Warren Zevon – Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

The worst sins a “Best of” collection can commit is to include a brand new song, and to present alternate versions of favorite songs. This album escapes the first, for sure, and maybe the second. The liner notes hint that at least one song may not be the regular album version, but honestly, I can’t identify any deviations.

What I Think of This Album

This is basically a career-spanning “Best of,” omitting only the final album (The Wind), which post-dates this and which you should buy separately anyway. You get twenty-two songs, presented in chronological order. There are the expected four songs apiece from Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy; three from Sentimental Hygiene; three from Mr. Bad Example; and then the rest are culled from eight other albums. If you want more, there is a double-disc best of out there, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (An Anthology), which has twice as many songs – including live tracks and rarities –  but only goes through 1995’s Mutineer. The liner notes are by novelist Will Self, one of Zevon’s many literary admirers and friends (along with Tom McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Carl Hiassen). This is an excellent collection, and arguably the only Zevon a casual fan needs.

The Best Thing About This Album

I guess I have to choose a song not on any of the studio albums that I own (or have owned and then sold – sorry, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and Transverse City). I think “Mutineer” is wonderful, though “I Was In the House When the House Burned Down” is a close contender.

Release Date

October, 2002

The Cover Art

The back cover – depicting a Zevon-esque human skull – is the kind of macabre joke I would expect from him, as this album arrived on the heels of his cancer diagnosis (although he had used the skull image as early as Transverse City). Why he pulled his punches this time is a mystery. The actual cover appears to show the skull of a London werewolf (not that I know what a werewolf’s skull looks like); the Sherlockian pipe and monocle suggest as much. I would have preferred the human one.

Warren Zevon – Learning to Flinch

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Live albums are a mixed bag. When the artist plays their songs straight, it is not terribly interesting; it’s best when they alter the arrangements or otherwise do something to give fans something new. After all, it’s probably established fans who are going to be buying the album. I once saw Morrissey play a revved up version of “Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together” that was almost unrecognizable and it was alone worth the price of admission. But that’s a concert and not a live album and the two are not the same thing. I’ve gone to concerts and had amazing experiences, but if I’d listened to those same shows later on a recording, it wouldn’t have been the same. Much is lost when a show is put on tape, and I think performers tend to forget that. The other issue is song selection; as far as I’m concerned, a concert is no place for slower material. I will forgive Zevon for including ballads on here, because they’re good enough to make me reconsider my position. And in any event, this album gives all the songs new settings which enhance them.

What I Think of This Album

This is a treat for fans and a fine entry point for newcomers. Functioning as a de facto (though truncated) “Best of” album, this offering captures Zevon’s solo acoustic world tour of 1992. Nearly every song is from a different venue; appropriately, “Werewolves” is from the London show and “Roland” was recorded in Norway.

Zevon sounds energized and enthusiastic. He mostly plays twelve-string acoustic, showing off extensively on a medley of “Waltzing Matilda”/“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”/”Rose of Alabama.” More often, his dazzling piano work is on display on “Excitable Boy,” “Werewolves,” “Play It All Night Long,” “Roland,” and of course, “Piano Fighter,” and otherwise provides the melancholy backdrop to the slower songs like “The French Inhaler.” The songs benefit from the direct treatment, stripped down to just the melody and the words; this is how we are supposed to judge songwriters. “Hasten Down the Wind” has never sounded better; the self-loathing of “Splendid Isolation” is on stark display; “Searching for a Heart” gains poignancy;” and “Mr. Bad Example” revels in its unabashed depravity. There are three new songs here: “Worrier King” slithers along on a gnarly slide guitar; the at least semi-autobiographical “Piano Fighter” is a highlight; and “The Indifference of Heaven,” a somber and angry song of lost love, with references to other musicians’ romances (“Billy and Christie don’t live around here / Bruce and Patti don’t”).

The Best Thing About This Album

The version of “Excitable Boy” is pretty great.

Release Date

April, 1993

The Cover Art

Average. An in-action shot is better than a portrait, which seems to be Zevon’s default.

Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Zevon had a spotty career, derailed by alcoholism and a lyrical approach that was never going to win him any mainstream success. I think you can get by with a few of his albums and then a greatest hits. Not every Zevon song is great, but many of them are excellent. Check out his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman – a big fan – from 2002, when he was in an enjoy-every-sandwich race against a cancer diagnosis; he was the only guest for the entire hour.

What I Think of This Album

This is the one with the hits:  “Werewolves of London;” “Lawyers, Guns and Money;” “Excitable Boy;” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Though actually only “Werewolves” was a hit, and the others are just popular amongst music fans. Still, this was Zevon’s best-selling album, and it’s hard to argue with. More accessible than his self-titled album, it married his impish, boundary-pushing humor and bleak worldview to slick, catchy arrangements, once again expertly played by the cream of L.A. session musicians and guest stars.

“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” is another music-will-save-us-all tune, though it leaves something to be desired, lyrically; Waddy Wachtel (producer of the Church and others) plays a great guitar solo. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is a lengthy ghost story of a wronged mercenary (“the CIA decided they wanted Roland dead”), with Zevon evoking Roland’s lasting influence on unrest in Ireland, Palestine, and California. Zevon wrote this with his friend David Lindell . . . wait for it . . . a former mercenary. “Excitable Boy” amps up the discordancy, setting a story of a young man whose behavior progresses from odd to socially unacceptable to horrifically criminal, to the concern of apparently no one, as all excuse his actions as those of “an excitable boy,” to the most hummable melody of Zevon’s long career, punctuated by the “oooh-oooooh” of Linda Ronstadt (among others); Ronstadt would cover this song, though undoubtedly with different lyrics. “Werewolves” is irresistible, with its saloon piano, iconic “ah-oooooohs” and Zevon’s clever asides (“I’d like to meet his tailor”); John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac play rhythm on this, and Wachtel again plays the excellent guitar solo.

“Accidentally Like a Martyr” is a powerful song of lost love (“The hurt gets worse / And the heart gets harder”) that owes something to Dylan (the title, at the very least, is totally Dylan-esque). “Nighttime In the Switching Yard” is terrible – a lite-funk workout that is so obviously filler, it is offensive. “Veracruz” hearkens back to the prior album, plundering history – the U.S. occupation of Veracruz in 1914 – much like “Frank and Jesse James” did, and employing the same sort of understated arrangement and stylings. “Tenderness On the Block” is another of those unusually-titled Zevon songs – a trademark of his – that has some nice guitar and piano; Jackson Browne get a co-writing credit here. The album closes with the white guy favorite, “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” a breezy yet desperate (not to mention, baroque) plea for help from a callow young man in over his head in Latin America, who fortunately has Daddy to bail him out.

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, it has to be “Werewolves of London.” Draw blood.

Release Date

January, 1978

The Cover Art

Terrible. Look, I love Zevon, but I can’t imagine the ego it takes to just put your face on an album cover. It’s also lazy.

Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Like most, probably, I became familiar with Warren Zevon through his biggest hits:  “Werewolves of London,” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” And unlike most (sadly), I dug deeper. And man, what I found. Zevon had a morbid streak the likes of which I had never encountered; but he was gleefully dark, which is what I loved. It’s one thing to sing about being asked by a lover to beat her; building a cage out of the bones of a high school date rape and murder victim; and the vengeful ghost of a betrayed mercenary – to name just three out of many examples – and it is another to be funny, but it takes altogether a special kind of talent to sing about those things and be funny at the same time, and not leave the audience behind in a miasma of disgust. In addition to being a singular songwriter, Zevon was also an accomplished musician, playing the piano expertly and the guitar very well, and serving as band leader and musical coordinator for the Everly Brothers in the early ‘70s. He also spent some time as a child learning from Igor Stravinsky. He is an artist whose work never ceases to amaze me. Of course, he was also a horrendous husband and absent father – violent, alcoholic, and abusive.

What I Think of This Album

This was Zevon’s second album (his 1969 debut is renowned for being awful), and has a competing number of great songs and impressive guests. Making an appearance are Carl Wilson; Phil Everly; Jackson Browne (who also produced); Lindsey Buckingham; Stevie Nicks; Bonnie Raitt; and two Eagles, among others, including David Lindley (who played with Leonard Cohen). Also critical to the album is the unmistakable influence and setting of Los Angeles, referenced many times in the songs.

Things start out with the celebratory “Frank and Jesse James,” a piano-based hagiography of the outlaws. Zevon swerves to the personal on the autobiographical “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded,” which in broad strokes tells the story of the marriage between his mother, who came from a Mormon family, and his father, who was a bookie for gangster Mickey Cohen. Notably, Zevon both acknowledges that his parents won’t like the song and that they probably wouldn’t even listen to it anyway (“They’d all be offended at the mention, still / If they heard this song, which I doubt they will”). There is an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability when Zevon notes “Stuck in the middle / I was the kid.” Also autobiographical is the easily-overlooked “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path,” which is the most hopeful and gracious song here, and reportedly inspired by Zevon’s temporary decampment in Spain.

I’m not sure what “Hasten Down the Wind” means but it’s a well-crafted, expertly played tale of romantic failure, later covered by Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt also covered “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which I still have trouble believing – there’s no way she sang these lyrics. This track details a ladies’ man’s poorly planned suicide attempt; his use as a sexual plaything by a particularly enthusiastic lover; and the psychological cost of being asked by another lover to hurt her (“I don’t want to talk about it,” he deadpans). In between, he sardonically boasts “poor, poor pitiful me,” complete with whoops and hollers, and a joyful backing of fiddle, saxophone, and piano, along with a great guitar solo. This is the most perverse thing I’ve ever heard, unless you count other Zevon songs.

“The French Inhaler” is a nasty breakup song (with attempts at tenderness), set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles hills, that hints at Zevon’s alcoholism, and which contains the impressively mean lyric:  “And when the lights came up at 2:00 / I caught a glimpse of you / And your face looked like something / Death brought with him in his suitcase.” Ronstadt also covered “Mohammed’s Radio,” a country-rock tinged song about the redemptive, restorative power of music. Zevon returns to more familiar themes in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” with additional references to drinking and suicide.

“Carmelita” is a sad, Latin-tinged number about a suicidal junkie, with some excellent guitar work, and is the fourth song from this album that Ronstadt chose to cover. “Join Me in L.A.” is too bluesy for my tastes (Raitt’s backup vocals are so distinctive).

Closer “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” is a close cousin to “Carmelita,” the debilitating vice this time being alcohol (again), though L.A. itself also seems to be part of the problem (“And if California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing / Until I pay my bill”), with a fantastic string section arranged by Zevon and oddly-life affirming harmonies in the outro, arranged by Wilson. I am pretty sure the string intro here is the same as the piano intro to “Frank and Jesse James,” creating some thematic consistency.

The Best Thing About This Album

The “I don’t want to talk about it” in “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is equal parts chilling and hilarious; I don’t know how he accomplished that.

Release Date

May, 1976

The Cover Art

No, this is a bad cover. I like the use of light and shadow, and the blue tones (a bit reminiscent in its palette and nighttime setting of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure). But honestly, Zevon looks ridiculous with his louche dress, tinted glasses, and long hair.

Warren Zevon – The Wind

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

Whatever you might think of Zevon (and let’s be clear – he was not a great father and he physically abused his wife, and I am pretty sure he was a Republican), he ended his career much as he began it: beloved and well-respected. His final album – recorded under a death sentence – was as star-studded as his self-titled sophomore album (his debut effectively having been written out of history). For his last hurrah, he corralled Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Dwight Yoakam, Mike Campbell (the Heartbreakers), and two Eagles, as well as frequent sideman David Lindley. He spent his career chronicling the lives, warts and all, of imaginary characters and actual people, while likewise honestly detailing his own flaws and failures, not for the purposes of judgment, but simply to acknowledge the messy difficulty of living. Here, he mostly focuses on himself, but maintains the same approach. This is a thoughtful, proud album from a thoughtful, difficult man, and I am forever impressed that he created this final work of art. Zevon died of mesothelioma at the age of 56, in 2003.

What I Think of This Album

Is it possible to consider this album using a framework that doesn’t acknowledge that Zevon recorded it knowing he was dying? Yes, of course – that’s a stupid question. But does that knowledge diminish the album – turning it into a cheap ploy – or does it enhance it? I don’t really see how it doesn’t make what is already a strong album all the more powerful. Maybe I am a sentimentalist (there is no “maybe” about it), but every track on here was the product of a deliberate choice to have it be one of the last eleven songs under his name. And almost every one of those songs is imbued with regret and framed by resignation, if not acceptance. Gone is the absurd bravado that characterized much of his earlier work, which always came across as satirical or self-mocking, anyway.

“The Rest of the Night” reads like a call to turn up the volume and tip the bottle, but it’s not very convincing (I think I can hear Zevon cough early on); I don’t think it was intended to be a dark joke, but any sincerity is undercut by how frail Zevon sounds – and this is the only track that even pretends to celebrate life. Instead, “Dirty Life and Times” more accurately sets the tone with the opening lyric “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me,” and speaks plainly about Zevon’s loneliness at the end. The rollicking “Disorder In the House” surveys the wreckage and hilariously observes “even the Lhasa Apsa seems to be ashamed;” Springsteen plays an impressively gnarly guitar on this track.

The cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is powerful and moving; this song has never taken on greater weight. Zevon sounds defeated and weary (or maybe just, you know, sick), and when he ad libs “open up, open up, open up,” it’s goddamn haunting. There is some distorted lap steel on “Numb as a Statue,” which comes across as a sideways expression of gratitude by Zevon for his friends. The two love songs – “She’s Too Good for Me” and “El Amor de Mi Vida” cut deeper than usual, though the first one works better. “Prison Grove” is a harrowing dirge that I can’t say I care for much. The title of “Please Stay” tells you all you need to know (though you should also know that Emmylou Harris’s harmonies are lovely), and “Rub Me Raw” is another acknowledgment of imminent death. Final song – final song – “Keep Me In Your Heart” is a stunning, frank, and tender request to his loved ones, friends, and yes, fans, to remember him well. It will bring tears to your eyes.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Keep Me In Your Heart” (and bring me a fucking tissue, please).

Release Date

August, 2003

The Cover Art

You know what? He can do what he fucking wants for his last album.

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