Thursday, June 13, 2013

Warren Zevon's "Hit Somebody" and the pure power of storytelling

Although I believe Warren Zevon to be the finest songwriter of his generation, and of most others, I wasn’t originally that keen on “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song).” It’s the most flamboyant track from his undervalued 2002 album My Ride’s Here, a boisterous ballad co-written with Mitch Albom and featuring not only David Letterman’s house band but also Dave himself on backing vocals. Despite that pedigree, I found the song disappointing in my early listens. Its story of a triumphant underdog athlete felt hackneyed to me, more Albom than Zevon, and Letterman’s bellering on the chorus pushed the whole thing dangerously close to novelty territory.

Also, it was about hockey. As a basketball guy, I’m predisposed to resent hockey.

But that all changed a couple of years ago when I discovered an early live performance of “Hit Somebody” on the invaluable Internet Archive. It’s from a December, 2000 show at Philadelphia's mellifluously named Theatre of Living Arts prior to the release of My Ride’s Here. The entire set is a lot of fun, with Warren swapping banter with a fervorous, highly vocal crowd. That audience was instrumental in changing my opinion on “Hit Somebody.” Hearing them hear a brand new Warren Zevon song unfold for the first time is a joyous wonder that underlines the power of Warren’s storytelling. (The embedded player below includes the whole concert. Skip down to track #11 to follow along with "Hit Somebody." Then go back and listen to the whole thing, because it's all wonderful. Or just listen to the YouTube clip of the performance further down the page.)

There’s a lot of laughter as Warren tells of Buddy the goon’s rise to the NHL, as there should be. But it’s more than just a funny story. What’s remarkable about this rendition is how quickly and deeply the audience becomes invested in Buddy’s fortunes. At 5-plus minutes it isn’t an overly long song, so economy of words is of vital importance. Warren’s only accompaniment is himself on piano, which puts every one of those words in sharp focus for the whole room to digest.

That’s no problem for Warren Zevon. The man really had no peer when it came to quick, memorable character sketches (see also: “Mr. Bad Example,” “Boom-Boom Mancini,” “The French Inhaler” and many, many more) and Buddy ranks among his most indelible creations. (I don't want to give Mitch Albom short shrift - from what I've gathered, he was responsible for most of the lyrical content. Still, much of the strength of this particular telling lies in Zevon's presence and delivery. It's why I love this rendition much more than the album version.)

By the closing of the first verse, we know Buddy’s a burly Canadian farm kid turned hockey pro who dreams of scoring goals but reluctantly accepts his role as an enforcer. A lot of fiction writers, myself included, could easily spend several pages laying out that history. Warren and Albom do it in a few rhyming lines, and the Philadelphia crowd eats it up. When the scout from Calgary tells Buddy “We’ve always got room for a goon,” the cheers erupt immediately and the enthusiasm carries through to the chorus.

As the second verse chronicles Buddy’s storied but frustrating career as a role player, the audience grows audibly more invested in the story. It’s not often that a live recording can capture the sound of a room listening intently. Just like in the first verse, Warren and Albom land the story via universal but specific characterization. "The coach said, 'Buddy, just remember your role / The fast guys get paid. They shoot and they score / Protect them, Buddy. It's what you're here for'" - it's all unique to the song's situation, but who among us can't identify with the agony of watching someone else live out your own cherished dream?  By the time the second chorus rolls around most of the room is chiming in on the all-important “Hit somebody!” It’s important to remember that few, if any, of the audience members would have heard the song at this point. Granted, they've been briefed on the sing-along aspect, but I've been to plenty of shows where the attendees blatantly ignore such instructions. The way these folks warm to the audience participation is a testament to the power of Warren’s delivery.

It’s in the third verse that things get truly inspiring. “In his final season, on his final night / Buddy and a Finn goon were pegged for a fight,” Warren sings, and one exuberant listener starts screaming, “Yes! Yes!” The fan keeps up the cheer as Warren works to the slow reveal of “Suddenly Buddy had a shot… on goal,” at which point the crowd collectively gasps, then cheers. They’re hooked now, utterly invested in the moment of truth for this sketchily drawn pucksmith who didn’t exist five minutes earlier. The room goes silent again for a couple of lines (“20 years of waiting went into that shot”) until Warren pulls out the elating/deflating couplet of “the fans jumped up and the Finn jumped too / And cold-cocked Buddy on his follow-through.” There’s laughter at that line, sure, but it’s nervous laughter. Everyone wants Buddy to get his goal, but they also know they’re dealing with the sardonic SOB who wrote “Excitable Boy.” Albom or no Albom, there’s at least a 50-50 chance of Buddy blowing the shot and being carted off the ice with a spinal injury.

But those were different times. Late-period Zevon knew there was nothing wrong with a happy ending every now and again. Still, he doesn’t tip his hand – his delivery is passive, almost passionless as he murmurs, “The big man crumbled, but he felt all right / ‘Cause the last thing he saw was the flashing red light.” And that’s the release the crowd has been waiting for. The audience erupts in applause almost as if they’re watching the actual hockey game from the song. The rhythmic clapping begins immediately, propelling Warren into the final chorus. No one needs any prompting on the “Hit somebody!” this time around. Now it’s a motto to be shouted, a sort of “Semper fi” for a room full of strangers who have been through a lot together in the last five and a half minutes. That little farm boy they watched grow up has just scored the goal everyone told him he’d never get, and they’ll be damned if they’re not going to celebrate that achievement.

That, folks, is some grade-A storytelling, and it’s why Warren Zevon is one of the best there ever was.

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up. Stumbled across this post when searching for lyrics to Hit Somebody. I'm in Philly, and I got to see Warren twice here. Once was an old venue called The Chestnut Cabaret. The show was included in the dates used for his live album Learning to Flinch that was released in '93. Like the TLA it was a great venue with no seating that allowed the crowd to move about. Got to stand within 15 feet of Zevon at his piano. The other time was at the TLA around '97. Both times it was a blast to see him.