Listen to this track by one-time werewolf spotter and L.A based singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. It’s “My Shit’s Fucked Up”, a straight to the point track as taken from his 2000 album, the also straight-forwardly titled Life’ll Kill Ya. The song is one of many that takes on the themes of age, illness, and working things out in the midst of all of that.
Perhaps those themes had particular significance for Zevon, who would come face to face with some intimidating odds healthwise not too long after this record was released. Given its title, it’s almost like he expected it to be his last, even if 2003’s The Wind would cover that nicely, and manages to be pretty poignant rather than bitter. But, that was just the thing with Zevon, who can be counted in a school of L.A based songwriters springing from Randy Newman and later to E from Eels that deals in gallows humour, irony, self-deprecation, and a sort of rumpled vulnerability. Bitterness and anger were not to be separated from the poignancy or the chuckles to be had from this approach to songwriting.
Even if this song does get pretty in your face about the dark side of what it’s like to get older, when you really break it down, it’s this very connection between humour and fear that makes this song work so well. And I think it provides some pretty valuable perspective on something that popular music has always dealt with to varying degrees of success; mortality.
Mortality isn’t just about the moment of our death. It’s about the knowledge of it as we live our lives, and the little reminders (or big ones!) we get along the way as we move toward it. To me, that’s the undercurrent to this song, coming from a guy who grabbed at every indulgence there was, especially as he was coming up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. This was a time just before rock stars began dropping off like flies, or visibly showing signs of getting older. If rock ‘n’ roll was a young person’s game, then this was the reason why. It was supposed to be here to stay. It was supposed to never die. And the rock stars themselves were responsible for keeping that youthful flame alive for all of us.
This song punches holes in that mythology. Because rock star or not, someday many of us will experience old age. All of us will die, as will the world we knew. No mythology, rock icon, or song will change that. That seems like a punch in the gut from Zevon, right? He makes it seem that way, of course. Because he is kind of fuckin’ with us with this tune, as much as he’s showing a bit of empathy with us all being in this leaky boat of existence together. He’s making us laugh and making us face the reality of our own mortality in the same song. Life’ll kill ya, indeed! In this song though, what we do with that knowledge is really what matters. Zevon leaves us to it instead of preaching to us about it, which is one of the reasons he’s one of the best in his school of songwriting, and among the best in any other school, too.
These are things that we can count on. We won’t always be young. Our bodies will fail us eventually no matter what. People we know and love will die, and it will hurt a lot without any sure resources to completely soothe that pain. In the absence of knowing why all of this is necessary in the first place, why shouldn’t this be the best motivation to spend our time as wisely as we can, and to love the people in our lives that much harder while we’re at it? Zevon plays the aging and cantankerous curmudgeon in this song. But, I suspect this is the question he’s probing us to ask ourselves; you’re gonna get old one day, son. So, what are ya gonna do about it?
Warren Zevon was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Knowing this, he carried on with personal appearances, talking about his illness with as much humour as with gravity, and leaving us with his final statement “Keep Me In Your Heart”. Because, that’s the only way to beat the ravages of time in the end; to be kept in the hearts of those who remember us fondly.
For more on Warren Zevon and his relationship with his illness, check out this appearance on his beloved Late Night With David Letterman in 2002. It was his very last, after having appeared on the show many times since Letterman began in 1982.