Thursday, April 19, 2012

Warren Zevon

"I'm drinking Heartbreak Motor Oil and Bombay Gin...straight from the bottle, I'm twisted again." - Warren Zevon, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" (1976)

While working in a country club kitchen in Simsbury, CT in 1986 during my freshman year of college, a co-worker lent me this odd orange-covered album that came out in the late 1970s, with a sorta creepy looking bespectacled man leering – and I do mean leering – out from the cover like a craven stalker.

“You gotta hear this. There’s a song about a rapist. And a song about monsters. Oh! And a song about a guy with no head!” I was told, excitedly.

Ooo-kay, I thought. Can’t I just keep listening to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live 1975-85? Or Abbey Road? Or even the somewhat new-ish Bob Dylan Biograph?

Trust me, he said.

I did. And I am glad I did.

The album, if you haven’t guessed, was Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, a 1978 release from mayhap the wildest man rock-n-roll had seen to date. Not only is it Zevon’s best-known album, but it is also lauded by many as his best.

It’s hard to argue against that (though more on this in a minute). Zevon was a songwriter extraordinaire out of the explosive Southern California collective of the 1970s, one who lived as hard a life as anyone who ever graced FM radio in the rock-n-roll era. Born the son of a Russian gangster, he was the oddball brooding in the back of the classroom while writing pulp horror and devouring long-forbidden comics and the most craven forms of comedy known in the pre-hippy 1960s. And it all showed up in his wonderfully perverse lyrics – murderers and mercenaries, screwups and ne’er-do-wells, outlaws and outcasts and no one who ever sat at the popular kids’ table in school.

The songs on his Excitable Boy album were as off the wall as he was known to be, but their disparate nature was equally perplexing.  “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” was a sinister piano ballad about, well, a headless Thompson gunning-mercenary named Roland, seeking vengeance on the man who blew his head off. Meanwhile, “Tenderness on the Block” was an irony-free Jackson Browne-tinged tale of letting your little girl grow up. “Excitable Boy,” the title track and his most infamous song, was about a rapist murderer, performed gleefully as a jaunty pop singalong, while “Veracruz” was a tender and lovely historic-based ballad.

Best of all were the two songs towards the end of Sides 1 and 2, back when “album sides” was actually a thing. “Werewolves of London” – his most famous tune – was a galumphing romp about scary hairy monsters roaming the Soho streets, while “Lawyers Guns and Money” – which closed the record –  could have actually read as a Zevon biography, an unrepentant fuckup who kept finding himself in peril and begging for rescue. (“I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk. Send lawyers, guns and money – Dad get me out of this!”)

And then there was this – man, could this guy play! His voice was whiskey baroque, deep and menacing yet bell-clear and, when he needed it to be, vulnerable. A virtually peerless piano and keyboard player and a wildly underrated guitarist, Zevon created songs with arrangements were at once spare yet perfectly melodic, with subtle nuances and hooks to always keep you guessing.  This wasn’t shredder rock-n-roll to be played to pumped up stadium crowds – Warren Zevon was more brooding gunfighter than rock star. He was the guy sipping whiskey in the back of the saloon that you were always a little hesitant to approach, because while he looked harmless, something seemed deeply dangerous about him.

He relished the persona, and while the masses never took to him the way they did direct contemporaries like Jackson Browne (one of his greatest friends and supporters) and the Eagles (or for that matter Linda Ronstadt, who turned a few of Zevon’s songs into megahits), he was beloved in the industry and treated as a jewel, self-destructiveness aside. Recently I read I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, written somewhat affectionately but 100% honestly by his ex-wife Crystal. You know the little misfit kid who begs his parents or teachers for one last chance to do right? Warren Zevon seemed to live his life banking on chance number 500. Like Bullwinkle with the magic hat, this time for sure!

I’ve gone on for a bit now, probably too long – hey, you should have stopped me! But really want to focus for a few minutes on the album hardly anyone ever thinks about when they think about Warren Zevon (those that even do, anyway). If they don’t think about Excitable Boy, they probably think of his 1987 comeback (from a near-decade drug haze) Sentimental Hygiene, a brilliant record ably backed by the members of R.E.M. Or maybe they think of his sad, strident farewell, The Wind, released just before he died in 2003 and with tracks filled with such hard-earned beauty you can practically hear the breath leaving his body.

But seldom do people talk about his first album in 1976, Warren Zevon. And all it was at the time was the most audacious debut by any American artist since Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? a decade earlier.

Largely piano-based and produced by Jackson himself with a lushness Bob Dylan never dreamed of before hooking up with The Band, Warren Zevon was the masterpiece before the masterpiece. An 11-song collection that zigged and zagged across the forboding Southern California coastline – with occasional stops in the heartland yet ultimately landing on the Pacific’s edge –  traipsing constantly between hopefulness and despair.

The album attacked myths and legends – angrily rebuking Norman Mailer (whose gonzo life no-doubt mirrored Zevon’s in some ways) with “The French Inhaler” about Mailer’s savaging book on Marilyn Monroe, and offering a mighty defense of the James Gang – stalwarts of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War – with the sympathetic album-opener “Frank and Jesse James.” He examined despondent addiction with “Carmelita,” yet did so against the backdrop of the sweetest little love story you could imagine. He sent up California living over and over again, from the rabid self-obsession (“Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which Linda later devoured) to the apocalyptic allure of the closing one-two punch of “Join Me In L.A.” (with Bonnie Raitt’s singing behind him) and the masterful tale of woe that closed the record, “Desperados Under the Eaves.” He even sent up faux evangelism with “Mohammed’s Radio,” yet did so in gorgeous, radio-friendly fashion (no pun intended), featuring none other than Stevie Nicks on backing vocals just before she would take part in the recording of a little record called Rumours.

How the album has been set-aside and largely forgotten about through time is beyond me – Zevon never really hit it big, I know, so perhaps the listening public only had room for one of his records.  But no other great debut in rock’s glorious history ever gave the listener a clearer message on what the artist was capable of doing than his first record.

He could make you laugh with nihilistic rants like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” he could make you cry with aching ballads of loss like “Hasten Down the Wind.” Or he could make you feel joy and pain, comfort and confusion, empathy and disgust all at once on tracks like “Carmelita” and “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” and the formerly mentioned “Desperados Under the Eaves.” Every note played with earnestness and conviction. Even if you wouldn’t trust the guy around anything more deadly than a toaster, you somehow believed him when he sang, “Some may have and some may not, God I’m thankful for what I’ve got” on the shuffling “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path.” Because you wanted to believe him, even if you knew he would eventually let you down.

Warren Zevon admittedly let a lot of people down in his too-short life. But seldom the listener. And back when it all started, on his unforgettable debut record, there was no telling what he might do next. And that was a good, good thing. Even from poor, poor pitiful him.

No comments:

Post a Comment