Warren Zevon Still Sardonic After All These Years

Contributing Editor Frank Tortorici reports

Five years after releasing the little-heard Mutineer, the sardonic but critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Warren Zevon is back with more of his trademark twisted, cynical songs.

Typically Zevon-esque tales of woe, disappointment and degradation spun to thumping, percussive rock flow plentifully through his latest album, Life'll Kill Ya, released in January.

"What was on my mind, ... I attempted to get it out," Zevon, 53, said from his home studio in Los Angeles late last month. "Like the great philosopher Axl Rose said, 'People are afraid of their thoughts.' "

And some people may be afraid of his. One of the album's tracks, "My Shit's Fucked Up," isn't listed on the CD's outer jacket, so profanity-shy outlets would stock the album.

"[My label, Artemis] say[s] things to me like 'Warren, if you wanna be Lenny [Bruce], we're beside you 100 percent, but if you wanna hear your song on the radio, think about that word,' " Zevon said.

Historically, mainstream radio has not been overly eager to play Zevon's music.

In fact, the lyrics of "My Shit's Fucked Up" — "I had a dream/ Ah, shucks, oh, well/ Now it's all fucked up/ It's shot to hell" — could describe Zevon's career. Despite his 1978 hit single, "Werewolves of London", and the critical praise he's received, Zevon has yet to fulfill critics' predictions of a commercial breakthrough — despite the efforts of his friend and fellow singer/songwriter Jackson Browne.

Help From A Friend

Browne had helped the prickly artist jumpstart his career after Zevon's debut, Wanted — Dead or Alive (1969), tanked. Browne persuaded Zevon to record the follow-up, Warren Zevon (1976), which Browne produced.

"Jackson [recently] told me the same thing he'd told me 25 years ago," Zevon said, recalling a tape of songs he played for Browne one day in his car. Browne insisted to Zevon that his latest compositions had to be heard. Then, Browne called veteran record executive Danny Goldberg, who had just started Artemis Records, and sent him a tape of Zevon's songs.

After listening to the tape, Goldberg said, "I immediately called Warren and asked him to sign with us. Warren is one of the most brilliant rock poets of his generation, and he continues to grow as an artist and stay relevant. Once I knew he was available, asking him to sign with us was a no-brainer. Happily for us, he decided to give us the shot."

The opportunity to record a new album came as a surprise to the singer. "I didn't intend to write an LP," Zevon said. Nevertheless, he kept writing and recording his songs on cassettes, and occasionally, he'd play them in public.

Songwriting Praises

Zevon played some of his latter-day songs on CBS-TV's "Late Show With David Letterman" while substituting for musical director Paul Schaffer. Letterman praised Zevon's writing on the air.

Zevon said his music fits Goldberg's philosophy, which is not "spending three days to make a hit." But he did align himself with producers accustomed to music for a younger demographic. Life'll Kill Ya was produced and engineered by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade, who have worked with Radiohead — whom Zevon said he considers one of the three or four best bands of all time — Hole and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Songs from Life'll Kill Ya tend to be about Zevon's thoughts at this time in his life. When Zevon sings on the title track, "If you were good/ Maybe you'll come back as someone nice/ And if you were bad/ Maybe you'll have to pay the price," he's not trying to just resuscitate his career with catchy lyrics.

"My job [is] really the finished song," Zevon said. "It's not supposed to get any better than that."

No Pollyanna

On previous albums, Zevon sometimes used famous rock musicians to augment his material. Members of Fleetwood Mac appeared on his 1978 breakthrough, Excitable Boy, and members of R.E.M. played on 1987's Sentimental Hygiene). The new LP features stark accompaniment with longtime sideman Jorge Calderon on bass and percussion, Winston Watson on drums and Zevon on guitar, keyboards and percussion.

Despite the jaded stance he often takes in his music, Zevon is excited about taking his new tunes out on the road. His enthusiasm is reflected in his cover of Steve Winwood's hopeful 1986 song "Back in the High Life Again."

Still, Zevon is no Pollyanna. He likened himself to some serious writers and filmmakers to describe how he views his brand of musical storytelling.

"Mailer, Updike, [Hunter S.] Thompson ... I read their every word," Zevon said. "Scorsese, Antonioni, Fellini — compared to Rodgers and Hart, these [guys] were dark and violent. [We tell] of R-rated lives from an adult viewpoint."