Life According To Zevon

Copyright 2011-2013, 2016, 2018 by Richard J. Ballard -- All Rights Reserved.

Newly divorced in 1992, I visited a divorced unemployed friend's apartment. A vinyl LP Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School was propped up against the wall, lying on the floor. When I asked about it my friend gave me a funny look and said You'll probably like it. We played the vinyl LP, I liked it and I noted the artist's name: Warren Zevon.

Much later I revisited my friend's apartment and I thanked him for introducing me to Warren Zevon's music. My friend got flustered, and stammering he denied any knowledge of Warren Zevon.

Warren Zevon no longer is with us. I equate Warren Zevon's music with author Hunter Thompson's writings (e.g., Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Kingdom Of Fear). I don't recommend the lifestyle that either artist depicts, but IMO both artists illuminate alternative questionable lifestyles in an entertaining and knowledgeable manner.

The Anthologies

A Quiet Normal Life: The Best Of Warren Zevon
This 1986 anthology spans Warren's first five studio albums and Warren's somewhat optimistic early years. These studio polished sessions lack the excitement and emotion of Warren's live performances.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
This 1996 midcareer anthology contains two CDs: the first CD spans The Asylum Era while the second CD spans The Virgin / Giant Era. The first CD completely disowns Warren's Wanted Dead Or Alive first album but holds 22 selections spanning albums Warren Zevon through 1982's The Envoy, including two live selections from Stand In The Fire. The second CD includes 22 selections spanning albums Sentimental Hygiene through 1995's Mutineer, and includes five outside selections: You Don't Know What Love Is (from the 1989 film Love At Large); Prince's Raspberry Beret (where Warren performs with members of the band R.E.M. under the name Hindu Love Gods); Roll With The Punches (from the 1992 television production Tales From The Crypt); If You Won't Leave Me I'll Find Someone Who Will (from the 1993 television production Route 66); and Real Or Not (from the 1994 television production Tek Wars).

Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon
This one-CD 2002 anthology spans all of Warren's studio albums except 2003's The Wind. The selections reflect Warren's choices for his best music.

The Live Albums

Learning To Flinch
This live album's selections were recorded on tour in the United States, Europe and Australia. The album was released in early 1993 and covers selections similar to A Quiet, Normal Life, but Warren performs here without extensive background accompanyment. This live album captures the emotion of Warren's music and his vocals, the naked soul of Warren Zevon. Warren's The French Inhaler live performance is a standout, and this album contains the only extended rendition of Warren's Roland The Thompson Gunner. This is my Warren Zevon favorite album.

Stand In The Fire
Performers energize the audience and the audience re-energizes the performers in the best live albums. This anti-acoustic live album was recorded in August 1980 during a five-day appearance at West Hollywood CA's Roxy Theatre. Originally released on December 26 (St. Stephen's Day) 1980, this album only reached #80 on the Billboard music charts and then somewhat disappeared commercially until it's March 2007 enhanced CD reissue. Here Warren is accompanied by his regular lead guitarist David Landau plus a Colorado rough-house band Boulder. The entire album is a raucous and joyful exhibit of lyrical madness that radiates raw energy, with Warren diverging from his studio lyrics to reference recent events and to tease his friends. The album features two new original songs Stand In The Fire and The Sin, plus a Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger new medley.

The Studio Albums

Wanted Dead Or Alive
Warren Zevon's 1969 debut album was not well received; perhaps the 1970s Love Generation was not ready for Warren's anarchistic independence. I enjoy the album although Warren's distinctive voice is obscured by undermiking, by deliberate audio shaping and by group vocals. Notable songs include the title track, Hitch Hikin' Woman, She Quit Me (lyrics later modified for use in the film Midnight Cowboy), and instrumental Fiery Emblem.

Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon took a European sabbatical after his debut album Wanted Dead Or Alive received its lukewarm reception. Returning years later re-energized, Warren reconnected with his friends and recorded this 1976 signature album. Warren still depicts a frustrated man longing for adventure, but his songs now are energetic and upbeat. Several of this album's selections [Backs Turned Looking Down The Path, Hasten Down The Wind and Poor Poor Pitiful Me] later were rerecorded by other artists, but my personal favorites are the tuneful Frank And Jesse James [a Missouri version of Roland The Thompson Gunner], (an early mild rendition of) The French Inhaler, Mohammed's Radio [recalls evening listening to Radio Habana Cooba on shortwave radio, recognizing a culturally different perspective], Carmelita, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead [a bummer's frustrated lament] and Desperados Under The Eaves [a domestically tranquilized Hotel California].

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1977 performance of Frank And Jesse James.
Watch Warren's 1977 performance of Carmelita.
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.

Excitable Boy
Guys, don't play this 1978 album for your girlfriend unless she's a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; when she hears the title track she'll just wrinkle her nose and say Ewwww! This is a frustrated guy's album that contains many of Warren's best known songs. Warren got early airplay with Werewolves Of London's quizzical lyrics. [An instant success; Frank Zappa waited decades for airplay until Frank's daughter Moon opened the Top 40 radio door with Valley Girl.] Johnny Strikes Up The Band oozes musical exuberance, while Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner is an anthem among Warren's fans. Nighttime In The Switching Yard sounds like some poor fellow is trying to get off the wrong track; Accidentally Like A Martyr sounds like the poor fellow failed. Attorneys like the selection Lawyers, Guns and Money: An attorney friend had a Lawyers, Guns and Money sticker on his office inner door. One night over dinner he described a Saint Louis client's post-inheritance bad luck streak in dancing school. (I.e., My training was classical. I've never before danced on the small stage. All you can do is smile encouragingly; fools rush in ... ).

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1980 performance of Johnny Strikes Up The Band.
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Accidentally Like A Martyr
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Excitable Boy (first half).
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Werewolves Of London.
Watch Warren's live performance of Lawyers, Guns And Money.
Watch Warren's 2002 performance of Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School
Newly divorced men are disoriented. Two albums appealed to me when I was newly divorced: Ringo Starr's Ringo, a happy album that celebrates post-divorce freedom; and this 1980 album, with selections and catchy title suggesting that somebody is having fun. Newly divorced men often seek to reinvent themselves, and Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School depicts an exciting if chaotic society ripe for reinvention. The selections Play It All Night Long, Jeannie Needs A Shooter and Gorilla, You're A Desperado IMO are standouts.

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1980 performance of Gorilla, You're A Desperado.
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Jungle Work and Play It All Night Long (second half).

The Envoy
This 1982 album got a lukewarm reception; I consider the album a mixed bag. The title track continues Warren's militaristic theme, while the selections Charlie's Medicine and (later) Wild Thing imply a certain fascination with actor Charlie Sheen's lifestyle. The selections Ain't That Pretty At All and Looking For The Next Best Thing express Warren's frustration with life's disappointments. Other album selections are remarkably melodious: The Hula Hula Boys, Let Nothing Come Between You (IMO a nice restatement of vocalist Gene Pitney's Town Without Pity) and the instrumental Word Of Mouth.

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of The Envoy.
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of The Overdraft (second half).
Watch Warren's 1982 performance of Charlie's Medicine (first half).

Sentimental Hygiene
This 1987 album is one of Warren's stronger albums, glorifying the working class ethic. Notable selections include the title track (awwww, you know ...), The Factory (with its recitation of lung industrial contaminants), Warren's fight song Boom Boom Mancini, Trouble Waiting To Happen, Bad Karma, Even A Dog Can Shake Hands, and the uncharacteristically gentle selections Reconsider Me and The Heartache.

YouTube video:
Watch Warren's live performance of Boom Boom Mancini.

Transverse City
This 1989 album features complex musical arrangements, and depicts a man living on the edge in a industrial tough city. The title track proposes a long weekend in a rough neighborhood, while Run Straight Down depicts a poor town's economic decline. The Long Arm Of The Law and Turbulence depict mercenary blues on both sides of the front lines. Upon return, relational optimism plunges in They Moved The Moon: there's nothing left to share except gratuitous shopping Down In The Mall. The upbeat track Splendid Isolation and the restrained track Nobody's In Love This Year are this album's best known selections, reflecting predictable disgust with impersonally cold society. The music is great, I love the lyrics, but in The Great Recession's Wake I increasingly observe similar disaffected social behavior within my own Midwestern city.

YouTube video:
Watch Warren's 1989 performance of Splendid Isolation.

Mr. Bad Example
In this 1991 album Warren glorifies the colonial lifestyle and the colonial mindset (some people prefer to profit while other people work) both in the title track and also in the selection Renegade. The selection Angel Dressed In Black depicts daddy's concern for his little girl's welfare. Finishing Touches and Searching For A Heart express a sensitive man's frustration, while the studio band had fun with Heartache Spoken Here.

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1991 performance of Finishing Touches.
Watch Warren's 1991 performance of Searching For A Heart.
Watch Warren's 1993 performance of Mr. Bad Example

Perhaps it is social paranoia, but I find this 1995 album one of Warren's best, characterized both by musical genius and by lyrical genius. The title track's lyrics are rebellious; Warren's 2002 Mutineer performance is somewhat conciliatory. Four noteworthy selections (the best of a good lot) are Seminole Bingo [a Wall Street outlaw reaches his dead end], The Indifference Of Heaven [frustration over nonexistent pressure points]; Poisonous Lookalike [originally I thought this selection alluded to that time of the month; later I met the rush in dolls from Warren's Lawyers, Guns And Money]; and the tuneful Piano Fighter. Plus an honorable mention for Rottweiler Blues (i.e., Don't knock on my door if you don't know my rottweiler's name).

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 1995 performance of Seminole Bingo.
Watch Warren's 2002 performance of Mutineer.

Life'll Kill Ya
Warren's voice has fewer bass tones, and this 2000 album has a past our physical prime theme. Notable selections include the energetic I Was In The House When The House Burnt Down, the pessimistic title track, the somewhat humorous My Shit's Fucked Up, the Porcelain Monkey Elvis Presley tribute, the disaffected Hostage-O, and Warren's wistful rendition of Steve Winwood's Back In The High Life Again.

YouTube video:
Watch Warren's live performance of My Shit's Fucked Up.

My Ride's Here
Warren Zevon's health was fragile for this 2002 album and Warren was feeling his mortality as reflected by the selections (Let's Party All Night) Sacrificial Lambs, Basket Case, You're A Whole Different Person When You're Scared and (This Time) I Have To Leave. Yet mortality encourages candor about issues you believe are important; in this album Warren celebrates admirable historical figures and European culture in the selections Lord Byron's Baggage, Genius, Laissez Moi-Tranquille and My Ride's Here. In the selection Hit Somebody! Warren celebrates northerners' hockey competitiveness and determination. (In the album version Warren's friend David Letterman from the background repeatedly yells Hit somebody!) Several of the selections (e.g., MacGillycuddy's Reeks) feature Irish pipes and violins. This album is different musically from Warren's other albums IMO because the background music's volume level is uniformly high.

YouTube videos:
Watch Warren's 2002 performance of Genius.
Watch Warren's 2002 performance of Hit Somebody!.

The Wind
This 2003 album takes Warren Zevon full circle, somewhat resembling his debut album Wanted Dead Or Alive: the album features Warren performing with good friends, and several selections feature group vocals.

Warren now had terminal lung cancer (probably due to asbestos exposure during his youth; ponder the cover for Warren's earlier album Mr. Bad Example). The cancer and his medications drained Warren's strength. The bravado is gone in this album, replaced with lyrics expressing frustration about a society that rejects male cultural values (Disorder in the House, Numb as a Statue and Rub Me Raw), and with lyrics pondering endings (Dirty Life and Times, She's Too Good for Me, Prison Grove and The Rest of the Night). Two other selections IMO are this album's most significant tracks: Knockin' On Heaven's Door (originally written and performed by Bob Dylan for the film Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid), and Keep Me in Your Heart (recorded with a smaller group at Warren's home studio and sung in a very Dylanesque voice). Warren saw this album's 2003 release; Warren Zevon no longer is with us.

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