Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prison Grove: All These Broken Lives

The idiosyncratic rock singer Warren Zevon forewent invasive cancer treatment to finish his final album, The Wind. One of the tracks was a haunting meditation on life (and impending death) behind bars called Prison Grove.

"All these broken lives," sang the dying Zevon, backed by Bruce Springsteen and other long-time friends. Suffering and the sounds of an inscrutable fate permeate the song.

The macabre had long held a strong fascination for Zevon. Throughout his career as a solo artist, his oeuvre often included songs whose stories spilled out into over-the-top violence. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Werewolves of London, Excitable Boy, and so on.

But though the material sometimes seemed lurid, Warren Zevon was not engaged in nihilistic posturing. In a violent world, it was more like a recognition of reality. Laying bare the skull beneath the skin, to acknowledge our common human vulnerability.

So to me it was perfectly fitting, on his final album, for Zevon to acknowledge the terrible pain inflicted across America by out-of-control incarceration. When Zevon released Excitable Boy in 1978, the U.S. prison and jail population was slightly over 500,000. Thirty years later, it had risen seven-fold, to 2.3 million. Prison Grove reflects the agonizing toll that this unprecedented increase has taken on so many lives.

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