What’s a Canadian Farmboy to Do?

February 16, 2010

Though I have already made known my opinion on The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, there is one musical artist who transcends such labels: the late Warren Zevon (nevermind that he’s commonly classified as a singer/songwriter—he’s transcendent). Of all the beautiful and thought-provoking songs Zevon has produced, I’m going to examine a track off of 2002’s My Ride’s Here: “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” written by Zevon and Mitch Albom.

Like many Zevon numbers, this isn’t simply a song—it’s a story. It’s a life story, in fact, which spans a young Canadian named Buddy’s entire career as a hockey player, from the time he was able to skate at age nine right up to the ambiguous ending: “The big man crumbled, but he felt alright / ‘cause the last thing he saw was the flashing red light / he saw that heavenly light.” For such a light-hearted tune, this line, well, really hits you, because Buddy the underdog finally achieves his life-long goal, and his success is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. Then again, those tears may also be for the price he may or may not pay; after all, it is emphasized that the goal is scored in Buddy’s final season and on his final night. A more casual listener could think this simply makes for good suspense or a more poetic finish, but things are never that simple when Warren Zevon is behind the tale. If the last thing he saw was the flashing red light, then one can probably surmise that was the last thing he ever saw and will ever see, but at least Buddy can die happy knowing he got his goal.

Once again, catharsis comes in the climax, though in this instance it is perhaps the story more than the music that produces the effect. That is not to say that the music does not contribute to the experience, however; in the verse featuring the climax, the song pares down to only Zevon’s voice and piano, with just a hint of Paul Shaffer on the keyboards behind him. This brings all the attention squarely on the story without too much instrumental distraction, but the steadily rising organ tones make for an almost heavenly experience, melding perfectly with Buddy’s triumph/tragedy (triumphant tragedy?).

The story does stand on its own, however, and it is difficult not to feel for Buddy and connect with his plight and desire. Buddy is kept down by his coach because he’s not a star, but he is the King of the Goons with a box for a throne (which is a nice extended metaphor). Buddy lives without the option of having options: as the speaker states in the chorus, you, the listener, might be able to choose brains over brawn and take care of your teeth, but what else can Buddy do? It’s almost naturalistic, even, because Buddy is tied to his fate and has no choice but to accept it, except Buddy does try to take control of his destiny and maybe even wins out in the end—but at a price.

The way the story is told is significant, as well. One verse in particular stands out as an example of Zevon’s expert delivery: the verse opens with the speaker speaking for the crowd, and Zevon echoes the “Hit somebody!” of the chorus with assertion and gusto, and then slides back into his narrative tone until he gets to the plaintive Buddy, pleading with his coach, saying “I want to score goals.” The speaker then mainly channels the coach, who is condescending, reassuring, and authoritative at the same time. All of this works due to Zevon’s performance of the lyrics, which has much more to do with storytelling ability than singing ability.

The humor of the story also contributes to its narrative significance. The vaguely dark sense of humor so characteristic of Zevon not only makes the song funny, but it also makes the overall emotional impact that much more effective. Because the song is so lighthearted, the listener does not expect the tearjerker climax and gets hit with a rush of excitement, sympathy, and sadness that has been unwittingly primed by the happy hockey humor and wry commentary on obnoxious sports fans. (It is worth noting that whereas all the hockey players are Swedes, Finns, Russians, and Canadians, the only American element in the song comes from David Letterman’s abrasive exhortations in the chorus—which I’m sure says something about American fans and Americans in general.)

Zevon is nothing if not an artist, and there are so many of his songs one could exhibit as examples of art, but “Hit Somebody!” is not a likely candidate for the list. It’s almost too clean, too simple, and lacking the hard edge of much of his work, but simple equals effective in this case. It is beautiful, it is useless, it is masterfully executed, and it is art.

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