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.

Music is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It stands on its own perfectly well, but it also supplements the works of film, television, video games, theater, and any other multimedia format. People identify with music perhaps even more strongly than with works of any other media, which isn’t surprising given the ease of access to endless amounts of music on the internet and radio and also the endless variety to be found. It’s nearly impossible not to find a musical artist to whom you can relate, or perhaps a single song which seems to have been written especially for you or about you. That’s not to say that other media can’t produce similar effects, but music is simply the most common media for people to connect to—you’ll often hear people say “This is MY song” much more often than they’ll say “This is MY book” or “MY video game” (in the context of relating to the work, anyway).

Music is also one of the more difficult media to analyze. For whatever reason, it seems our vocabulary for describing what we see is greater than our vocabulary for describing what we hear, or at the very least the former vocabulary is more accessible than the latter. Interestingly, I think it’s easy to describe things we see—we can describe shapes and colors and lighting and shadows and textures, etc.—but when it comes to things we hear, the discussion often ends up being about how we feel, or how the music makes us feel. Although I’ve been touting the notion that all art is quite useless, taken from Wilde’s manifesto, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to introduce the concept of catharsis, taken from the Aristotelian school of thought. Basically, catharsis is the purgation of excessive emotions through art, and Aristotle more or less viewed it as the purpose of drama. Rather than contradict myself and present catharsis as the purpose of all art, I will simply include it as a product of great art, with music being the type of art most conducive to producing catharsis.

In my mind, the first illustration of music as art always comes by way of Steely Dan, otherwise known as The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, despite the fact that the band is in fact really only a duo (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and the term “rock n’ roll” usually only applies to their music in the loosest of definitions. Nevertheless, Steely Dan has been producing stellar art for the past forty years, almost, with the perfect example coming off their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill.

Though Can’t Buy a Thrill was not their highest ranking album on the Billboard charts, and other songs off the album climbed higher in the Billboard singles charts, “Reelin’ in the Years” is the song I count as nothing less than the definitive rock masterpiece. The lyrics are surprisingly biting for such an up-tempo number, which provides a sort of conflict within the song that gets easily overlooked until you catch on to gist of the vocals. The pacing of the song contributes to the discord, as the nearly breathless verses give way to the happy sing-along chorus, leaving the listener with little time to process exactly what is being said. The rhyming couplets of the verses say a lot with a little, and the consistent structure of the final line to every verse produces a perfect tag to conclude each thought and mark the differences between the narrator and his addressee, though it’s hard not to take the extra step and read each final line as being addressed to the audience in general, as a sort of statement to the differences between this new, innovative group and the average popular music consumer. As the lyrics go, the singer can’t understand the things you think are precious, the things that pass for knowledge, and the things you think are useless, which challenges the audience to rethink their values and broaden their horizons to this new wave of music.

Perhaps even more masterful than the lyrics, however, are the instrumentals of the piece and the way they build throughout the song. The opening riff sets the tone and gives you a taste of what is to come, but it’s over all too soon as the first verse begins. The audience is lulled into a sense of comfort with the first verse giving way to the chorus and then the second verse followed once again by the chorus, but then the sing-along gives way to the jam session, and Elliot Randall takes over with a performance on the guitar solo too dirty to be called virtuoso but too precisely masterful to be called anything less. It is in this solo that the song reaches its climax, with the bass, keyboard, and drums providing the driving groundwork that Randall barely treads as he soars overhead with his guitar. The solo and backgrounds occasionally meet on the kicks, thus lifting the entire track off the earth, and then the guitar strikes its zenith, holding by itself for a few blissful seconds until the third verse kicks back in.

The third verse gives way to the final round of choruses, and then the instrumentals pick up once more, giving the listener hope that they are in for even more guitar-driven ecstasy, but the opportunity is cut short just as the guitar takes over and the song fades away, with the riffs just barely audible though the oncoming silence. Normally, I hate when songs fade out rather than have a “proper” ending, but I can also see the benefits of such a conclusion, because it isn’t one. It leaves you with the feeling that somewhere up there in the ether, those glorious fiends are still jamming away on that solo, with no ending in sight. They tease you with the prospect of another experience like the first one, but even if they were to provide it, chances are you’d still only be wanting more anyway.

Ideally, it is the climax of the work that produces the cathartic effect, and I believe this holds especially true for “Reelin’ in the Years.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that Randall’s guitar work is speaking to the listener, but it is providing him with pure feeling in musical form, which I feel in this instance never fails to provide an actual physical experience. Naturally, much of this analysis centered on my own personal experience of this work (as do pretty much any of my analyses, really), and therefore not everyone is likely to be affected by this work in the same way. So much of art depends on taste, and I by no means mean to assert my taste over anyone else’s. As always, this is but a brief examination of a beautiful work. That is all.