Clinical Sentiments: Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” and Shane MacGowan’s “St. John of Gods”

Points will be enriched over the course of the next few weeks by the presence of guest blogger Eoin Cannon. Presently a lecturer in History & Literature at Harvard, Cannon received a PhD in American Literature from Boston University in 2010, and is the author of the forthcoming The Politics of Redemption: Addiction and Conversion in Modern American Culture (U. Mass Press, 2012).

Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygeine, 1987

Because my main research interest has been in addiction and literature, I wanted my first contribution to Points to give a sense of how I think about this topic, but without just adapting some piece of earlier work. So I came up with the idea of tracing out some thoughts I’d had recently about these two songs–Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” and MacGowan’s “St. John of Gods”– realizing that I’d been thinking about them, even though I don’t write about music, because of

Shane McGowan and the Popes, The Crock of Gold, 1997

their resonance with my work.  Both pieces deal with treatment clinics as structuring elements in the lives of alcoholics in the 20th century. I think all of us who study the history of addiction are aware that its conceptual trajectory is anchored by various institutions— for me the ones that have mattered most are the less formally organized grassroots recovery movements and religious revivals.  But these are unlikely subject matter for popular music on therapeutic themes, which usually focuses on unmediated interior experiences.

Second, both of these songs make their meanings in conversation with established therapeutic expectations not only about recovery but also about the link between heavy drinking and creativity in the narrators’ own public personae.  (I’ve steered clear of the obvious biographical contexts in this analysis, just because it’s not my primary concern here, and it tends to overwhelm other meanings.)  One of the ways they do this is simply by invoking the rehab clinic: from the outset they’re approaching recovery as an external regime to which individuals are submitted or submit themselves.  The songs don’t reject the therapeutic template, but they call attention to the unresolved questions this frame entails— questions about agency, authenticity, and the social functions of the approved narrative— in a set of juxtapositions.

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