Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Genius Of Warren Zevon

The three Rhino CD reissues of Warren Zevon albums released this week seem to have been in the pipeline for ages and ages. It also seems that Zevon reissues are like buses – you wait a couple of years for them, and then they all come together (in May, Artemis, the label for which Zevon recorded his last three albums are putting together a 2CD compilation of pre-1976 material for which they’ve somehow managed to secure the rights). Given that these reissues have taken so long to prepare, it’s a shame that they’re not more lavish – cheap jewel cases, and a mere four additional tracks (including relatively unnecessary alternate takes) on each CD. I suspect there must have been more material on the cutting room floor. Still, at £6.99 each, they’re certainly a snip, and more than worth the investment, especially given the entertaining and incisive inlay notes that come with all three. ‘Excitable Boy’ (actually Zevon’s third album, but commonly referred to as his second following his disownment of ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’) will be familiar as Zevon’s biggest seller and home to his only sizeable hit in ‘Werewolves of London’. 1980’s live album ‘Stand In The Fire’ and 1982’s ‘The Envoy’ have long been considered holy grails among Zevon fans, so long have they been left criminally unavailable. Both now appear on CD for the first time.

It might be accepted wisdom, but ‘Excitable Boy’ probably remained Zevon’s creative high watermark. Although he recaptured some magic with ‘Sentimental Hygiene’, his 1987 collaboration with REM, and the late albums are excellent, this is as fine a collection of songs as he produced. Whilst some of the 80s material is understandably marred by unpleasant synthesisers and pounding drum sounds, Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel’s production here is sensitive, naturalistic and unobtrusive. The songs and their remarkable arrangements are allowed to breathe, the playing throughout is masterful, and the superb backing vocals from seasoned professional Jennifer Warnes and The Gentlemen Singers resound brilliantly.

The variety and sheer invention of Zevon’s vision is at its fullest expression on this album. Zevon recognised the poetic qualities of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon et al, but noted that America did not yet have the John Updike or Norman Mailer of songwriting. It is the literate quality of Zevon’s writing that stands out, a preoccupation he would continue through collaborations with his author friends Carl Hiaasen and Hunter S. Thompson. So, we get the title track, a marvellous satire on Attention Defecit Disorder before the term even existed; the majestic and bizarre ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’, a ghost story of Congo mercenaries co-written with David Lindell, himself an ex-mercenary and the utterly hilarious feckless criminal on the run story of ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’. The opener ‘Johnny Strikes Up The Band’ is one of many great songs Zevon wrote about the art of rock and roll itself, a surprisingly difficult subject for a songwriter to approach without sounding ham-fisted or self-referential.

At the heart of the album is the peculiar juxtaposition of ‘Werewolves of London’ (built around an insistent and repetitive descending chord sequence) and ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’. The latter, with its seemingly nonsensical title, is one of the most extraordinary ballads in pop history, the technical mastery of its harmony and arrangement betraying Zevon’s classical training at the home of Igor Stravinsky. It is a song that dares to suggest that time in fact does not heal (‘the hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder’) and Bob Dylan took the line ‘Time Out Of Mind’ for the title of his deeply solipsistic and moving 1997 album. ‘Werewolves…’ effectively made Zevon a one-hit wonder, but it’s worth recognising what a funny and inventive song it is, as fine a portrait of a predatory ladiesman as has been written and full of great lines (‘I’d like to meet his tailor!’).

In fact, ‘Werewolves..’ won a BBC Radio 2 vote for greatest opening line in rock a couple of years ago (I’m sure Chinatown restaurant Lee Ho Fuk’s were equally grateful for the plug), but I wonder whether ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ (perhaps my favourite Zevon song) might actually surpass it. It’s a tragicomic confessional, told with ribald glee (‘I went home with a waitress, the way I always do/How was I to know that she was with the Russians too?’). Its central plea (‘send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this’) never fails to raise a wry smile. That’s before we get to the playful ending, with its masterful breaks (dig the way Zevon grunts ‘huh!’) and superb guitar line.

Of the bonus tracks, the alternate take of ‘Werewolves…’ is interesting only to the most completist of fans, given that it buries the vocal too deeply in the mix and features some unnecessarily busy playing from the rhythm section that smothers the song. They definitely went with the right take in the end. There are two reversions of songs from ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’ – the solo piano version of ‘Tule’s Blues’, an exceptionally moving break-up song, is powerful and effective, and Zevon’s own string arrangement for ‘Frozen Notes’ is subtle and desolate. The core of Zevon’s genius is contained succinctly within the mere 50 seconds of ‘I Need a Truck’, two verses of a reworked blues delivered accappela. The lyric is masterful, referencing Zevon’s hard-drinking and hell-raising ways (he nearly killed himself early in his career, falling off a stage when drunk) – ‘I need a truck to haul my guns to town/I need a truck to haul my bad thoughts around/I need a truck to haul my Percodan and gin/And I need a truck to haul all my trucks in’ – as deceptively simple and intelligent a verse as any songwriter has written.

The most well-known songs from ‘The Envoy’ are musically less subtle, and betray the mutual appreciation society building between Zevon and Bruce Springsteen (Springsteen is credited as co-writer for ‘Jeannie Needs A Shooter’, which featured on Zevon’s superbly titled 1980 album ‘Bad Luck Streak at Dancing School’). Interestingly, much of ‘The Envoy’ captured that big, behemoth ‘Born in the USA’ sound before Springsteen even got there. ‘Ain’t That Pretty At All’ and ‘Looking For The Next Best Thing’ are intelligent songs perhaps slightly undermined by their production values, whilst the pounding approach works much more successfully for the fascinating title track, perhaps the most startling example of Zevon’s ironic approach to world politics.

Zevon himself may well have appreciated the playful irony that the album is at its most effective when at its least bombastic. The closing ‘Never Too Late For Love’ boldly risks descending into cliché, but ends up more inspiring than sentimental (‘You say you’re tired/how I hate to hear you use that word’) and may well have provided the direct reference point for REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’. ‘The Hula Hula Boys’ is a delightfully mournful ballad, and ‘Jesus Mentioned’, stripped back to just guitar and voice, stands with Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ as one of the best songs about Elvis’ death, his inspirational power and his unshakeable influence. ‘Let Nothing Come Between You’ tempers the synths with a quieter, less intrusive backbeat and some pleasant jangly guitar work.

It may be slightly uneven, but on balance ‘The Envoy’ is a powerful album that maintained Zevon’s wit, wisdom and songwriting invention. The bonus tracks included here are rather less illuminating. ‘Word of Mouth’ is an instrumental and pleasant enough, the cover of ‘Wild Thing’ is ragged and rough, and the alternate take of ‘Let Nothing Come Between You’ is superfluous. The one substantial song is ‘The Risk’, which most clearly demonstrates the influence of Springsteen on Zevon’s work at this time.

The real revelation of this series is ‘Stand In The Fire’, the 1980 live album that captured Zevon over five nights at the Roxy in LA. It’s remarkable for documenting Zevon as a vivid and incendiary entertainer, making playful alterations to his lyrics and delivering most of the vocals in a gutsy and gritty style. Even Zevon’s great friend Jackson Browne apparently expressed surprise at Zevon’s conjecture that ‘if you’re not entertaining, you’re not doing anything’. Browne had always considered Zevon to be too intelligent and too original for mere entertainment. With these shows, Zevon proved that the cerebral and the visceral need not be mutually exclusive. Here, they are entirely complementary.

For his backing band for these shows, Zevon hired a solid rock group that amusingly specialised in Warren Zevon covers. The result is blisteringly intense and rarely subtle, but it’s precisely this bludgeoning quality that gives much of the material its brutal impact. ‘Werewolves of London’ and ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ are rendered fresh by being taken and slightly slower, heavier tempos, and there are even a handful of hilarious machine gun fret-tapping guitar solos. ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ from the self-titled album becomes an almost Bon Jovi-esque trudge, whilst ‘Mohammed’s Radio’ is rendered with savage passion.

The album is perhaps most interesting for the two tracks that Zevon composed especially for the shows. The title track is another impassioned rock ‘n’ roll testimony, whilst ‘The Sin’ is an elaborate and compelling prose poem with a striking opening (‘The time that you were cruel for cruelty’s sake’), and a complex web of guilt and intrigue.

Throughout, Zevon is riotously inventive. ‘Werewolves of London’ perhaps undergoes the most significant lyrical adjustments, the key line being replaced by the gleeful bellowing of ‘and he’s looking for James Taylor!’. Jackson Browne also gets a mention (‘I saw Jackson Browne walking slow down the evenue…his heart was perfect!’) which raises a cheer. Zevon gets completely wild on ‘Excitable Boy’, even enjoying some kind of barbed Elvis impersonation mid-way through.

Of all three reissues, ‘Stand In The Fire’ is the one most enhanced by its bonus selections. In fact, it’s difficult to comprehend why these were ever omitted from the original tracklisting. The album came accompanied with a Thomas McGuane quotation claiming ‘the dog ate the part we didn’t like’, but in this instance it would appear that the dog was not entirely helpful. There are superbly energetic takes on ‘Johnny Strikes Up The Band’ and ‘Play It All Night Long’, the latter a gloriously deadpan take on Southern country rock (‘Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band’s song’ rings the chorus, and even nastier is the zesty ‘there ain’t much to country living: sweat, piss, jizz and blood!’). Most significant though are the two concluding tracks played solo at the piano – a vivid, rambling ‘Frank and Jesse James’ and a beautifully forlorn ‘Hasten Down The Wind’, during which he asks for the house lights to be turned up (‘I think I’ve found the ones who are my friends!’, he cries, in reference to the song’s central lyric). These songs not only provide much needed balance, but also a sense of serious finality evaded by the Bo Diddley medley that originally concluded the album on a much more playful note.

If some people find the show’s pre-encore finish (Zevon going down in gunfire and being stretchered offstage), a little incongruous with his literate and cerebral profile, then they are neglecting the man’s sense of humour, which was both zany and profound. When told of his terminal lung cancer in 2002, Zevon claimed he had just one ambition left – to see the next James Bond film (Die Another Day), an ambition he did live to achieve. When asked what his overall plan was for his last months, he responded dryly ‘I’m gonna enjoy every sandwich’. A man that witty and courageous in the face of death richly deserves these fitting tributes and more.

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