Warren Zevon Flinches at
Life Without Humor
by: Jim Sullivan, The Boston Globe
Last summer, as he was in the early stages of playing concerts being taped for a live album, Warren Zevon decided the album would be called The Piano Fighter, also the title of a new tune he was recording for the album.
Then, he reconsidered. The forthcomng album's new title: Learning to Flinch.
It is suggested that Zevon's therapist might have a field day with the switch.
Zevon laughs and says, "I should leave it to him or her if I had one. No, I'm saved from those kinds of grandiose, anthemic Bon Jovi impulses... I commit myself to the honest approach and try to get (the record company) to lock in the cover (art) before I have time to change my mind back to Emblem of the Wind or Keep the Faith or something."
But flinching? Flinching from what?
"Well," says Zevon, "the particulars of world, touring and life itself."
Zevon, who will perform Saturday night at the Buffalo Rose, did spend much of last year on the road, playing solo dates in the US, Europe and Australia, recording them for the album, which is slated for April release. While it is a solo, semi-acoustic album, Zevon does not care to use the MTV-generated Unplugged tag in vogue among artists such as Mariah Carey and Eric Clapton.
"My career has so little to do with Eric Clapton, and Unplugged is a word I discouraged them from putting on any posters, where the idea had crossed their minds that the album might have some music television kind of conceptual link to the point of purchase."
After cutting his musical teeth doing session work and backing up the Every Brothers, Zevon burst upon the scene in 1976: an LA based singer-songwriter whose music sounded a bit Eagle-esque - but with a lot more bite. More wit. More edge. He hit it big a couple of years later with the Werewolves of London hit from Excitable Boy. Those early records laid the groundwork for a strong career.
If Zevon hasn't been topping the charts, he's nonetheless developed a devoted following. He still plays Werewolves in concert. But, you wonder, does Zevon ever feel trapped by that old novelty hit? Does it still mean anything to him on a personal level?
"That's a good question. I suppose on some deep and profound level, the evening would seem incomplete to me without three minutes of howling. And, essentially, in nature I'm kind of a rocker, so I think I'm happier doing that than perhaps doing some mawkish ballad that I might have written a dozen years ago that, somehow freakishly, everyone was enamored of and demanded that I play. I'd be less happy doing that than pounding through a three-chord rock song."
Zevon's forte is writing songs with intertwining, often conflicting emotions - songs that swim amid comedy and tragedy. He doesn't worry about the odd mixture or the misperceptions of the audience. "I think it doesn't have to do with anybody's expectations," he says of his songwriting process. "It has so much to do with what I enjoy and appreciate. I keep saying, 'Why can't I be one of those famous, humorless, self-important songwriters of which our culture is so littered?'"
Answer: "I like things that are funny. A lot of things that aren't supposed to be funny strike me as funny. I came out of The Crying Game with me saying, 'Is this supposed to be funny? Thsi is a joke, right?'"
Consider his own Play it All Night (sic), the story of a incestuous, ill, highly dysfunctional family. The song's refrain refers to the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant: "Sweet Home Alabama/Play that dead band's song/Turn those speakers up full blast/Play it all night (long)." It's how the family copes with unspeakable horror. Is it funny?
"All I can tell you after all these years," says Zevon, "is if people think it's funny, I tell 'em they're wrong. On one level, for me, it's supposed to be ennobling, about dealing with keeping your chin up through the human condition. If I have a philosophy, it's that life is a very rough deal, a very unforgiving game, but people kind of do the best they can. That seems to be the pattern. That song was supposed to be about people making the most of it... but on another level, I think it's sorta gotta be funny."