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  • Warren Zevon - An Appreciation

    August 26, 2003
    By Tim O'Neil, ASiteCAlledFred.com


    They say Jesus will find you wherever you go,
    But when He'll come looking for you, they don't know,
    In the mean time, keep your profile low,
    Gorilla, you're a desperado.

    -- "Gorilla, You're A Desperado"

    There's a conversation that seems to re-occur with startling frequency between my friend Mike and myself. (Mike owns the comic shop where I buy my books and just coincidentally happens to be one of the most knowledgeable music fans I've ever met.) It seems we can�' have a conversation about music without trying to wrap our brains around a particular and anomalous class of musician - for lack of a better term, I'll call them the Perennial Critical Favorites.

    These musicians have been at it as long as anyone else - probably longer - and yet long-term commercial success consistently eludes them. They remain the most respected musicians among their peers, but their movements are almost unknown to the general public. There are four that are usually always mentioned in this conversation - Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Todd Rundgren, and Warren Zevon.

    There's always been something about these musicians that prevented them from gaining the widespread acclaim that their talents indicated they deserved. They may have odd-sounding voices, misanthropic inclinations, or intellectual preoccupations above and beyond the boundaries of standard rock. They all have ardent followers but few casual fans. Their preoccupations are peripatetic, ranging the gamut from tin-pan alley to psychedelic blues.

    But Zevon stands as an enigma even among his peers. Whereas most obscure but talented musicians tend to find other channels for their creative instincts, Zevon has remained faithful to his muse, surly and ungrateful as she may have seemed.

    Newman found great success scoring movies, manufacturing the kind of sickly-sweet Disney anthems that seem to exist in another universe altogether from his nasty solo material. Rundgren is one of the most well-regarded producers of his generation, and, despite the ethereal nature of a great deal of his solo material, his pop instincts remains undimmed, as evidenced by his work with artists ranging from David Bowie to Bette Midler. Waits found an unlikely second career in the cinema.

    The recent announcement of Zevon's impending demise has impacted the music press like a smoldering meteor. It's only a little bit ironic that the same music journals which ignored him during his life have wasted no time in singing his praises in the pages of premature postmortems. When Zevon finally shuffles off this mortal coil, victim to inoperable lung cancer, he will leave a prickled legacy to his inheritors - a catalog of death and dissipation, a lifelong ode to disappointment and corruption, as seen through the eyes of a hopeless romantic.

    They made hypocritic judgements, after the fact,
    But the name of the game, is get hit and hit back.

    -- "Boom Boom Mancini"

    By any stretch of the imagination, Warren Zevon had an odd assortment of interests. In addition to the general themes of misery and disappointment, he was specifically focused on boxing, the lingering brutality of African Colonialism, and monkeys. First, the monkeys.

    Although our modern humorists like to imagine they were the first to discover the innate humor of the primate family, Zevon has been at the forefront of monkey satire since his debut album, Wanted Dead or Alive dated 1969. That album contained a song called, simply, "Gorilla". Monkeys returned with a vengeance in 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and the track "Gorilla, You're A Desperado", a song inspired by a bored gorilla at the city zoo. Another seven years would pass before he recorded "Leave My Monkey Alone", a single off 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, recorded with Parliament/Funkadelic's impressario George Clinton. 1995's Mutineer paired the reliable monkey with the donkey in "Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse". Finally, 2000's Life'll Kill Ya contained a track called "Porcelain Monkey". Five explicitly monkey-themed songs over the course of his career - that's more monkey than in some artist's entire catalogs.

    That's an exaggeration, of course - a few errant monkey tunes do not dictate the idiosyncrasies of an entire career. However, I think the fact that the man is unabashed in his enthusiasm for such overtly morbid and absurd topics as war and monkeys has a lot to do with his underground career, and his unswerving reputation for brutal honesty. He's never a man who changed his tune to fit popular trends.

    The fact is, the music business is a brutal and unfortunate place to find one's vocation, but Warren Zevon has always given as good as he's got. He spent the late sixties trying to make it as a folkie, singing in the LA-based duo Lyme & Cybelle (he was Lyme, as if you had to guess), writing songs for the Turtles, and finding little success at any of it. His debut, 1969's Wanted Dead or Alive, was considered a misfire, earning little critical notice and warranting no popular acclaim. It disappeared without a trace, as did Zevon.

    Whatever his reasons, he spent the next seven years living the life of an itinerant desperado - bartending in Spain and doing whatever else suited his fancy. He returned to music in 1976 at the urgings of his friend Jackson Browne, recording his second debut album, the much improved Warren Zevon.

    There are many who would place Zevon in the pantheon of California rock, alongside the Eagles and Browne, but he's particularly unsuited to this rubric. Say what you will about the Eagles, but their unironic paeans to the deadly hedonism of post-Hippie California were about 180 degrees removed from the kind of ultra-sardonic surliness that Zevon excels at. There's a world of difference between sincerity and self-importance, and this is easily illustrated by the marked difference in tone between Zevon and just about every other American rock act in the `70s until the Ramones.

    If Zevon had been any less of an admitted hedonist, he could have made a good punk. As it is, he was hardly a member of the Rock Establishment. If Warren Zevon had been a tad overproduced, and tipped a bit heavily towards ballads, 1978's Excitable Boy represented an artistic leap forward to the cutting edge. It's a violent record, full of candy-coated vitriol and deadly smirks.

    Certainly this was his commercial zenith. Here is where we find his most famous track, the ubiquitous "Werewolves of London." It's about as much of an albatross for Zevon as "Particle Man" would become for They Might Be Giants, and "Short People" remains for Randy Newman. It's a silly song, enjoyable but slight, hardly indicative of his career trajectory. It's gory, violent and slightly off-kilter, and in some respects a perfect encapsulation of his endearing anomaly . . . but in other ways just another annoying staple of the classic rock radio format.

    It's an unbearable cliche, I know - the rock critic who bewails their favorite artist's popular appeal. Well, so be it. He's written dozens of better songs in the ensuing twenty-five years, and it's hardly an insult to point out that FM Radio has a tendency to play some songs beyond the point of saturation.

    Excitable Boy was packed with a few other classics. Probably the most popular song among his devotees, "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" would go on to become a concert staple, eventually evolving into a fifteen-minute instrumental suite. Here's Zevon's trademark morbidity on display again, in the story of a mercenary fighting in the Congo War. He gets decapitated by a CIA agent and haunts the continent for his killer. It sounds more like a murder ballad than a pop song, but it makes for a surprisingly humorous narrative:

    Through '66 and '7, they fought the Congo war,
    With their fingers on their triggers,
    Knee deep in gore.
    So the CIA decided, they wanted Roland dead,
    So that son-of-a-bitch Van Owen,
    Blew off Roland�s head!

    It's a song about war told in singsong cadence, a meditation on death and retribution set atop a punctuated, almost childish melody line. It's the kind of song I just can't imagine anyone else writing, or even wanting to write, or even being able to write. It's not something you're going to see Britney covering anytime soon.

    1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, saw the release of one of the most depressing songs of all time, "Play It All Night Long". It opens with one of the all-time classic lines: "Grandpa pissed his pants again/ he don't give a damn," and only goes down from there. It appropriates the refrain to Lynyrd Skynyrd's psuedo-classic Good 'Ol Boy anthem, "Sweet Home Alabama," changing it into a profane indictment of incest, alcoholism and creeping despair in the rural South. It's a hilarious song and the final word in the musical feud that had raged for many years as a result of Neil Young's "Alabama." I'm assuming that if it hadn't been for a certain fateful plane crash this song could have easily reignited said feud.

    I'm Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt,
    I like to have a good time, and I don't care who I hurt,
    I'm Mr. Bad Example, take a look at me,
    I'll live to be a hundred and go down in infamy.

    -- "Mr. Bad Example"

    Zevon has long cultivated a uniquely morbid cult of personality. He's got a logo, a smoking skull, usually with dark sunglasses on. Sometimes the skull is smoking a joint, sometimes a pipe, and sometimes a plain old cigarette. The meaning is unmistakable: Zevon is nothing if not a satirist of the first order.

    It seems almost unreal that he could ever do anything as mundane as actually, you know, dying. He's spent his whole life singing about disgraced rakes and cheerful misanthropes, spent his entire career wallowing in bad vibes and broken hearts. It seems that he would be inured to pain and disease, that he would be immortal. He's not, of course, any more than any of the rest of us . . . and therein lies the greatest irony the master could ever possibly concoct. To the degree that life ever imitates art, he has lived his art to the hilt.

    They say love conquers all,
    You can't start it like a car,
    You can't stop it with a gun.

    -- "Searching for a Heart"

    Of course, the part that makes it all worthwhile is the fact that Zevon is, above all else, the consummate Romantic. He's angry, he's bitter, and he's grumpy, but he's got the sincerity of the true cynic. He's smart enough to be able to occasionally channel his usual antipathetic and morbid preoccupations onto empathetic vistas, and in doing so he has written some truly heartbreaking songs.

    There's a tender membrane under every callus. Most of his ballads are written in the past tense, or refer to past events. Every songwriter indulges in self-mythology: Bob Dylan is the mysterious and abstruse enigma, Neil Young is the compassionate and ornery populist , and Zevon paints a portrait of himself as a sadder-but-wise romantic. He's always looking on the horizon for the proverbial "Next Best Thing", and always skeptical that it will ever arrive.

    One of his best ballads is "Desperados Under The Eaves," a song about nothing so much as sitting around Los Angeles waiting to die. It sounds like "Hotel California", but whereas "Hotel California" mistakes oblivion for mystery, Zevon understands that there's nothing romantic about being at the end of your rope:

    Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands,
    And I'm trying to find a girl who understands me,
    But except in dreams you're never really free

    There are so many emotions at work here, so much ambivalence and regret and hope - a hope of love, and a recognition of the futility therein. There's not a whole lot to be done about it, but he's going to keep his options open all the same. It's very rare that a single pop song can encapsulate such a wide variety of emotions, but the good ones can. Usually even the best songwriters can only manage a single emotion, a single broad stroke, however well delineated that stroke may be. Zevon manages this kind of verisimilitude effortlessly.

    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

    -- "Detox Mansion"

    It's easy, and perhaps advisable, to split Zevon's career into two distinct periods - 1969-1986, and 1987 to the present. After having produced a respectable four albums (plus one live album) in the six years between 1976 and 1982, he went on a five year hiatus from 1982 to 1987. This first period of his career was encapsulated in 1986's A Quiet, Normal Life . He came out of the wilderness of the mid-eighties a changed man, shorn of the careless addiction which had marked his earlier career, and his music reflected the demarcation.

    It should be noted that a good part of the renewed interest in Zevon that occurred at this time was due to the inclusion of, yes, "Werewolves of London" on the soundtrack to the movie THE COLOR OF MONEY. Whether or not he would have returned to music without the popularity of said movie and the subsequent release of A Quiet, Normal Life is a good question. He "retired" from music no less than three times over the course of his life, but chose to climb back into the ring each and every time.

    Following his return and recovery from various substance abuse problems, he released a total of three studio albums in a four-year period. These three albums, 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, 1989's Transverse City and 1991's Mr. Bad Example, in addition to the Hindu Love Gods side project, represent Zevon's most creatively fertile period.

    Sentimental Hygiene is considered by some to be Zevon's best, and at any rate it's not far off. While the fevered intensity and casual transgression of Zevon's late-seventies/early-eighties songs were gone, they were replaced with a (figurative and literal) sobriety and a seasoned maturity that his early material had only pretended at.

    Hygiene certainly featured the best array of guest musicians on any album since the Band commemorated The Last Waltz. It makes for vertiginous listening. Zevon's cachet with his fellow songwriters was never better illustrated in the casual way he was able to utilize superstar guest stars like Neil Young and Bob Dylan as mere stunt guitarists and harmonica players, respectively. Flea shows up on the bass at some point, as does Mike Mills of REM, in addition to Bill Berry and Peter Buck as well. The three non-singing members of R.E.M. appear on no less than seven of the tracks on Sentimental Hygiene. Let's see, who am I forgetting? Don Henley, Brian Setzer, George Clinton, for God's sake . . . they're all there.

    These celebrity cameos make for an occasionally distracting album, but there's no denying the appeal of tracks like "Detox Mansion" and "Leave My Monkey Alone" - the inevitable collision of Zevon's lifelong fascination with both post-Colonial Africa and monkeys.

    1990 saw the release of probably the most fun album in Zevon's catalog, the Hindu Love Gods project. The Hindu Love Gods were composed of Zevon, alongside Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, still on extended leave from R.E.M. It's a covers album, consisting mostly of various blues numbers (including two Robert Johnson tracks and a Willie Dixon song) two country & western tracks and, oddly, a hard rock cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret". It's a somewhat strange album, on the face of it, and good luck to you if you want to hear it - it's out of print and has become as rare as hen's teeth. But it's also as raw and vital as anything the participating musicians have ever produced, full of energy and enthusiasm.

    1991 saw the release of Mr. Bad Example, probably my favorite Zevon album. I don't know why, really, this one stayed with me as it did I know I listened to it an awful lot when it first came out.

    The album's title track is the closest Zevon ever managed to come to self-parody. It's a humorous narrative detailing the life and times of the archetypal rake - a thief, a liar, a braggart and an adulterer (albeit adorably so). He's not perfect, though, because he frankly admits he has no time for sloth in his busy schedule.

    Thankfully, the remainder of the album is less caricatured. "Searching For a Heart" was Zevon's last attempt at a hit, being featured prominently on the soundtrack to the early-nineties drama GRAND CANYON. GRAND CANYON was a very good movie that has been regretfully overlooked by the passage of time, and his song fit nicely therein.

    There's a seeming apology to all the Southerners who were offended by "Play It All Night Long" in the form of "Renegade", an uncharacteristically thoughtful narrative on Southern pride and remembrance from a California boy. There's even a country song, "Heartache Spoken Here", a song that opens with another classic line:

    When I was young
    The sky was filled with stars,
    I watched them burn out one by one

    Finally, Mr. Bad Example also contained one of the more bizarre footnotes in music history, "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead". Why this song, which is strangely enough about exactly what it says it's about, spawned a lackluster Andy Garcia crime vehicle is really anyone's guess at this point.

    The rest of the nineties petered off relatively easily, with Zevon passing into the fugue of another semi-retirement. He released another live album, 1993's Learning to Flinch, along with his last major-label release, 1995's Mutineer. Mutineer is a strange album and a divisive one as well. Zevon fans were split over the pervasive use of synthesizers and the dirge tempos that pervaded. It was a melancholy work, and an unsettling one. Thankfully, however, it would not prove to be his swan song.

    I worked in sessions and I played in bands,
    A thousand casuals and one-night stands,
    Here on Thursday, gone on Friday,
    Heading down the Dixie highway

    -- "Piano Fighter"

    I was lucky enough to see Warren Zevon in concert twice, the first time in 1992, on tour for Mr. Bad Example, the second time in 2000, on the eve of the release of Life'll Kill Ya.

    I've been lucky enough to see quite a few good concerts in my time, and I can say without any equivocation that the first time I saw Warren Zevon is probably the best show I've ever seen. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can perform in public, in front of a crowd and without a net - but Zevon did that one better by going on without so much as a backup band. It was just him, his guitar, a baby-grand piano and a bank of synthesizers. He alternated between the three, playing a selection that dug deeply into his catalog - I specifically remember hearing "Frank and Jesse James," a track off his 1976 debut that I never thought I'd hear live.

    The show was in a small club in San Francisco called Slims, in the run-down neighborhood surrounding 3COM Park. He played with the enthusiasm of a man half his age. Broken strings flew every which way. The crowd was lively and appreciative. It was a golden night, one of those rare evening that live in your memory forever.

    I was in a privileged position, leaned against the side of the stage, with my elbow sitting less than 18 inches from his foot as he tapped along with time on guitar. I remember exchanging a few glances with him - a few small and telling glances that probably had no significance, other than the memory of a wry smile. A moment of shimmering importance to me, probably forgotten by him two seconds later. I could have easily believed I was the only man in that concert hall at that moment.

    This tour was wonderfully recorded on 1995's Learning to Flinch album. It's a stunning document of his versatility and breadth as a performer, featuring a healthy cross-section of his more popular tracks alongside some very obscure gems.

    Yes, even "Werewolves of London," complete with audience scream-along. It's rare that a live album comes to define so much about what makes a performer great, but this album comes very close in my mind to being the definitive statement on Warren Zevon. One man, alone and outgunned, one last Desperado on the run. It's silly, it's corny, it's downright existential on the face of it. But that's Warren Zevon in a nutshell.

    I almost don't want to mention the second time I saw him. It was, as I said before, in 2000, on his tour to commemorate the release of Life'll Kill Ya, his first new album in five years. He had been, again, semi-retired when Artemis records tracked him down and signed him to a record deal, plunging him once again into the maelstrom.

    It was a disappointing night. Certainly, he didn't play badly, but the audience was dull and unresponsive. When first I had seen him the crowd was filled with young people, rowdy and loud and full of applause. This time, the crowd was older, more subdued. They sat at their table eating nachos and drinking beer, clapping and hollering very politely.

    Certainly, Zevon played to his crowd - offering up a very polite set of his more popular songs, with no real surprises. If I had had to guess I would have said he looked tired. Perhaps it had been a long tour, perhaps he had been under the weather. I'll never know. There was a spark missing, something was gone. I regret its going to remain my last concert experience with such a fantastic performer.

    I said, "Man, I'd like to stay
    But I'm bound for glory
    I'm on my way,
    My ride's here...

    -- "My Ride's Here"

    Perhaps it was tempting fate.

    If anything seemed changed when Zevon returned from his abbreviated retirement in 2000, there was a renewed focus on death and dying. Certainly, not unusual subjects for the man who once wrote tracks such as "Excitable Boy" and "The Envoy." But there was something personal here, as if he was actually coming to acknowledge the possibility, however dim and distant, of his own mortality.

    Certainly, his sense of humor is never far from the surface, but there's a pervasive melancholy as well. The album's standout track is probably his cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again." It's hardly the first song one would have expected Zevon to cover, but he makes the tune his own, cannily switching the original's celebratory mood into that of an elegy. It sounds less like an affirmation than a prayer, a fondest desire that will never - can never - be fulfilled.

    The album's most humorous track is the fetchingly absurd "My Shit's Fucked Up". My wife was the Program Director at OU when they released the album and the press kit had a button with that legend inscribed. I pinned the button onto the "Talking Master P" doll that sits above my computer - I could think of nothing more suited for a creature whose sole purpose in life is to scream UNGHHH NA NA NA NA when his tummy is squeezed. That shit is seriously fucked up.

    His last album before the announcement of his impending demise was 2002's regrettably titled My Ride's Here. The album sleeve showed Zevon looking back on the viewer from the back seat of a white Cadillac. Ha ha ha - how morbid. How witty.

    Or not.

    Well, I've seen all there is to see
    And I've heard all they have to say
    I've done everything I wanted to do . . .
    And I've done that too
    And it ain't that pretty at all

    -- "Ain't That Pretty At All"

    It's hard to say goodbye.

    It's odd how sometimes the passing of musicians and entertainers that we never knew can effect us so severely.

    It's weird how these people can become so important in our lives, how they can insinuate themselves into our minds and bury themselves deep in our emotions. Their songs come to mean something significant to us, something strange and beautiful and just a little scary.

    It's frightening how sometimes someone you never met can so succinctly summarize everything you feel in a certain way at a certain period in your life.

    I've been lucky in my life, I suppose. I've never really lost anyone very close to me, musically. Oh, sure, we've lost a few people who I liked, who I respected and regarded - Kurt Cobain, Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Jam Master J. But despite how much I may have liked the Clash or Run-DMC the connection wasn't there - that kind of vital, almost desperate and almost delirious communication that runs between certain artist and their fans.

    I remember talking to my parents about John Lennon's death. I was alive when it happened, but still too young for it to impact me in any serious way. The Beatles were still years in my future. It was a shock like nothing they could remember, just a total numb oblivion of feeling. What was there to say? They mourned alongside millions of people across the planet, and still no one could say anything that didn't make it all seem like a cruel joke. The Beatles would never reunite. The reunion that everyone knew, or wanted to believe, would have been inevitable had been rendered impossible, silenced in a moment.

    Warren Zevon may not be the Beatles. He may not have touched millions of lives in anything other than a tangential fashion, but he touched mine.

    I'm going to live and grow to witness many deaths; God willing, I stand to outlive most of my idols. That's probably natural, but that doesn't make it any easier. I don't want to live in a world without Warren Zevon, any more than I wanted to live in a world without John Lennon or Joe Strummer or Tupac Shakur or Jam Master Jay or Larry Levan. If anyone deserved to live forever, wouldn't it be the artists who make life worth living?

    But there's nothing to be done. Life goes on th-e world keeps turning. It's mundane and cliched and it hurts but it's true.

    If anything, Warren Zevon certainly wasn't afraid of death. He plowed enthusiastically into the recording of his final album, The Wind. It promises to be a star-studded affair the likes of which we have never seen, filled to the brim with guests like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam -the list goes on but you get the idea.

    I haven't heard it yet. I don't think I want to. Just one look at the gaunt, diminished face staring back from the album cover makes it clear that this is going to be a multiple-hanky affair, even for someone who doesn't normally cry. It's going to be a harrowing listen.

    There's a cover of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door "on The Wind. Now, as morbidly appropriate as this song may be, I think a better choice would have been another Dylan tune, "My Back Pages":

    Lies that life is black and white
    Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
    Romantic facts of musketeers
    Foundationed deep, somehow.
    Ah, but I was so much older then,
    I'm younger than that now.

    Godspeed, Warren.

    Special thanks to Warrenzevon.com, the Zevon Fan Page, and www.bobdylan.com for the lyrics to "My Back Pages."