Amazingly, there doesn’t seem to have ever been an AW thread on WZ – one of the most criminally under-rated of all US singer-songwriters-musicians. As Bruce S said of him “ Warren nails part of the American psyche rarely ever touched on in pop music”
As Monday would have been our Warren’s 75th birthday, I think it’s high time we redressed the balance.
My love affair with WZ dates back to the late 70s when my mate, Phil Bonner, loaned me a copy of Excitable Boy and Television’s Marquee Moon in exchange for a couple of selections from my own record collection. The fact that the only one of the albums I can remember exchange-loaning Phil was Jethro Tull’s Minstrel in the Gallery will give you some idea of who came away with the best of that particular arrangement! Fast forward 30 odd years to 2013 when I returned to Ireland after decades of working around Africa, Asia and the Middle East and got access to the 500-odd vinly records I’d left behind. There nestled amongst all the stuff (a lot of which I wouldn’t be seen dead buying or playing now) were the two albums I loaned from Phil. He and I are still in contact and as he mainly listens to electronic/ambient stuff nowadays, he doesn’t want WZ or TV back.
Back then, there was no internet and apart from NME and ZigZag before it went all glossy, there were few ways to learn more about Warren’s backstory – the Russian mafia/professional gambler/quasi-alcoholic Dad…the early musical relationship with avant garde musical legend, Karl Heinz Stockhausen… his friendship with hard-boiled thriller writer, John D McDonald. Then there were the songs he’d written for the Turtles, his stint as leader of the Everly Brothers’ band and the fact that the covers of Poor, Poor Pitiful Me and two other early songs Linda Ronstadt had included on her mid-70s albums made him more in royalties than did his own first record for Asylum.
All that lay ahead of me. In those innocent pre-punk days, quirkily literate full-tilt rockers like Excitable Boy, Lawyers, Guns and Money (“Dad, get me out of this!”) and more wistful, bittersweet ballads like Accidentally Like A Martyr(“The hurt gets worse/and the heart gets harder”) and Tenderness On The Block (“Wide-eyed, she’ll be streetwise/To the lies and all the jive talk”) sounded like nothing anyone else was doing. Today, almost 40 years later they sound just as fresh and unexpected…
What I most loved (and still love) about WZ’s songwriting was the wrly warped humour with which he uses to lighten the many, many darker corners of his work. Excitable Boy, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner and the frequently-maligned (though never by Warren himself) Werewolves of London (“I’d like to meet his tailor”) – are all excellent examples. I wasn’t alone, either. Those jostling for places at the altar rail at the Church of Warren include(d) writers Hunter S. Thompson, Will Self (who eventually wrote some typically trenchant sleeve notes for the Genius compilation that came out just before WZ died) and Stephen King (with whom he would eventually tour in the Rock Bottom Remainders). Then there were the shedloads of respected singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen who seemed to just intrinsically get what it was this most literate and left field of musos was trying to say and so hailed him as a peer.
Eventually, I went back and discovered the delights on Warren’s “official” first eponymously titled album from 1976 – still regarded by many as his best – where the many standout tracks included Mohammed’s Radio, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me and this oft-overlooked little gem:
As I got deeper into all things Zevon, I was equally delighted to catch cynical treats like Gorrila, You’re A Desperado, Looking for the Next Best Thing and Play It All Night Long off Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980) (apparently a euphemism for brothel for those who’d like to know). Packed with definitive versions of songs of our hero’s first three albums plus a climactic segue of two full tilt Bo Diddley songs, the live album that appeared not long after – Stand in the Fire – was up there with Van M’s Too Late to Stop Now, BOC’s On Your Feet or On Your Knees and Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous as one of the great releases during that vintage decade for live albums. Sadly, it was around about this time that the wheels began to fall off in Warren’s personal life and career.
Lauded by critics and jam packed with all-star guests, 1982’s The Envoy was yet another great album – the last of our hero’s first flowering. Extraordinarily, like SITF – sales were so disappointing, the album remained unavailable on CD until a couple of years after Warren’s death. Charlie’s Medicine and Ain’t That Pretty At All are well worth checking out. Highlights of the album – for me, anyway – are two songs that show the two very different sides of WZ’s talent – the melodic if somewhat acidic Jesus Mentioned – one of the best songs about Elvis ever recorded (“He went walking on the water/With his pills”) – and the incredibly infectious Hula Hula Boys (“I saw her in the Lua with the one who parks the cars/And the fat one from the swimming pool/They were swaying arm in arm”) – Warren’s wit and tunesmanship both at their razor-sharp best.
The inevitable quality comedown after the euphoria of the previous decade, the 80s saw the great record buying public start buying aural shit like hair band metal (if you lived in the US) and re-heated glam cum new romantic acts like Spandau Ballet (if you lived in the UK) than investigating Warren’s brand of musical noir.
Learning about his being dropped by Asylum in the Random Notes column of Rolling Stone was all it took to push our hero over the edge again. Ultimately, the only bumper sales on the Zevon front were over the till at his local offy and guns and ammo shop. That strange bang sound at the start of the title track of Bad Luck Streak is apparently Warren firing a Magnum .45 into a dustbin. More worryingly, it was around this time that Warren started using pictures of himself as target practice.
Eventually, long before it was seen as being a sort of badge of pride among so-called celebs, off to rehab Warren a-went. Sometime in the mid- to late-80s after his first major dry out (check out Detox Mansion and Trouble Waiting to Happen (“Read things I didn’t know I’d done/Sounded like a lot of fun”), the musical (i.e. non-Michael Stipe) portion of REM rode to the rescue, They subsequently contributed virtually all of the backing to the album that launched WZ’s first great comeback, Sentimental Hygiene. REM and our hero apparently subsequently fell out very badly when Warren’s then record company decided to release some casual jams he Buck, Berry and Mills had cut in the studio and never intended for release as the Hindu Love Gods. Like Cooder, Lowe, Hiatt and Keltner in Little Village around the same time, the idea sounds a whole lot better on paper than it did on record. If you have to listen to one track? Make it their take on Prince’s Raspberry Beret, an excellent example of the several inspired covers that pepper WZ’s back catalogue.
Sandwiched between the above two releases came the darker concept album that was 1989’s Transverse City. Frustratingly, top-notch ballads like Splendid Isolation and Nobody’s in Love plus a couple of the more sardonically humorous tracks (Networking and Down at the Mall) aside, the album proved too downbeat for most listeners. It remains my least favorite of all his records.
Dropped by Virgin due to poor sales, Warren recorded the stripped-back (and all the more excellent for it) Mr Bad Example (check out Suzie Lightning and Angel Dressed in Black for our hero’s more melodic and “heavier” sides, plus the title track and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead if you prefer your Warren “Dressed in black/Knocking back a shot of wry (sic)”). There then followed the alone-with-his-guitar world tour songbook that was Learning to Flinch (must-listen cuts here include The Vast Indifference of Heaven, a track in which he neatly skewered Bruce and Patti Springsteen and Billy and Chrissie Joel and he would subsequently revisit on his next studio album.
Warren’s next release, 1995’s Mutineer, was recorded in his home studio and saw him retreat still further from the mainstream. While far from being his best work, the title track and his cover of Judee Sill’s Jesus Was a Crossmaker are essential suggestions in any overview of this nature.
After that it was a few more years of silence broken only by stints on William Shatner’s TV Show Tek Wars. On the sleeve notes of the peerless 1996 2-CD collection I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, WZ recalls late night calls from the former TJ Hooker ordering “We need more guitars! More driving guitars!” For best effect, try enunciating the above quote, Word…By…Word… a la… Captain…. Kirk…)
While the recipient of the usual inevitably glowing reviews, Warren’s second great “comeback” in the late 90s was, like Mutineer, a far more low-key affair than his first in terms of “superstar” guests. Yet the two albums he cranked out in what for him was very quick succession around this time are brimming over with strong songs. Stripped to pretty much the bare minimum, the best songs on 2000’s strangely portentously titled Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here from two years later are as strong as those from the days when Werewolves was riding high in the charts some 20-odd years before. Try I was in the House When the House Burned Down, Porcelain Monkey (a second great Elvis song!) or Don’t Let us Get Sick from LKY or the title track from MRH and see if you don’t agree. Described by WZ as a “meditation on death”, the album attracted some mixed reviews with the writer in Uncut even going so far as to comment on MRH’s strangely ominous cover of Warren gazing back out of what looked like a hearse window.
Warren’s original MRH
Springsteen’s live cover just after Warren’s death
Then came the life-changing visit to the dentist, who heard Warren’s wheezing and told him to make his first appointment at the doctors in what proved to be waaaaaaaaaaaay too many years. Amazingly, having spent virtually all of his life as a heavy smoker (WZ apparently used to frequent a tobacconist in Hollywood where he would send back the packets with health warning photographs he didn’t like), it wasn’t the coffin nails that did for him. Nope, our hero didn’t develop lung cancer from the piggies, but mesothelioma from laying carpets while younger (as celebrated in Mr Bad Example.
The writing not so much scrawled on – as indelibly carved in – the wall, WZ decided to fill the very little time he had left by making a farewell album. In doing so, he amazingly managed to string out his doctor-allotted two or three months into the best part of a year. Along the way he was granted the then (and probably still) unprecedented accolade of being given a one-man show on longtime fan David Letterman’s late night programme, performing Roland the Headless Thompson, Gunner, Genius and a poignant version of Mutineer (the whole show is up on YT if you’re interested). He was also the subject of a very moving VH1 “making of album” special (also up on YT). While he didn’t quite managed to fulfil the vow he made on Mr Bad Example and “ live to be 100 and go down in infamy”, he happily hung on just long enough to see his first grandson enter the world shortly before he himself left it on September 7, 2003.
Not that it really mattered – he died just days after its release – but Warren’s last album, The Wind, was probably his most star-studded affair since Transverse City in the late 80s, attracting such luminaries as Bruce S, Ry C and Tom P. Laughing off Warren’s seemingly curt dismissal of he and Patti Scalfia in The Vast Indifference of Heaven, even long-time admirer and collaborator (Jeannie Needs a Shooter), the Boss himself stopped by at the studio to contribute backing vocals and an incendiary solo onDisorder in the House.
Somewhat sentimentally viewed by many as WZ’s best album – it’s not, the five album-run from the eponymous first album through to The Envoy is far better and the ideal place to get into his songwriting imho – The Wind received two 2004 Grammies Warren never got to hold. In April the year before, fighting for breath as he sang, the last track WZ ever recorded remains as fine an epitath as any artist could ever hope for.