Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Year of Zevon: Part I, Werewolf of L.A.

"Keep me in your heart," Warren Zevon sang not long before his untimely death of lung cancer in 2003, and the year of our Lord 2007 is providing several good reasons to do just that.

Last month, Rhino reissued three of Zevon's best albums: Excitable Boy, Stand in the Fire and The Envoy, the latter two of which had mysteriously never arrived on CD. This week will see the release of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Life and Dirty Times of Warren Zevon, his ex-wife Crystal Zevon's riveting and unsettling biography, as well as Preludes, a double-disc garage sale of unreleased and alternative tracks put together by Zevon's son Jordan, a most faithful executor of his dad's legacy.

All of which makes this a great occasion for a fan, especially if Zevon has been a steady part of your musical diet for the last quarter-century -- and this week is as good as any to tackle all five, day by day, starting with his breakthrough album.

The first time I heard Zevon's music, he wasn't singing it; Linda Ronstadt was. The year was 1977, and she had an album out called Hasten Down the Wind, which I played over and over, and whose cover I gawked at for long ecstatic moments. The title cut was a soft ballad from Zevon's eponymous first disc (or his major label debut; his real debut was something called Wanted Dead or Alive, which I haven't heard but which is generally regarded as substandard and premature.)

Warren Zevon was a critically-acclaimed masterwork (and Zevon's best, which I hope to discuss in the days ahead) but it did nothing in terms of sales; ironically, the multi-million selling Ronstadt would return to it no less than three times over her next few albums.

The results were iffy, as Ronstadt didn't always seem to have the slightest idea what she was singing about. "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" is a hilariously self-loathing song about a sex addict who has basically overdosed on women; Ronstadt changed the gender, deleted a mild S/M reference, threw in some synth drums and had herself a massive Top 40 hit. "Carmelita" is a powerful song about drug addiction -- something Zevon himself knew all about, as he was in and out of "detox mansion" for most of the 1970s and 1980s -- and brings to mind the sordid world of Velvet Underground's "Waiting for My Man." It absolutely does not bring to mind Linda Ronstadt. Neither did "Mohammed's Radio," a song about the stark religious power of rock and roll, and one of several bombastic misfires on Mad Love, Ronstadt's wobbly attempt at jumping on the New Wave bandwagon.

One thing that was clear, though: Zevon was a songwriter who never stayed in the same place very long, and his commercial breakthrough, Excitable Boy is a kickass showcase of Zevon's many modes and moods: international intrigue, twisted tall tales, and curiously powerful ballads; a broad mixture of werewolves, madmen, wounded lovers, worried parents. Here in so many guises was just the kind of cracked bard the times demanded, the perfect tonic for a post-Nixon, post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan era when cynicism and disco ruled the land, "Saturday Night Live" was the only good show on TV, and absolutely no one believed it was morning in America.

Zevon came straight from the same L.A. that produced Ronstadt and James Taylor -- along with the same backing band, a group of studio professionals that went by the name The Session -- as well as Jackson Browne (his champion, as well as co-producer of the record with guitarist Waddy Wachtel), Fleetwood Mac (who played on it), and John David Souther (Ronstadt's erstwhile boyfriend, who sings backup).

But Zevon was something else entirely. As a classically-trained prodigy who had already been a one-hit wonder (with Lyme & Cybelle, whose trippy classic "Follow Me" can be heard on Rhino's Nuggets box set), a songwriter for the Turtles, and an arranger for the Everly Brothers, he had a strong sense of pop songcraft -- and a twisted, unusually literary sense of humor to go with it. With his heavy, brazen voice and pounding piano (usually complimented by Wachtel's howling guitar) he was a natural punk in Top 40 threads, a strange brew of Spike Jones, Raymond Chandler and occasionally Hoagy Carmichael, or maybe Shostakovich (whom he knew as a child, by the way.)

The disc begins with a great statement of purpose: "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," in which a rock and roll messiah arrives to save the world with his music; Johnny with his guitar rather than Mohammed and his radio. It's Zevon's ballsy, deliberately pretentious way of saying "Get a load of me," and the songs that immediately follow offer fresh evidence that he's in a class by himself.

First, a batch of berserk narratives, fleshed out with hilarious details, rich arrangements and some remarkably inventive harmonies. "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" tells the story of a Norwegian soldier of fortune who gets his head blown off, then searches the world for the son of a bitch who did it. It's a smart mock epic: a "Song of Roland" that wanders from the Belgian Congo to the California of Patty Hearst.

The title track remains a total killer, in more ways than one: it's the bounciest, jauntiest, most downright danceable tune about rape and murder ever written, and the backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and -- you guessed it -- Linda Ronstadt only add to its perverse appeal.

"Werewolves of London," is a fine tale of a werewolf who dines on Chinese food, pina coladas, little old ladies without ever once mussing his hair. It's a novelty song that Zevon and co-writer Roy Marinell reportedly knocked off in 15 minutes, and which rather unfairly became his only Top 40 hit. Still, it's one of those rare funny songs with a terrific hook.

At this point, Zevon switches gears. Just when you think you're into his vibe, he delivers an impassioned, elusive love song whose title "Accidentally, Like a Martyr" is as much of a mystery today as it was when I first heard it. I think it's about a couple who came together in hopes of saving each other, and now are breaking up for the same reason, and maybe each seem to think they carry a greater burden than the other; not unlike the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" in its way. Maybe the couple stumbled into each other (accidentally) and hung around for abuse (like a martyr), but the only pain in the song is the pain of absence, and the only memory is of passion: "We made mad love, shadow love, random love and abandoned love/Accidentally, like a martyr" -- which, of course, sounds neither accidental nor martyr-like, except in retrospect.

There's a juxtaposition of another kind in "Tenderness on the Block," in which he offers a sympathetic look both at a young girl going out on her first date, and the parents who sit at home worried sick that she’ll be okay. His advice to Mom and Dad is a little smug and heavy-handed -- “Daddy don’t you ask her when she’s coming in, and when she’s home don’t ask her where she’s been,” which will likely only be heeded by parents in L.A. -- but in a larger sense he’s reminding them that one of the great things about youth is that taste of risk and adventure, just as parenthood is inevitably about letting go, giving children the freedom to make their own mistakes, even as you cautiously hope they won’t make any. There’s a wistfulness to the simple piano riff that carries the tune; an unspoken sense of how fleeting youth it. You can see that girl confidently strolling the block to meet her young man, out on her own at last, and like her parents you find yourself hoping her night of freedom will be as okay as the singer keeps telling us it will be.

Speaking of risk, the guy in "Lawyers, Guns and Money," the album's rousing closer, knows all about it, as he finds himself mired in one international jam after the next. It's nothing great, but for a singer whose career hangs in the balance of whether this album is a hit, it's a goodbye kiss-off.

The disc hits a couple of snags along the way with "Nighttime in the Switching Yard," a clumsy attempt at a dance track, and "Veracruz" a lachrymose, overwrought ballad set in the Mexican Revolution, so it lacks the perfect consistency of its predecessor. It portended a great career and also, unfortunately, was Zevon's commercial peak.

For those of us who stuck around to the bitter end, it was (and remains) a fascinating journey.

EXTRAS: The Rhino re-issue has some okay add-ons. For starters, there's "I Need a Truck," a throwaway which basically summarizes the kind of dependency on booze, drugs and women that had long played havoc with Zevon's fortunes, a pattern that wouldn't end for years to come: "I need a truck to haul my pain/ I need a truck to haul around my name/I need a truck to haul the women from my bed/And I need to truck to haul my body when I'm dead."

There's also a looser, less polished version of "Werewolves," and a couple of nice tuneful ballads. Marylin 'Tule' Livingston, Zevon's lover and the mother of his son, is the subject of "Tule's Blues," a deeply personal song that seems to directly address the couple's break-up. (Zevon isn't exactly ready to make nice, though: "Oh Tule, now can't you see I'm changing like the seasons?/My hair is growing dark/And there's no room left in the ark for a lark with a broken wing.") "Frozen Notes," which was originally intended for the album, was first released on Rhino's superb I'll Sleep When I'm Dead compilation; the "strings only" version here does not add much.