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

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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.”]


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