Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

Warren Zevon: A Primer Without Research

You can bail now. Pull the cord: I support your decision because it is mathematically the correct one; it’s the odds play. The vast majority of the general public replied to Warren Zevon with, at best, “Oh, the werewolf guy? What happened to him?” while he was alive, and in death not much has changed. Warren has not yet been re-evaluated in the proper publications, nor did The 1975 cover any of his songs on their new album.

Kanye does not give Warren shout-outs, nor do his guitars or love letters fetch huge prices at auction. The last person to sample him was Kid Rock. (And of course it was fucking Werewolves.) He didn’t have many fans when he was still around, and now that he’s now putting out any new stuff, only the Weird remain. (Warren was good friends with Hunter Thompson, which gives me dispensation to use some good ol’ Hunter Capitals.)

The funny thing is that Warren would have pitched hysterical tantrums over this slight. He was fantastically aware of his niche status in the music industry, and he enjoyed turning that awareness into insults and sometimes punching. Warren raged against the dying of the residuals.

Except: he may not have been wrong to think so highly of himself. Three of his records (and Warren Zevon is a guy who made records; the live act is up and down for many reasons that I’m sure will be covered) are legitimate masterpieces. The rest of them all have at least one transcendent song on them (along with one stinker, but we’ll also cover that) except for maybe on or two.

Last chance to click over to Jezebel, where women demand to be taken seriously in between posts about the Kardashians. I won’t hold it against you.

Okay, here we go.

This is the first album, called Warren Zevon, which is some solid first album namin’. Can’t trust an act without a self-titled first album.

Also: remember the thing about how you could leave? And that I wouldn’t mind? It turns out that’s not true, because this video is from Warren’s official channel and it’s got 674 views and I stared at that number for a while and almost cried for a little while after that.

So, give the man a chance. His songs deserve to be listened to.

If you’re a newcomer to Zevonia–

Don’t call it that.

–then start here. Warren could already write better lyrics than anyone who wasn’t born in Hibbing, Minnesota, and the arrangements are tight as the first line of coke and performed by all of LA’s 70’s music scene: Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt. It’s the Laurel Canyon sound, but without the songwriter’s head up his ass.

The production has become so dated that it now qualifies as classic, which is a theme with Warren’s records. Check out the muffled drums: you can see the carpeted walls in the studio. Most of it is just Warren and his piano.

He played the piano well.

(Note: Rock Nerds are already mobilizing in the Comment Section to say that this was not Warren Zevon’s first album. They will tell you that this album was called Wanted Dead or Alive but they are wrong, even if they link to the album and provide photographic evidence. Trust me on this one: Wanted Dead or Alive is so awful that it doesn’t exist. That’s right: it is Star Wars Prequel-level shitty. Warren Zevon‘s the first record.)

WINNERS Every song except Backs Turned Looking Down The Path.

SINNERS Back Turned Looking Down The Path. I mean, it’s not horrendous, but if it were a coffee shop, you would not poop there.

Not only does Warren avoid the dreaded sophomore curse with his second album, he also avoided it on his third and all subsequent releases, though it got less impressive every time.

This was the big record, with the big hit, the one that made him famous (and the other two hits, that made him a not-one-hit-wonder). Dead even covered it, and while it was still on the charts. Maybe the radio crowd didn’t get the morbid humor and sheer delight in words, but the chorus is fun as fuck for the whole bar to sing along to.

It wasn’t a tossed-off novelty hit, either. Warren went through days of tape and numerous rhythm sections trying to find the song, and after 70 takes with the guys from Fleetwood Mac, someone turned the beat around and the song emerged and found its way to horror movies and Classic Rock stations.

Still good, though.

THE GOODIES Lawyers, Guns, and Money and Excitable Boy are the other two (minor) hits I mentioned from the record, and if you can write a better opening line than…

I went home with a waitress,
the way I always do.

How was I to know
she was with the Russians, too?

…then you should stop fucking around on this dumb site and go write songs for a living. Plus, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner actually lives up to its title. Most songwriters would come up with a title that good, and just cruise for the actual song, but Warren put in the work.

THE DOODIES Nighttime in the Switching Yard never did it for me.

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is a transitional album, in that it’s the record in between the great stuff and the middle period. And, you know: if the middle period stuff was any good, it would just be lumped in with the great stuff. That these categories are needed should be a clue as to the general curve of quality Warren followed.

As stated, Warren loved his records to sound like all the other records, which meant the muffled drums in the 70’s, but Bad Luck Streak was an 80’s record. Somebody got himself a synthesizer AND HE WANTED TO SHOW IT TO YOU.

The first inessential release. Of many, to be honest. But there are high points you should hear.

SWAG The title track will be played at my funeral and anyone who doesn’t think it’s funny can be fed to the vultures, too. It’s a perfect song, with another one of Warren’s masterful titles. Jeannie Needs a Shooter is a clever western tale of love and dumbness and betrayal, co-written with Bruce Springsteen, whose name Warren would drop at almost every performance thereafter.

SCHWAG There’s clearly filler on this album, despite only being 35 minutes long: a couple classical interludes, and a shitty Ernie K. Doe cover. There’s also a song about a gorilla having a midlife crisis in Los Angeles that’s not as endearing as it thinks it is.

The contractually-obligated live album! A career milestone for any artist, the fourth or fifth release by most of your bigger acts was the contractually-obligated live album. Your superstars got double-live albums. You will notice this is a single LP. (Plus the mandatory unreleased extras that, by law, must be attached to any remastered live album.)

I won’t lie: it’s not what you want. The band is tight, but not interesting in any way: they’re competent, plus Warren chafed at being behind the piano and wanted to do his Rock Moves, except he looked goofy when he did them, and sounds weirder. There is a live record worth your time, but not this one.

BARELY ACCEPTABLE It’s kinda fun to listen to the crowd sing along with Werewolves; Poor Poor Pitiful Me is real loud.

COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION Everything else, especially the opener title song. Stand in the Fire might be the worst song Warren ever wrote: it sounds like a moderately talented 16-year-old’s first try at writing a tune.

Hoo, boy. Rough going for a little bit here. The Envoy was objectively terrible, and in certain spots, downright embarassing. One of the lines in one of the songs is “Don’t stop believing in tomorrow,” and that should be a warning.  There are two good things about this record: one, it tanked so hard (and rightly so) the next record was Warren’s rehab record; and two, the fact that The Envoy in question isn’t a metaphorical envoy: Warren met a diplomat.

KEEPERS Honestly, just one, and I didn’t link to the album, just this song. There’s only three chords and a cuckold to Hula Hula Boys, but Warren tells the slight tale well.

WEEPERS The fact that the best song on the record is Hula Hula Boys should be a clue. The little ditty about a guy’s wife fucking around on him is a great short story for the middle of Side One; it shouldn’t be the best thing on the record. Sadly, it is.

Warren Zevon’s career is a bit clichéd, I’m afraid. After the Debut Album, and the One With The Big Hit, and the Contractually-Obligate Live Record, and the Bomb That Caused The Record Company To Drop Him, we get a record that everyone else made, too: the Rehab Record. (The Rehab Record is not localized to rock: Eminem had one.)

Unlike most Rehab Records, Sentimental Hygiene‘s good. No matter how sober Warren got, he couldn’t blather about Higher Powers at you; it wasn’t in his constitution. Warren believed that if God existed, then He was pissed at him. No use appealing for favors there.

The band’s a lot better on this one, which makes sense because the band is R.E.M. (Remember: Warren liked to sound like whatever the popular sound was at the moment, plus R.E.M were famous (which he loved) and fans (which meant he could get R.E.M for the price of his usual hourly-rate guys).

FUCK YEAH Detox mansion: best rehab song ever. Not the process of rehabilitation: the actual 28 days at the actual place. Bonus points for being about a place I’ve heard about from some guy that I met in some place. I don’t want to talk about it. Look over there.

Reconsider Me is as pretty a song as Warren ever wrote, plus Boom Boom Mancini, which is the best song ever written about Boom Boom Mancini.

FUCK ME Y’know what? No outright turds on this one. You could rank the songs a million ways, but there’s no songs about diplomats or gorillas. Wait: the last song is shit. And it’s about a monkey, which is close enough to a gorilla.

Transverse City has the greatest credits line-up you’ve ever seen: David Gilmour, Chick Corea, Neil Young, plus the Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers backing him up for some of it. Also, a certain accidental arsonist near and dear to us on two songs.

Not great. Maybe not even good. Moments of brilliance, but weird and cold brilliance. The album’s its best when it’s at its most off-putting. (You’re right: that was a terrible sentence.) You can skip it.

BONERS! They Moved the Moon, which is one of the tunes Garcia plays on and, as Mr. Completely has noted, would have blown motherfuckers’ minds if the Dead had played it coming out of Space. Also, Splendid Isolation, which is the best song ever written about being alone and taking a perverse pleasure in it. Warren Zevon wrote a lot of the best songs ever about very specific subjects.

GROANERS There is a song about going to the mall.

Mr. Bad Example is inconsequential, though they did make a movie out of one of the songs. (The title, at least.) Mostly notable for being the last of the middle period records. (I forgot Mutineer, which is understandable.)

YIPEE That movie was Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Never seen it, but it cannot be as good as the song. The title track is also the funniest non-novelty song ever written. (Although, no novelty songs are actually funny, but you get my meaning.) Also, Heartache Spoken Here is a nifty country tune.

SKIPEE Again: no tragic shit. Just–as opposed to his other albums–a bunch of songs that, even after listening to them for many years, you still can’t think of how they go from looking at the track listing.

Mutineer had its moments, but all you need is the title track.

But, trust me: you need the title track. I didn’t post the album, and I won’t do the little bold-faced joke. Just watch him song Mutineer on Letterman right before he died.

True to form, Warren did the next thing on the Rock Star Checklist: the surprising late-period artistic resurgence. Life’ll Kill Ya is like the funeral of a sworn enemy: the subject is death, but you’re filled with joy. Warren was–according to his biography–miserable, broke, and suffering from a rather time-and-money-consuming case of OCD.

(Please don’t think I’m throwing that initialism around lightly: the man counted stuff, and could only wear grey Calvin Klein t-shirts, and would open three or four cans of soda before he found the one that was “lucky.”)

And then this, this grown man’s masterpiece. No more howling. Hell, there’s a Steve Winwood cover. Make no mistake: this is a thoroughly AOR record.

But it works. And, at the time, it worked; Warren went back to bigger venues and more of the critical esteem he lived on.

THE BEST

Well I can saw a woman in two
But you won’t want to look in the box when I am thru
I can make love disappear
For my next trick I’ll need a volunteer

There are some big-time swingin’ dick writer types that read this nonsense, and not a one of them ever wrote anything that good. I know I haven’t.

The whole album is verging of perfect, but maybe you don’t have time. (Warren’s albums, once tight half-hour affairs, now bloated to an hour and 14 songs in the CD era.) Then just try this one, the Winwood cover I mentioned before:

As I said in a previous post: I will fight you for not liking that. Physically fight you.

THE REST There’s being blunt, and there’s being pedestrian. Looking at you, My Shit’s Fucked Up.

My Ride’s Here is the middle entry in Warren’s Death Trilogy, recorded right before his cancer diagnosis. Maybe artists can see what’s coming before doctors can. The least cohesive and weakest of the three; half of it is co-written by the authors Warren loved hanging out with and, you know: Hunter Thompson was good at a lot of things, but composing a pop song was not one of them.

Plus, and of course, Warren let the adulation from the previous record go immediately to his head and the whole record is way too smart, or at least smart-sounding. There’s a song about Lord Byron, which is the kind of thing that should be left to Iron Maiden, and one’s in French.

PLEASE The song I linked to, The Hockey Song. Literally the only thing of value that Mitch Albom has ever contributed to humanity, this is the greatest song ever written about a small-town Canadian boy who grows up to be a goon, but still dreams of scoring just one stinking goal. If O, Canada weren’t such a kick-ass anthem, and every Rush song didn’t precede it in the line of succession, this song would be played before all hockey games while beavers removed their hats.

CHEESE The rest. Honestly? The rest.

The Wind is an impossible album to listen to. Not that it’s bad, but there’s no way to divorce the songs from the circumstances surrounding them. The last album of Warren’s Death Trilogy would be the last album. Cancer’ll do that. At least cancer waited until the third record; perhaps cancer respects the integrity of a good trilogy.

Even still, fuck cancer.

So, Warren went back into the studio to record his eulogy, because he knew he would say it better than anyone else. Most of the music business and half of Hollywood are on the album, which makes it a bit disjointed as an artistic whole, but Warren’s exhausted voice and acoustic guitar anchor it.

WAKE The opener, Dirty Life and Times, and the closer, Keep Me in Your Heart, are classics.

FUNERAL I’m pretty sure pointing out flaws in this album is like making fun of the Donor Rap: you can do it, but then I can’t be your friend anymore, at least in public. That said, the fact that one is literally knocking on heaven’s door does not make one’s cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door good by default. (No one ever needs to cover that song again, quite frankly. Why has Hillary not spoken on this issue?)

And, well: that’s it. (Except Learning to Flinch, which is a live record recorded during a solo acoustic tour he did when he couldn’t afford a band. It’s a beautiful record, but it’s 3 a.m. and I’m not going back.

No big wrap-up. No grand pronouncement. I’m sure no one’s reading by now.

But if you are, then perhaps you’ll have seen that the full album of Life’ll Kill Ya isn’t available. I looked, but quickly grew tired of arguing with YouTube.

This song is missing, and it’s a crime.

Don’t let us get sick;
Don’t let us grow old;
Don’t let us get stupid,
All right?

Just make us be brave,
And make us play nice,
And let us be together
Tonight.

Got sick, Warren. Holy shit, did you get sick. But not old. Certainly not stupid. And I’m glad we were together tonight.

Someone still remembers you

24 Comments

  1. The only point I strongly disagree with is I like “The Envoy”. Roland the headless Thompson Gunner is one of my top 5 (non GD) songs ever. I saw the man in ’92 at the Catelist in Santa Cruise. Some Dbag in the crowd yelled “it’s great to be back in insert local reference here” and instead of just ignoring me he sat behind his electric piano and told a story of running away from home to Santa Cruz at the age of 12, to be a surfer. Sorry to go on. If you need back up I’ll fight with you on this.

  2. A continuing travesty that Warren Z is not in the RRHOF.

    Saw Warren play a bar gig in Vail, Colorado, circa 1992. Just the man alternating between guitar and piano. Crowd was wild. These were his people. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner is a phenomenal singalong in a bar packed with Colorado dirtbags loaded with booze and mushrooms. He was kind of like Richard Thompson, cranking out songs and getting residuals from other folks recording them.

  3. I won’t lie and I said I’ve read everything you’ve put up but for as much as I have, this has to be the strongest piece I’ve seen so far. Well done.

  4. In a better world than we happened to land in, The Envoy would have been the theme to a delightfully cheesy ’80s action TV show, in the mold of Hunter. I’d have watched the shit out of that show, if only for the theme song.

    Thanks much for the career retrospective on Zevon. Never ventured past the first three albums, and like you said, The Wind is a hard listen because you know what’s coming from miles away.

  5. Luther Von Baconson

    February 26, 2016 at 10:50 am

    posted this back in the old crib. Pioneer Chicken

  6. Mild-Mannered Enthusiast

    February 26, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Warren opened for the Dead on June 7-8, 1980, and he closed his set each day with Werewolves. We were expecting our favorite Accidental Arsonist would come out and play with him on the song, but now it seems possible that the promoter Barry Fey never told Garcia that Warren would be there since Fey hadn’t bothered to mention to the band until the last minute that he was touting the shows as their 15th anniversary.

    http://relisten.net/grateful-dead/1980/6/8

  7. Hell Yeah !!!!!

    Zevon !!!!


    Tor

  8. precarious

  9. Strong writing for a strong subject. There IS some analogy to Richard Thompson, AdamO, although I think Linda Ronstadt covering you yields more residuals than Bonnie Raitt doing the same…
    Loved hearing “High Life,” but cannot imagine preferring this to the original version.

  10. Love Warren Zevon. I love his writing, especially stuff like Desparados Under the Eaves and Carmelita. Although born in Chicago, he was destined to document the underbelly of LA – his dad worked as a bookie for Mickey Cohen (as he wrote about in Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded).

  11. I’ll always say this song is crucial. From Mutineer – The Indifference of Heaven. The bit where the town burns down is maybe one step over the top but otherwise a perfect song

    They say, “Every thing’s all right”
    They say, “Better days are near”
    They tell us, “These are the good times”

    BUT THEY DON’T LIVE AROUND HERE

  12. Well said.

  13. There will never be enough good things said about Zevon, but you did a damn fine job.

    I think you’re being a little hard on My Ride’s Here, though. Title track is good, Genius is solid, and the other stuff is decent. Better than The Envoy, anyway.

    • Thoughts On The Dead

      February 28, 2016 at 12:42 am

      My Ride’s Here is actually pretty catchy. I might have been too tough. It was very late by that point and I was cranky; Warren didn’t deserve my grumpiness.

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