Posts Tagged ‘Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School’

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Warren Zevon would have been 70 years old today. A songwriter’s songwriter, he never found the same fame as his contemporaries–the Eagles and Jackson Browne among them–but he had plenty of fans, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen King and especially David Letterman, who hosted Zevon’s last public appearance on The Late Show Zevon’s first tour in 1977 included guest appearances in the middle of Jackson Browne concerts, one of which is documented on a widely circulated bootleg recording of a Dutch radio program under the title The Offender meets the Pretender.

But, as he wrote in 2000, Life’ll Kill Ya, and the man who famously sang “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” who died September. 7th, 2003 from pleural mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. And though he left us too early, he left behind a comparatively small but genius catalogue far beyond the hit “Werewolves of London.”

Nothing indicates that a person is well-read and clever like finding out that they have some well-loved Zevon records in their collection. These five albums are essential for any collection, and though they don’t cover his whole discography, they’re enough to get any listener started on a journey .

Excitable Boy (1978)

Yes, this is the one that has “Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy” and “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” three of Warren Zevon’s best-known songs, produced by Jackson Browne and guitarist Waddy Wachtel  to critical acclaim and popular success. The title tune (about a juvenile sociopath’s murderous prom night) name-checked “Little Susie”, the heroine of his former employers the Everly Brothers, tune .

Zevon used deadpan humor to wed geopolitical subtexts to hard-boiled narratives. But it also has so much more. From the warmly exuberant opening licks of “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” to the sublime melancholy “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” to the slick ‘n’ dirty funk influence on “Nighttime in the Switching Yard,” and the just-shy-of-Lite-FM ballad “Tenderness on the Block,” Zevon here crafted an album that not only defines the sounds of sleezy 1970s Los Angeles, but takes the listener far beyond Mulholland. Many would imitate to much success, but you can’t beat the original, especially not with lyrics like “He dug up her grave/and built a cage with her bones.” Awwooo, indeed.

Sentimental Hygiene (1987)

There comes a time when nearly every singer-songwriter feels compelled to write about how terrible fame is. Hell, Billy Joel, a fellow 70s piano man with has dedicated a sizable proportion of his career to bitching about how much his job sucks. But Sentimental Hygiene is a simple and sober musing on LA life, written after Zevon went to rehab to battle alcoholism in 1984. But drying out didn’t dry Zevon’s wry sensibilities, still strong on “Detox Mansion” and “Even the Dog Can Shake Hands.” Nor did it dull his storytelling talents, with a ballad about legendary boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and another funky history foray, “Leave My Monkey Alone.” It’s catchy, clever, heartfelt and intimate in the way only Zevon could be.

Members of R.E.M  Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills served as the core of Zevon’s next studio band when he re-emerged in 1987 by signing with Virgin Records for the recording this album. The release, hailed as his best since Excitable Boy, featured a thicker rock sound and taut, often humorous songs  “Bad Karma” (which featured the R.E.M. lead singer Micheal Stipe on backup vocals), and “Reconsider Me”. Included were contributions from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, George Clinton,

During the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, Zevon also participated in an all-night jam session with Berry, Buck and Mills, as they worked their way through rock and blues covers . Though the sessions were not initially intended for release, they eventually saw the light of day as a Hindu Love Gods. 

Warren Zevon (1976)

His Asylum Records debut opens with the deceptively simple melody for “Frank & Jesse James” before bringing in the rest of the band for the sort of narrative ballads that would win him fans in the literary community, including Carl Haissan and Mitch Albom. But in-between the high-end folk songs like “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” (inspired by his own parents, a ruthless mobster and a fragile Mormon) are the kind of rollicking bad-decisions-set-to-song, including “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” And then there are the dark characters who populate every Zevon album, from the heroin addicts of “Carmelita” to the sad gold digger in “The French Inhaler” to a raw and intimate portrait of Zevon’s own despair in “Desperados Under The Eaves.” a chronicle of Zevon’s increasing alcoholism.   The Warren Zevon debut album produced by Jackson Browne was only a modest commercial success, but it was later termed a masterpiece often cited as Zevon’s most realized work. Representative tracks include the junkie’s lament “Carmelita”  and “The French Inhaler”, a scathing insider’s look at life and lust in the L.A. music business (which was, in fact, about his long-time girlfriend and mother to his son Jordan).  a chronicle of Zevon’s increasing alcoholism.

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)

With grinding guitar on tracks like “Jungle Work” and “Play It All Night Long,” even the sardonic title track has a series of handclaps reportedly made by dry-firing a Smith & Wesson into a garbage can full of gravel to make an album that alternates between the brutal and the silly. Though the album is most famous for utilizing the word “brucellosis” in what might be Zevon’s darkest song, “Play It All Night Long,” there are some light-hearted tunes as well, including “Gorilla You’re a Desperado,” a catchy little ditty about a gorilla who steals the narrator’s BMW and woman, only to discover life outside the cage might be more than he bargained for. How can you not love a song that includes the line, “Most of all, I’m sorry I made you blue/I’m bettin’ the gorilla will too.”

It also contained a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen called “Jeannie Needs a Shooter”, and the ballad “Empty-Handed Heart” featuring a descant sung by Linda Ronstadt, which dealt with Zevon’s divorce from wife Crystal

The Envoy (1982)

Zevon’s last album with Asylum Records before the drug-and-booze binge that landed him in a rehab stay that gave us Sentimental Hygiene, The Envoy is smart, ugly and hopeful all at once. Opening with an eponymous track inspired by US diplomat Philip Habib would be a dangerous choice for a lesser artist, but for a master storyteller like Zevon, it’s practically a James Bond movie, all in three minutes and 12 seconds. “Ain’t That Pretty At All” is a hellish carnival ride, and followed by “Charlie’s Medicine,” a minor-key melody about a murdered drug dealer paints the album in a bleak light, but it wouldn’t be Zevon without a little levity, including “The Hula Hula Boys,” about a man who loses his wife to the Hawaiian dancers on vacation, and the resigned-but-hopeful “Looking For The Next Best Thing.”
Transverse City, Stand in the Fire, The Wind (his incredible last album) and Wanted: Dead or Alive are also available on vinyl, and hopefully, one day we’ll get vinyl re-issues of Mutineer, Mr. Bad Example, Life’ll Kill Ya, and My Ride’s Here, some of which came out in super limited pressings in Europe that now sell for an arm and a leg.

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