Popped Clog: Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon has been toying with dying for a while now. Now finally he's plumped up the courage and done it.
10 September 2003
Warren Zevon is gone.
Zevon got the bad news a year ago: mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, inoperable. It's the same disease that killed Steve McQueen, a fact that amused Zevon, who could find humor in pretty much anything.
Zevon has been a bit of a Friday Thing regular over the last few months. A bit like Al Rosen was in Cheers, until he died (episode #204 was dedicated to his memory).
To celebrate Warren's passing, here is the review of his 1969 debut album, 'Wanted Dead or Alive', which appeared in The Friday Thing a while back...
WARREN ZEVON: A LONG OVERDUE LOOK AT HIS DEBUT ALBUM
'Wanted Dead or Alive' is generally deemed to be Zevon's worst album. This review from RollingStone.com is typical:
"Like old wounds, albums such as this seem to plague every artist who's finally hit it big in the marketplace...... If Wanted Dead or Alive were interesting or any good, we could cheer its reissue. But Zevon fanatics would be hard pressed to find much merit - or, indeed, even to recognize their hero - in [its] songs"
Similarly, on Amazon we get:
"I don't know whose bright idea it was to re-release this album, but that person, to me, should be the one Wanted Dead or Alive. I like to think I'm a pretty big Zevon fan, but this album is terrible. I only have myself to blame though, because prior to buying this album I had heard nothing but really negative reviews of it, and I bought it anyway."
This seems to be the party line among Zevon fans: his debut album sucks. And on listening to it four or five times, the considered judgement of this Zevon-neophyte is: no, it doesn't suck. It's actually quite good. Very good, even. It's interesting, charming, grabby and raw, and only rarely annoying. And there's lots going on in it. Here's a glance at the album, track by track:
1) 'Wanted Dead or Alive' - a fair enough song, but not the best on the album. Let down somewhat by the vocals, which are a bit self-consciously dark (more than a touch of the Jim Morrisons here).
2) 'Hitchhikin' Woman' - pure Beefheart. Great stuff. Rough guitar, quacky chords, and a layered, insistent melody. Dirty and fun.
3) 'She Quit Me' - suddenly Zevon drops the pace. His vocals sound like they're drawn out by an Austrian fish hook. They flutter over a sparse acoustic backing. Nice song.
4) 'Calcutta' - a simple song, which uses the classic 'Rolling and Tumbling' hook. Very Steve Miller ('Jet Airliner') - an interesting arrangement, and some excellent piano from Warren himself.
5) 'Iko Iko' - an odd one this. A sort of blues-rock party song. Not as bad as everyone seems to say. Just a bit of fun, no better or worse than Malcolm McLaren's 'Buffalo Girls'. (Try listening to it just on the Right speaker - removing Zevon's vocals - it becomes a much better song).
6) 'Travelling in the Lightning' - a nice clucky guitar riff, which shifts into a fine middle section which is all swooshy and over-pedalled, steel guitar pinging over the top. And it has a great opening lyric:
'I was born down in Corpus Christi
With a dram glass in my hand ,
When I was just 15, I got a job playing rhythm
With a Nashville Shaketown band'
7) 'Tule's Blues' - a fairly orthodox slice of country blues. Strangely jaunty.
8) 'A Bullet For Ramona' - lowpoint of the album, although generally held to be the highpoint. Says one Amazon reviewer, the song: "shows his taste for the dark and delicious early on." It's a country pastiche. Fairly unoffensive, but nothing to write home about. (NB. - the weak points on the album tend to be moments of self-consciousness and pastiche, which is odd because the later Zevon seems to be celebrated for being wry, twisted and 'arch'.)
9) 'Gorilla' - a prog rock experiment which comes off: nice piano, and some properly good Harvey Mandel-style guitar work.
10) 'Fiery Emblems' - Zevon does Zappa. A fine instrumental, and a great end piece to the album. An Amazon reviewer describes it as "not for all tastes, and may make your head explode."
'Wanted Dead or Alive' is very much a 'me and my guitar' sort of album, overlaid with loads of fancy studio effects which you can tell Zevon is overexcited by. (Press that! It makes a fuzzy sound! Cool! Press it again!) The songs are engaging, and most are infused with country blues, which Zevon turns to in much the same way as British prog rockers turn to folk music (so that's a point in his favour, for a start). It feels raw and untidy, but none the worse for it.