Now that I am dead
my agent finally said
he wanted to have lunch with me
Now that I’m deceased
my record sales increased
I’m making lots of royalties
I’m a composer decomposing
I’m on the rocker’s roll of fame
My songs the critics are praising
Yes, they even learned to spell my name.
— John French (French Frith Kaiser Thompson, Invisible Means )
It’s a crowning irony in a life devoted to satire and black humor: Warren Zevon’s last, not-quite-posthumous album is likely to be his biggest-selling and most popular. The Wind , which will be reviewed elsewhere in GMR , was made and released while Zevon was under a death sentence from lung cancer. The publicity that surrounded his final year (including nightly performances of his songs by Bob Dylan and an entire show devoted to him by his friend David Letterman), plus heavy buzz and positive early reviews, led to strong sales for The Wind .
But Zevon, who died at age 56 on Sept. 7, 2003, was a highly respected musician, singer and songwriter with more than a dozen albums in his discography and more than 35 years in show business. Through a career filled with peaks and valleys, he amassed an impressive catalog of songs that range from biting social satire to tender love songs, in styles that drew on folk, blues, rock, cabaret and everything in between. (This review doesn’t include his entire discography, just the recordings I have in my own collection. With thanks to Carter Wood, who got me started.)
Zevon’s early career included stints writing and playing for The Turtles and the Everly Brothers. His self-titled 1976 album was actually his sophomore solo release. It followed 1969’s Wanted — Dead or Alive , a folky effort that sank like a stone but which was opportunistically re-released this year. After several years of session work in Los Angeles, his friend Jackson Browne produced Warren Zevon , which set the tone for the rest of his career. It featured dark tales of the dissolute lives of the down-and-out in L.A. (“The French Inhaler,” “Carmelita”), a rocking tale of a self-pitying loser-in-love (“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”), cryptic social commentary (“Mohammed’s Radio”), a tender love song (“Hasten Down the Wind”), mythologizing of American folk heroes (“Frank and Jesse James”) and a rousing pub-rocker (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”).
While Zevon’s piano-playing revealed his years of classical training as a youth, his songwriting revealed a lover of the language. From the beginning, he showed a deft hand at the clever turn of phrase that, more often than not, revelled in his fascination with mortality. “I’m sittin’ here playing solitaire with my pearl-handled deck,” says the narrator of “Carmelita.” The protagonist’s love object’s “face looked like something Death brought with him in his suitcase” at closing time in “The French Inhaler.” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” with its insistent, industrial beat and rat-a-tat cymbal crashes speaks for itself: “I’ve got a 38 special up on the shelf/I’ll sleep when I’m dead./If I start acting stupid I’ll shoot myself/and I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
This album also was a virtual who’s who of the L. A. music scene, with contributions from Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), Glenn Frey and Don Henley (Eagles), J.D. Souther (Souther-Hillman-Furay), Bonnie Raitt and Browne; and instrumental work from several musicians with whom he would be associated his entire career — David Lindley, Waddy Wachtel and Jai Winding.
It didn’t hurt that Linda Ronstadt covered several tracks off of this album, including a hit single (“Pitiful Me”) and an album title track (“Hasten Down the Wind”). But in spite of critical success, Ronstadt’s covers were the only Zevon songs that got much in the way of radio play.
That changed with 1978’s “Werewolves of London,” the hit single which rose to No. 21 on the Billboard charts and pushed the album Excitable Boy to No. 9, his strongest showing ever.
“Werewolves” became something of a frat-boy howl-along party anthem, and a bit of an albatross for Zevon, who was obliged to trot it out every time he stepped on stage for the rest of his career. As with so many one-hit-wonder pop songs, it was nowhere near his best work, just the one that caught the fancy of the most casual fans. It’s a shame that, for too many, Zevon became “the guy who did that werewolf song.”
Zevon was a heavy partier at this stage of his career, and his work suffered for it. His output slowed for a couple of years, but he apparently cleaned up his act enough to put out 1980s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School , and the 1981 live recording, Stand in the Fire . While Bad Luck Streak produced a couple of memorable tracks — particularly the satiric take on Southern life and Southern rock, “Play It All Night Long,” and “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen — much of it sounds forced. “Play It All Night Long” remains a personal favorite, though, with its chorus of “Sweet home Alabama, play that dead band’s song,” referring to Lynyrd Skynyrd; it manages to take a swipe at the band that penned that bane of every rock singer’s existence, “Free Bird,” and it’s probably the only pop song ever to use the word brucellosis.
Stand in the Fire is a big favorite among Zevon’s more cultish fans, but it’s a relic of its time. The production is dated, the backup singing is cheesy, and he did better versions of several of the tracks on his solo acoustic Learning to Flinch . Available only on vinyl or cassette and out of print at this writing, it’s still a worthwhile artifact, if only for the set-closing “Bo Diddly’s A Gunslinger,” which gives a good foretaste of his later work with the Hindu Love Gods.
The artist hit a creative peak, though, with 1982’s The Envoy . This one has it all. The title song, inspired by U.S. diplomat Phillip Habib, remains topical: “Nuclear arms in the Middle East/Israel’s attacking the Iraqis… send the envoy.” “The Overdraft,” a tale of small-time crooks, is one of his hardest-rocking songs ever, with a catchy chorus to match: “If I do say so/I can’t let go/and I don’t take no for an answer.” It’s only outdone by “Ain’t That Pretty At All,” a synth-metal depressive’s anthem: “Gonna hurl myself against a wall/cuz I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all.”
These rockers are balanced by acoustic numbers like “Let Nothing Come Between You,” a perfect bit of advice for newlyweds, and the truly tender “Never Too Late For Love.” If that’s too sweet for your tastes, there’s the hilarious “Hula Hula Boys”: — the narrator is a vacationing sad-sack whose wife is carrying on with the natives: “I didn’t have to come to Maui/to be treated like a jerk/how do you think I feel/when I see the bellboys smirk?” “Looking For The Next Best Thing” is one of the most heart-breaking songs in Zevon’s catalog, a deceptively fluffy-sounding bit of California pop, with Graham Nash’s soaring harmonies behind the wry chorus: “I appreciate the best/but I’m settling for less/I’m looking for the next-best thing.” Finally, there are two harrowing ballads about the dangers of drugs: “Jesus Mentioned” (Zevon’s first song about Elvis), a cautionary tale about the King’s last days; and “Charlie’s Medicine,” a hard folk-rocker about a young pusher who got his prescription filled: “Some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills shot him through the heart/didn’t feel a thing/neither of them did/poor kid.”
The Envoy has never been released on CD, although most or all of the tracks are available on various compilations. Fans mounted an email campaign in the mid-90s to encourage Elektra to release it, but it has so far come to naught — it wasn’t even included in the spasm of re-releases in 2002 and 2003.
Though once again critically praised, The Envoy didn’t make much of a commercial showing. Zevon fell off the wagon, and it was five years before his next release.
In the meantime, Asylum released a so-so “best-of” disc, A Quiet Normal Life . It’s a fairly representative sample from his four early Elektra releases, predictably leading off with “Werewolves of London” and the title track from Excitable Boy , which is just about as emblematic a song of Zevon’s career as any. Amusing on the surface, it’s a stirring indictment of family life and the juvenile justice system, which fails the title youth and everyone around him. His every outrageous act is excused and glossed-over — “excitable boy, they all said” — until he rapes and kills his prom date. Though Zevon once famously said something to the effect that you can’t play folk music on the piano, with this modern murder ballad, he comes pretty close.
Also from Excitable Boy are two of his signature songs, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” and “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” as well as the tender “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and, for some reason, “Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” Here’s where you’ll find some tracks from Envoy , including the title track, “Next Best Thing” and “Ain’t That Pretty At All.” It’s not a bad place to start, but hardly a must-have.
When Zevon emerged from rehab (for the last time, as it turned out), it was with an impossible thing: An even better record than Envoy . Boasting top-level guest musicians and backed by members of R.E.M., 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene was an artistic triumph and one of the best albums of the decade. From Neil Young’s electric guitar on the title track to Bob Dylan’s harmonica on “The Factory,” there’s not a sour note on this one. “Detox Mansion,” “Bad Karma” and “Trouble Waiting to Happen” lay out the singer’s hard knocks and recovery; “Boom Boom Mancini” pounds out the harrowing true tale of a boxer who killed an opponent in the ring; “The Factory” is a bitterly funny Springsteen-esque working class rocker: “We got a kid that’s two, we got another one due/we get by the best we can do/I’d kill my wife, or she’d kill me/but we gotta go to work in the factory.” “Reconsider Me” and “The Heartache” are dry-eyed but moving love songs, while the title track and “Even A Dog Can Shake Hands” come at society’s ills from different angles. The final track, “Leave My Monkey Alone,” comes complete with jungle sounds and hyper-funky drumming from George Clinton and his merry band.
It was a tough act to follow, and Zevon took a page from Neil Young’s book with the offbeat (even for him) 1989 release, Transverse City . Inspired by the cyber-punk literary genre exemplified by William Gibson, Transverse City is an overproduced concept album with lots of synthesizer, harsh and bright edges on the sounds, and titles like “Networking,” “Gridlock” and “Down In The Mall.” It was one of his weakest efforts, but yielded one gem, “Splendid Isolation,” which was more fully realized in a stripped-down live setting.
In “Splendid Isolation,” Zevon held a mirror up to those of us — many artists included — who would prefer to ignore the pain and suffering that surrounds us in the world. “I want to live all alone in the desert/I want to be like Georgia O’Keeffe … I don’t want to see their faces/I don’t want to hear them scream … splendid isolation, I don’t need no one.” And then he proceeded to make us face that darkness, not by preaching, but by the much more subversive route of making us laugh at ourselves.
During the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, Zevon, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry (R.E.M.) cut an album’s worth of covers, mostly of classic blues, released in 1990 as Hindu Love Gods . It was an opening salvo in the decade’s blues revival, with affectionate but hard-rocking takes on Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” and “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and standards like “Crosscut Saw” and “Junko Pardner.” It’s best remembered for the cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” and rocks hardest on the Georgia Satellites’ “Battleship Chains.” Questionable sequencing lets the album peter-out with two acoustic tracks at the end, Johnny Horton’s “One-Woman Man” and Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man.” But the musicians were having a good time, and that sense of fun comes through, making this a great party record.
In 1992, Zevon made a solo acoustic tour of the U.S., Europe and Australia, and released the amazing Learning to Flinch in 1993. It features mature, even definitive live takes on all of his classic songs (and a few new ones), accompanied only by himself on 12-string guitar or on piano. It unfortunately followed the trend of the time and sometimes buried Zevon’s vocals in the mix, but by then the fans knew all the words, anyway.
Highlights: A symphonic orgy on “Roland;” the four-in-a-row opening salvo of “Splendid Isolation,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Mr. Bad Example” and “Excitable Boy” — the latter showcasing a dazzling display of classical/boogie piano; a devastatingly bitter “The Indifference of Heaven;” incredibly greasy slide work on “Worrier King;” the tour-de-force guitar interlude on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and a funeral-march take on “Play It All Night Long” to wrap things up. An overlooked classic.
Zevon was back with more grimly humorous looks at life, death and dying with 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya . A mostly acoustic effort, it seems an eerie foreshadowing of the singer’s impending doom, particularly in the title track with its chorus of “Life’ll kill ya/that’s what I said/life’ll kill ya/and then you’ll be dead/life’ll find you/wherever you go/requiscat in pace that’s all she wrote;” the closing prayer, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick;” and the profanely hilarious “My Shit’s Fucked Up.”
It has some of the strongest and most poignant songs of Zevon’s career, including the rousing opener, “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” the title track; another look at the sordid last days of Elvis in “Porcelain Monkey;” and a definitive cover of Steve Winwood’s “Back In The High Life Again.”
The mainstream media didn’t pay much attention to Warren Zevon until he succeeded in recording his own epitaph and living to see its triumphant release. But he leaves more than that last record, no matter how worthy it is. For more than a quarter-century, he grinned in the face of death, gleefully probed at society’s darkest corners and faced his own faults with wit and grace, and wrote memorable songs about all of it.
The official Web site of the late, great Warren Zevon .