Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 04: A song that makes me sad

It's taken me a long time to settle on this one, mainly because there was an0ther song which seemed like the obvious choice. That song, however, fitted a little more neatly into the theme for tomorrow's entry, "A song that reminds you of someone" - something which is almost-equally true of this one, to be honest, but since the person it reminds me of is the person who wrote it, a man I never met, I suspect that isn't really playing fair.

In fact, choosing this one feels a bit like a cop-out, since the song is so clearly-calculated as a shameless bid to rip your heart out. Given the circumstances, though, that's fairly forgivable, and besides, it doesn't actually make it any less effective. Written and recorded during Zevon's final months, after being diagnosed (rather too late) with the cancer which ultimately killed him, this isn't the only excellent song on his final album, The Wind, but it's easily the most affecting. Stripped bare of the intellectual detachment and dark, dry wit which had characterised so much of Zevon's previous work (traits which were still gratifyingly present and correct elsewhere on the album, perhaps most prominently in the splendidly-titled My Dirty Life & Times and the engagingly-ragged, raucous Springsteen duet, 'Disorder in the House'), this goes straight for the jugular with a stark, direct plea to be remembered from a man who knows he's about to die.

Zevon was hardly the first artist I admired to have died during my lifetime, but his death affected me more personally than any other I can think of. It's partly just that I'd been a fan for a long time - but more than that, I wasn't just a fan of his music, I was (or so I thought) a fan of the man himself. I first discovered him via a radio interview/session on BBC Radio back in the '90s, and his persona caught my attention every bit as much as the music - smart, funny, self-depracating, literate and fiercely-intelligent, he just seemed like a really nice guy. That his music shared all of these qualities in abundance, therefore, was enough to hook me completely.

He wasn't a nice guy at all, of course - that was laid shockingly-bare in his ex-wife Crystal Zevon's excellent posthumous biography, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Written in response to a deathbed request from Zevon himself, it's probably the most devastating portrait of a deeply-flawed human being I've ever read (written, paradoxically, in a more sympathetic voice than one might expect), and utterly shattered any illusions I'd harboured about the man. But oddly, it didn't make his death any less upsetting.

Given this backdrop, then, it's hardly a surprise that 'Keep Me In Your Heart' reduces me to tears every time I can bring myself to listen to it. Simple, almost naive in both melody and lyrics, with a delicate arrangement that brings Zevon's frail, cancer-ravaged voice to the fore, it's an eloquent farewell from a much-missed musician, and speaks powerfully to anyone who's ever experienced any sort of grief, or loss.

Sentiment aside, The Wind is a good but not quite an excellent album - the story behind it, though, gives it a weight which it would be churlish to dismiss. Somewhat inevitably, that tragic narrative brought Zevon more press attention than anything else he'd done in decades (including, sadly, much of his finest music), and won him a couple of posthumous Grammy awards.

It remains, I believe, his best-selling album.

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