chapters of the 21st century:
In his book Appetite for Self-Destruction: the Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry
in the Digital Age Steve Knopper attests that
in the wake of declining record sales
— in hard numbers they dropped by 19%, 32.1% adjusting for inflation —
many artist and repertoire staffers contracts have been terminated.
The Death of the A and R man
a very noir affair
And What solace, Warren! what joy!
These people have yet to do something with their lives.
All of ‘em
A dead American poet once said: “Existentialism means that no one else can take a bath for you.”
What it really means is nobody can day in
When Death knocks upon your door all culture is for naught.
The doctor’s in, he’ll see you now
He don’t care how smart you are
But Warren didn’t flinch.
He had learned how to flinch
Learned it from Robert Lowell
But he didn’t.
As one of his poet friends said:
Flesh is merely a bruise on the spirit.
Death is remote
when I’m not reading Rilke
or sitting in the shade
watching the grass
grow a pale brown
in the summer
Or when I’m pacing around the room
feeling my carpet worn thin by my countless inside journeys
from which the poems are made
Now I go to furniture stores for ideas
and for having some sense
planished into me.
I got my whole life in front of me
maybe half or a quarter.
A quarter is good enough
– A penny for the old man –
56 is good enough.
Warren, I’m reading your biography with my termination letter as bookmark.
Two weeks notice. No apparent reason
You know what they call that? Bad Luck.
I think I’m gonna send myself off to Leman
mark the package fragile
finish it there.
Walk past churches on ancient cobblestones
and roll dice made of dead man’s bones
come back cleaned up, closed and frustrated like a post office on Sunday.
God doesn’t help you
If you don’t help yourself.
That’s because he invented Calvinism
Before he came up with antidepressants.
Now you can pop a Prozac
if your records don’t sell.
It’s one of life’s great searches
And I don’t wanna talk about it.
More often than not
what’s taken from us was never ours to begin with
the little things that cross the mind in the morning
or at night when you can’t sleep
or can’t wait to fall asleep.
We’re all living on borrowed time
wearing a fancy wrist-watch doesn’t change a goddamn thing.
Boisterous storms of whispered weather reports
What do they tell us?
Light will flood the room the next morning
– everyone's favorite dying star –
will rise and fall
whether we feel its warmth or not
Some books have the Aura of used tea bags
They carry the herbal scent of something once alive and now
taxidermised for the afterworld
However oblivious it may be to it.
Philip Levine wrote something like that.
With songs it’s more sauna-like
a herbal essence
good for the breathing
but it won’t cure bronchitis
and it won’t cure mesothelioma
just sends off vibrations
which now enrapture
I know some complicated poems are best explained with a smile
or a consoling frown.
Rilke wrote to his Polish translator:
“In the Elegies
– the ones Warren read on his deathbed –
affirmation of life
and of death
proves to be the same thing.”
It’s easier to translate Rilke into Polish
or into Chinese or Sanskrit
than it is to translate my reverence
for you Warren
into plain English.
Your fame fits its hollow perfectly.
Oh fame, finest contradiction
To be nobody’s pleasure
Under so much debauchery.
When death approaches, Rilke says
one no longer sees it but gazes beyond.
Maybe it is this glance that has caused so much
So many took to renunciation
in the butt-ends of their earthly stints
It’s not in their hands after all
but in the loose grasp
of one who witnesses and reveres.
You’re crossing the carnival fence
crossed it long ago
and always again and never before
It is not the tinny sound
when you cough
but a baritone thunderous roar
Erudite, poetic, cynicism prone
with a box for a throne.
The prize he sought was never won
the fearful trip not nearly done
We have no room on board for the insincere
I’m the witness
you’re the mutineer.