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.

“Detox Mansion” b/w “Leave My Monkey Alone”

Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” centers, in substance and tone, on a problem that writers often confront when they turn to writing about their recovery from addiction: the sense of bad faith in that impulse, when an experience driven by a newfound humility suddenly reveals itself to be, possibly, grist for artistic production and commercial success. The lyric opens with the amusing invocation of celebrity rehab, with pop icons doing mundane rehab chores, in a self-mocking tone that feels the sequel to Joe Walsh’s epigrams of man-child rocker excess in “Life’s Been Good.” But the third verse turns abruptly to the corruption of therapeutic purpose that writing for publication introduces, and makes it the frame for the whole lyric:

Growin’ fond of Detox Mansion
And this quiet life I lead
But I’m dying to tell my story
For all my friends to read

It’s hard to figure Zevon’s use of the word “dying” here.  Are the destructive effects of addiction being reordered, in rehab, to serve the purpose of a narrative?  And, at this moment, is the controlling narrative frame primarily therapeutic, or artistic? I read this conundrum as comparable to what Charlie Smith does more icily in his poem “Heroin,” which ends with the following self-accusatory lines: “It was two days before she died without regaining consciousness, / as I say in the memoir they are paying me so handsomely for.”

Zevon’s lyric similarly suggests that a transparent narrative of death-dealing addiction and life-saving rehab is not possible when it is done for public consumption and personal profit, or even mainly for artistic purposes.  Whatever the therapeutic value of documenting difficult personal experiences, these other motives end up driving the project, perhaps even creating filters for memory.  They must be accounted for, and this accounting is what redeems the artistic appropriation of the therapeutic genre.  And yet, despite this dominant note of self-skepticism, the theme of sincere, shared hope— even if in the still-comic idea of learning basic life lessons from professionals in a country-club setting— remains real and present.  This is evident when the lyric’s conclusion turns from “golf in the afternoon” to:

Well, it’s tough to be somebody
And it’s hard not to fall apart
Up here on Rehab Mountain
We gonna learn these things by heart

But the key contrast in both of these songs is between the lyrics and the musical arrangement, which in Zevon’s case provides the sharper edge of the composition.  The piercing, repetitive, almost discordant tones in Zevon’s guitar chords and vocal intonation suggest an experience on the edge of control or even sanity.  The lines are enjambed in that stark manner familiar to even casual listeners of Zevon (like me), where each lyrical line seems to stand alone so clearly as to require the listener to work a bit to connect everything up.  These senses of playing on the edge of coherence and risking fragmentation are perhaps not atypical in art about addiction, but they are surprising qualities to effect in lyrics that read on the page as light humor and even upbeat therapeutic bromides.  So even as the song’s final proclamations are sincere, they are not secure.

[tomorrow: Eoin Cannon looks at The Popes’ “St. John of Gods.”]

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

  1. Trysh, I think you’ll get this: Joe Walsh hails from Wichita…I once happened to meet Warren Zevon outside the Uptown Theater. The marquee on the tour bus parked outside read “The Envoy,” so I figured it had to be his. I didn’t think it’d be 2:30 AM ’till he made his exit, but I had a full bottle of Burgundy to kill, so what the heck? I was glad that I hadn’t tried to bootleg it into the arena – I remember the show fairly vividly but only vaguely shaking the man’s had: I was DETERMINED (as anybody dead-drunk) and then DELIRIOUS at having done so. Something tells me Zevon’s “Carmelita” may be a more poignant example of “playing on the edge of coherence and risking fragmentation” but I could easily be wrong. Actually, almost anything Zevon did (as a performer?) played on the edge of coherence and risked fragmentation. I never read Million Little Pieces, but if ever there were an apt title. There is a now fabulous (raw) studio/video version of Zevon’s “Frank and Jesse James” from Dutch TV on youtube. I grew up not too far from Clay County. Purely incidental, but personally interesting.

    I’d be very curious to know (again – inside joke) if you’ve heard any of the Van Morrison bootleg (album check: Keep It Simple, Back On Top, Too Long In Exile – the first of which is straight AA vernacular and the last contains “Fast Train” which may well be a veiled paean to a very personal recovery saga sans exuberance) versions of “Summertime In England.” The reason I ask is because of the repeated chants of “In the Swedenborg Church” and “In the Mystic Church” along with “Nottinghill Gate.” These may be childhood reminiscences, as his parents were Jehovahs’ and Nottinghill occurs in the (commercial) video release of Van Morrison In Ireland. The other reason is because he may be the primordial cultural expression of AA (CANDIDATE) X New Age (CANDIDATE) witness: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher “In The Garden” which IS a very personal paean to “recovery” (probably from divorce) replete with religious ecstasies. Not to mention further Album/song checks: “The Healing Game,” “The Healing Has Begun” &tc.

    I’d recommend BOTH “The Healing Has Begun” AND “In The Garden” as powerful (living) symbols of the “rapture” – and I mean it in every sense – that comes of the “release” from the chains and torment of alcohol or chemical addiction. I am listening to “The Healing” (very loudly) on youtube right now, and crying, both for sorrow and for joy. The effect is transcendental; the effect is actually similar upon anyone who has ever anguished relentlessly (and especially of their own devices). The reason I remark is that I’ve bothered to cue the tune for many a listener, and the response is more or less universal. In the spirit of things, let’s just call it “Sentimental Hygiene.”

    Warren’s appearance, after his terminal diagnosis, on TV’s David Letterman, (again on youtube gotta love multimedia tactile cinema) is the saddest, for sure, and one of the funniest, and most tragic episodes in all of television history. If you can watch it without crying for mercy you’re a better man than I. We need the shaman. We need the charismatic. Dr. Jung diagnosed his atheism and he cured it. So did Bill Wilson. Witness Richard Noll’s Aryan Christ. Where is JS Bach? What happened to Wm Blake? Joe Frazier was my first idol, and Elvis Presley was next. I think I was five years old, watching on a black and white 13″ TV. I’m not that old, but the color console was outside the Colosseum of my private bedroom.

    Every cultural icon worth his/her salt is a shaman or shawoman. Bob Dylan’s (listen to the bootlegs!) “Shelter From the Storm” is veritable Hebraic prophesy. I think he knew it. “Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn,” that IS the human condition…until the healing has begun? In the Congo, I think, they cut your hands off. How’s that for exegesis? Even Bill W. wrote of “the doors of perception.” Was he playing his violin (as he was so fond) while “tripping the light fantastic,” lit up like a Roman candle on the purest LSD that Aldous Huxley courtesy Gerald Heard could negotiate? I just found this:

    Is it the “spiritual,” or the “ecstatic” that the “spiritual seeker seeks?”
    “‘Come in’ she said, ‘I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm.'” There’s your answer.

    Dali’ said, “Take me, not LSD. Take me, I am the drug.” I think he got it. I also think that he was notoriously “cocktail and chemically conscious” to his own detriment. And take him I did, consuming him conspicuously. He also said, “Dali’ does not read books, Dali’ digests books,” as he literally plucked and subsequently chewed a page from a book (by Voltaire I believe) in his film Soft Self Portrait. Talk about your visceral head trip! “Dali’ is LSD without LSD.” Hard to argue with that, or the Hallucinogenic Toreador.

    Prof Travis, I think what you are doing is phenomenal, highly commendable, allowing for the dispassionate (whups) discussion of what I now feel quite safe and assured – since you’ve yet to contradict – to call the Recovery Milieu.

    Dr. Drew, you can kiss my sweet cheeks.

    I’d rather be a flaming hypomanic than, well, something else, ANY DAY.

    You go, Charlie Sheen, you go! I’m shocked that Sheen was lambasted for merely QUOTING Bill W, “Are we to be satisfied with a 95% failure rate?” I’m SURE is attributable. I’ve searched for where Bill W iterated “95% failure rate,” haven’t found it yet, but it’s THERE, and it’s NOT a mis-attribution. The “broken down plagiarist” accusation was a bit ill-founded, because the genius of ANY “architect,” including a social architect, is exploitative. Are we to be disconsolate at the exploitative nature of any genius? Including our own? That wouldn’t make sense.

    Dr. Travis, you’ve written for Bitch magazine, but I can’t locate any referents. I’d sure like to read some of that, but not yet quite sure of the prohibitive subscription rate. We need a culture that is visceral. Not raunchy (per se), just visceral. Where can we locate that? Robbie Robertson (The Band) was on Tavis Smiley(PBS) last night. That was as close as I could get. Supposedly his new LP is all the buzz. I’ve been disinterested since The Last Waltz. Is that wrong? To quote Blake: (hopefully,) “If I am wrong, then I am wrong in good company…I name Moses, Solomon, Aesop, Homer, Plato…”

    August 23, 1799.

    Revd. Sir,

    I really am sorry that you are fall’n out with the Spiritual World, especially if I should have to answer for it. I feel very sorry that your ideas & mine on moral painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of study. If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended all species of this Art, & especially that you would not regret that species which gives existence to every other; namely, Visions of Eternity. You say that I want somebody to elucidate my ideas. But you ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for instruction, because it rouses the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Aesop, Homer, Plato…

    -William Blake

    (And of course the whole letter is very much worth reading, especially beings Bill W. was apparently fond of Blake – or at least Huxley. It’s also a splendid instance of a great genius takin’ numbers & kickin’ bootie.)

  2. Wanted to add: Warren Zevon was a very beautiful man (apparently unless you lived w/ or anywhere near him in his youth), brilliant composer and songwriter. Trysh, thank you kindly from all of us recovering souls (which means recovering from BEING BORN – “Riders on the Storm”) for drawing attention to this and offering me (and obviously anybody else who cares to imbibe) a very massive healthy overdose of sentimental hygiene. Confer Dali’s “Rights of a Man to His Own Madness.”

    Jackson Browne (“Try a few of these”) is to be commended for securing Zevon’s first record contract. God Bless Warren’s wife (her name escapes) and family. Our entire (English speaking) late 20th century culture – or at least most of its important parts – seems wrought through with rampant drug use, drug abuse, drug addiction, and drug dependency. As if alcohol were NOT a drug!?!?

    WTF is the human condition? What is this condition I’m in? Well I’ll tell ya: THE HEALING HAS BEGUN. If cigarettes are drugs I guess “I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, and all my friends are junkies.” Thank you, Keith Richard, and thank you, Van Morrison, not to mention Chuck Berry. And so cigarettes are what finally killed both Bill W and Warren Zevon. Likely Berry and Richard to. What else can you say?
    “Do the 12-Step Shuffle,” that’s about it. Sure beats The Mashed Potato.

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