Warren Zevon has always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He calls himself a folk singer, but he rocks out here and there. Most famous for “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” he’s been writing songs for a long time. In fact he had one in Midnight Cowboy, sung by someone else. He was thought of as a 70’s wild man and a has-been rockstar, when he was really more of a folk singer who had a few big hits. He’s been called “folk noir,” but he really follows the murder ballad tradition that goes beyond American folk roots. Sort of a Jelly Roll Morton or a Leadbelly in L.A.
My friend Peter the English teacher/bare-knuckled brawler in Japan introduced me to Warren Zevon back in ’87 or so. Trading vinyl, and performing the horror of horrors, home taping, when we couldn’t find the records at Mickey Music or Giovine’s. How could we resist songs like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner?”
I have all of his albums, even Wanted Dead or Alive, which sounds more like something from the Easy Rider soundtrack than his more famous stuff. The Rhino records retrospective I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a good start, but you might as well just pick up Excitable Boy and his self-titled 70’s debut if you want a taste of his music. For a live set, like “Learning to Flinch,” which is acoustic but still full of raucous energy. His first live album, Stand in the Fire was recently re-issued, and is a great set, but I liked his later years better. I don’t think he’s had a bad album, really. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is an 80’s classic, with “Play it All Night Long,” and Sentimental Hygiene is another favorite, with “Boom Boom Mancini,” and “The Factory.” Warren even did a concept album called Transverse City about a dystopian future, a lot of which you can see coming true. It’s an underrated album and I’ll give it a full review someday when I start my concept album column, as soon as I find a stupid enough name for it.
I saw Warren play at First Avenue in Minneapolis in the late 90’s. It’s one of the most memorable concerts I’ve been too. It’s a small, comfy venue and he played acoustic for 2 hours, playing all our favorite tunes, and as always, personalizing “Werewolves” for our city. At that time “The Indifference of Heaven” and “Splendid Isolation” were two of my favorites, and he played both.
That was before he got mesothelioma. Yep, that asbestos disease you hear about mostly on local access cable from lawyers. He was given 3 months to live, but held on for over a year and managed to release more albums with some great songs on them. Most notably “Keep Me in your Heart for a While” off of The Wind. It’s a very touching song, and helped me get by after the death of my grandmother. Warren had a unique voice, and while he’s best known for a howl, he has a heartfelt touch with a tender or sad ballad. “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” and “The French Inhaler” are certainly evidence of that.
He created a dark and dirty world, peppered with heartfelt moments and hilarity, in his songwriting. I grew up there in my adolescence, and in the 80’s it was easy to dream of living in a world full of mercenaries, envoys, werewolves and lounge lizards. For a long time my internet handle was “Mr. Bad Example” after his album of the same name; I still think it’s one of his best. That’s where “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” comes from, a song that sort of had a movie made about it. It certainly could have been written by Warren, with Critical Bill the gun nut, Andy Garcia knowing he’s dead, and Christopher Walken as a paraplegic mob boss, in one of his more memorable roles. He covered for Paul Schaffer on the Letterman show; he was friends with Miami’s pen-wielding crusader, Carl Hiaasen, and they co-wrote some songs together.
The latest release is Preludes, rare and unreleased recordings. It’s really for big fans and completists. The best part is the second disc, which has a long interview interspersed with some solo acoustic tracks. It was nice to listen to a long and casual interview with Warren. His stage persona was a bit unhinged, so it’s good to see the man behind it talk about life and music.
The first disc of unreleased tracks is little spotty, because so much has already been released. I really enjoy “Steady Rain,” for one. It’s a sad and touching ballad. There’s an alternate take of “Werewolves of London” which echoes and sound effects that’s fun and creepy, but the mix is so different that it’s strange listening to it, when you know the original by heart. “Tule’s Blues” is another nice ballad that shows off his piano work.
The 2 CD set comes with a booklet with short writings by his son Jordan Zevon, Jackson Browne, and others who worked with Warren. The one thing it lacks is a lyric sheet for the new songs, or much info on where the alternate takes come from. His son Jordan found many of the songs on reels in storage with no notes, but maybe there’s more over on the Warren Zevon website. Some of them have lyrical changes, like an early cut of “Carmelita,” one of my favorites, about a smack-addicted songwriter yearning for his girl. But here, instead of pawning his Smith-Corona, he’s pawning a Smith & Wesson. I always felt a sort of Hemingway/Burroughs vibe when it was about pawning a typewriter, about a man so lost in his addictions that he pawns his writing instrument.
There’s a truncated version of “Studebaker” that Jordan sang on the tribute CD that came out a year or so back. It’s nice that he finished the song for his father. He does a great job with it, it’s the highlight of the tribute album if you ask me. It’s called Enjoy Every Sandwich, which is what Warren said when someone asked what he was going to do, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now there’s a sentiment I can agree with.
Crystal Zevon has also written a book about him, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. I haven’t read it yet, but as you can imagine, I’ll review it here when I have.