Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Revisit: Warren Zevon: Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy

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It's perhaps morbidly appropriate that it took the news of Warren Zevon's cancer diagnosis in 2002 to re-introduce the musician to the general music public. For a brief period, it looked like Zevon was finally going to be afforded the mainstream attention he briefly flirted with early in his career. A high profile VH1 documentary chronicled his battle against cancer as well as the making of final album The Wind, including cameos from top tier musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and, um, Billy Bob Thornton; various critics who had written Zevon off years ago weaseled up to the bar to sing his praises one more time; Bob Dylan even "covered" "Mutineer," "Boom Boom Mancini" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" as standard entries in his concert setlists throughout 2003.

Now five years removed from his death, Zevon's place as one of music's more innovative and uncompromising artists is secure. An artist who straddled the line between cult favorite and household name, the popular yet somewhat stereotypical image of Zevon that still persists to this day is that of an unhinged artist with a strong nihilistic streak and hardass persona, albeit with a mordant sense of humor; writing songs about cattle dying of brucellosis and giving albums thinly veiled titles like My Ride's Here will have that effect on your image. Though his later work was spotty at best, his two 1970s albums - 1976's self-titled effort and 1978's Excitable Boy - have aged remarkably well and include all the hallmarks that make Zevon's music still so intriguing. In many ways these two albums laid out the template Zevon would follow throughout his career, mixing hell-raising songs about drunkards, sex hounds, random acts of brutality, and other wholesome characters and activities, with too frequently overlooked piano-based pseudo ballads.

Certainly this image of Zevon as a death-fixated lunatic recklessly careening headfirst into oblivion is largely attributable to these two releases; if the songs left any doubt about Zevon's own volatility, Crystal Zevon's recently-published oral history took care of that. Several tracks are as manic as Zevon's accepted persona, with jagged guitars, keyboards, percussion, and synthesizers used to stir up a holy racket behind Zevon's vocals. The macho posturing and boastful promiscuity of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" go hand-in-hand with the narrator cozying up to a railroad track and waiting in vain for the train to do its worst." "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" shares a similar sentiment, the narrator's addled brain and body fueled by "heartbreak motor oil," "Bombay gin" and unspecified medication; a .38 Special is substituted for the railroad tracks in this case. Both songs are unapologetically seedy; the listener can practically smell the mixture of booze and skank.

The albums' violence and fatalistic overtones are heightened by the trademark dark humor that Zevon utilized for much of his career. This is especially true of "Excitable Boy" and "Werewolves of London," where Zevon somehow successfully tells stories about psychopathic butchers with a twisted brand of comedy. The bouncy piano-based arrangements and howling vocals of both tracks - tap your feet as that cage made of bones is built - set both songs as musical pulp fictions and show that neither song is meant to be taken too seriously. Of course Zevon's villains are the worst kind of evil; the Excitable Boy bites a movie usher's leg, shows he's not much of a prom date by killing Little Susie, and worst of all, spills pot roast all over himself, while the Werewolf is a debonair, piƱa colada-drinking, slyly ruthless killer. It's musical dark comedy at its best; the near-gospel backing vocals on "Excitable Boy" drip with cheesiness, and it's impossible not to laugh when Zevon deadpans how a "little old lady got mutilated late last night" in "Werewolves."

Yet there's a subtlety and warmth to these albums that is all too often overlooked. Though it's a stretch to lump Zevon into that glut of sensitive singer-songwriters from the 1970s - slumming around with an uber-wussy Jackson Browne doesn't make Zevon guilty by association - several songs are striking for the raw emotions they convey. "Hasten Down the Wind" is a borderline saccharine ode to a relationship in shambles, saved by David Lindley's slide guitar and Zevon's near-falsetto singing. "Accidentally Like a Martyr" follows a similar arc on Excitable Boy, offering a combination of regret, confusion, and loneliness under a sunless sky. The debauched lifestyle referenced, if not wholly endorsed, throughout both albums is flipped around on "Carmelita" and "Desperados Under the Eaves." "Carmelita, built around Zevon's electric piano and flamenco-styled guitars from Waddy Wachtel and Lindley, is a primarily bleak depiction of a heroin junkie on the ropes, his typewriter pawned for more dope and his methadone fix cut off by the county. "Desperados" is similarly oppressive, with a pissed off sun and trees "like crucified thieves" to match; its narrator "still waking up in the morning with shaking hands" is presumably in the grips of chemical detox. Though these songs contain some very dry humor, all are predominantly dark and stand in sharp contrast to the albums' more raucous moments.

All of this ignores the frequently topical nature of both Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy. Indeed, a thesis could be written on the socio-political themes of the revenge tale masterfully laid out in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." And this isn't to suggest that Zevon should be seen as a broken-hearted balladeer. The musician's enduring legacy will likely remain tied to his better known and harder-edged songs. After all, we like our musical heroes reckless and borderline insane, traits that Zevon had in spades both on record and in his life; with Zevon it was a lot of masculine boasting and Bacchus-like drinking. Still, there's a wider range of emotions on these albums that goes far beyond this popular legacy. Though even the albums' quieter moments contain heavy doses of fatalism, they offer a different perspective on Warren Zevon in both the 1970s and throughout his career.

1 comment:

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