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Warren Zevon

+ {lyme & cybelle} + {Hindu Love Gods}

A hard-hitting heartland-rock singer/songwriter, WARREN ZEVON was much more than his one-hit-wonder of 1978 (`Werewolves Of London’) suggested; just ask shrewd client/fan LINDA RONSTADT, who intermittently covered his `Hasten Down The Wind’, `Carmelita’, `Poor Poor Pitiful Me’, and `Mohammed’s Radio’, and ¾ of R.E.M. by way of their eponymous HINDU LOVE GODS covers hookup of 1990.
Born Warren William Zevon, January 24, 1947, Chicago, Illinois, he was the son of an immigrant Russian father (a professional gambler/gangster) and a Mormon mother (of English descent), who moved to Fresno, California, in 1960. Despite this unsavoury upbringing, Warren duly became a classical music child protégé under the tutelage of Igor Stravinsky, via Robert Craft, though when his parents divorced when he was only 16, he relocated to the Big Apple where folk music was tightening its grip within popular music.
In time honoured fashion, Warren (alias Stephen Lyme) succumbed to the lure of folk-rock after catching an earful of BOB DYLAN. Rebuilding a musical partnership with high school friend, Violet Santangelo, White Whale Records furnished the “lyme & cybelle” songwriting duo with a Hot 100 hit in `Follow Me’. When the pair’s reading of DYLAN’s `If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ failed to trace a chart path, Warren bailed, leaving behind a third single, `Song #7’, taken up by his replacement Wayne Erwin; Violet would later find work in the theater as Laura Kenyon.
Having authored songs such as `Like The Seasons’ and `Outside Chance’ for label mates, The TURTLES, a subsequent version of his `She Quit Me’ morphed into `He Quit Me’ when re-recorded (by Leslie Miller) for the Grammy-winning “Midnight Cowboy” film soundtrack of ’69.
Under its original title, the track featured on ZEVON’s debut album, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE (1970) {*5}, which was later marked for the multi-tasking singer’s heated disputes with its original producer, KIM FOWLEY, who actually penned the post-psych title track. As predicted by Kim as he exited the studio, the Imperial Records LP didn’t perform quite so well; its contrasting cover of `Iko-Iko’ and Warren’s ode, `Tule’s Blues, to lover Marilyn Livingston (mother of his then baby boy Jordan Zevon; now an artist in his own right) hardly memorable.
When a second LP was shelved, Warren began writing TV jingles and songs for other artists. The EVERLY BROTHERS gave the then keyboardist work as musical co-coordinator on their tour, and even when Don and Phil split to go solo, Warren still sessioned for them individually. ZEVON’s own solo career had been put in the back-burner, though an enlightening summer ’75 period in Spain (with the Dubliner Bar owner David Lindell – a former mercenary – in Sitges, near Barcelona), unveiled at least one track, `Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’.
Returning to Los Angeles that September, ZEVON virtually rubbed shoulders with room-mates and FLEETWOOD MAC newbie incumbents STEVIE NICKS and LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM, which in turn, led to JACKSON BROWNE (as producer) recommending the artist to Asylum Records. All three of his newfound friends worked on the eponymous WARREN ZEVON (1976) {*9} album, an album featuring such enduringly dark material as the aforesaid RONSTADT covers, the wonderful `I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’, and further session contributions from a raft of West Coast luminaries headed by DON HENLEY, GLENN FREY and PHIL EVERLY. The record established ZEVON’s L.A.-noir writing style and immediately marked him out from the navel-gazing songwriting pack of the pre-New Wave era.
In 1978, Warren deservedly broke through when the aforementioned `Werewolves Of London’ stalled just outside the Top 20, whilst the accompanying album EXCITABLE BOY {*8} reached the Top 10. Another unsavoury trip through the back alleys of ZEVON’s fevered muse (a la `Roland…’, `Lawyers, Guns And Money’, `Johnny Strike Up The Band’ and the title track), the sublime set brought further comparisons with the twisted narratives of RANDY NEWMAN and JACKSON BROWNE.
A subsequent descent into alcohol abuse indicated that ZEVON’s battle with his demons was intensifying, and first album of the new decade, BAD LUCK STREAK IN DANCING SCHOOL (1980) {*7}, was heavy-going to say the least. But that’s not to say that the Top 20 LP didn’t resonate with reviewers, it was just that the use of sobering orchestral “interludes” diverted a little of the attention from profound pieces like `Play It All Night Long’, `Jennie Needs A Shooter’ (penned with BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN), `Jungle Work’, and a minor hit cover of `A Certain Girl’ (once recorded by the YARDBIRDS).
Kicking his habit at this point, WZ and his band (including hard-rocking axeman David Landau) hit the tour trail. A fine document of this period, STAND IN THE FIRE (1980) {*8} – recorded during a 5-night stint in August 1980 at The Roxy Theatre, L.A. – channelled all this frustrated energy into a blistering set that left no stone or golden nugget unturned; his best bits bookended by the freshly-cut title track and a medley of `Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger’ & `Bo Diddley’. Another bout of drinking, by and large, cost Warren his 7-year marriage to Crystal Ann Brelsford, and they divorced in February 1981; they had one child together, Ariel Zevon. Like its live predecessor, 1982’s THE ENVOY {*6} only just managed to reach the Top 100, which led to Asylum Records unceremoniously dropping him. Nonetheless, the LP found ZEVON in more reflective, world-weary wise mode on a title track inspired by an American diplomat during the Lebanon incursion; and one (`Jesus Mentioned’) underlining the death of ELVIS; and another a chilling ode concerning a drug dealer, `Charlie’s Medicine’.
Still battling with the bottle and stranded in a commercial purgatory, ZEVON’s profile was given a bit of a boost in 1986 via his keyboard-playing part in HINDU LOVE GODS’ double A-side platter (`Gonna Have A Good Time Tonight’ & the group-penned `Narrator’); this project saw the man hooking up with R.E.M. (minus Stipe) and Oh-OK/Time Toy singer, Bryan Cook.
Cleaned up and armed with a new contract on Virgin America, ZEVON was back in the saddle (and the Top 75) for the rocking SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE (1987) {*8}. With the aforementioned R.E.M triumvirate of Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills again lending a hand; now alongside stalwarts like NEIL YOUNG, BOB DYLAN and GEORGE CLINTON, Warren turned in a hard-bitten set born of hard-won conviction on respective songs such as the title track, `The Factory’ and `Leave My Monkey Alone’. But if there was anything that enlightened his wayward self, it’d be in `Detox Mansion’, `Trouble Waiting To Happen’ and `Bad Karma’.
Yet ZEVON seemed doomed to commercial oblivion thereafter, his cause not helped any by the dense, pseudo-concept effort, TRANSVERSE CITY (1989) {*7}, that concerned the world collapsing under technology (`Networking’), consumerism (`Down At The Mall’) and Reagan-era urban paradox (`Gridlock’). Once again Warren had no shortage of celebrity guests on hand (including DAVID GILMOUR, JERRY GARCIA, CHICK COREA, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, NEIL YOUNG and 3/5th of TOM PETTY’s Heartbreakers), but his post-apocalyptic darkness sung with irony (e.g. `Splendid Isolation’) went above too many heads.
Entering the 90s with an expired Virgin contract, Warren (and not Cook) led out his R.E.M. buddies for the eponymous HINDU LOVE GODS (1990) {*6}. Dispatched for Giant Records, the set was a sporadically enjoyable album of covers, highlighted by a reading of PRINCE’s `Raspberry Beret’. The loose and freewheeling record was also made up of folk-blues songs from ROBERT JOHNSON (`Walkin’ Blues’ and `Travelin’ Riverside Blues’), WILLIE DIXON (`Wang Dang Doodle’), MUDDY WATERS (`Mannish Boy’), WOODY GUTHRIE (`Vigilante Man’), TOMMY McCLENNAN (`Crosscut Saw’) and Bob Shad’s `Junko Pardner’; a few pundits would undoubtedly recognise `Battleship Chains’ (a minor hit for The GEORGIA SATELLITES).
1991’s MR. BAD EXAMPLE {*6}, found a solo ZEVON in comfortingly indignant mood and as far from mainstream acknowledgement as ever. Guitarist-turned-producer Waddy Wachtel had previously worked with him in session, and roping in usual suspects DAVID LINDLEY (multi), Jeff Porcaro and Jim Keltner (drums) and the title track’s co-author Jorge Calderon (bass), this set was certainly a “good” example of how easy it was for an artist like ZEVON to slip down the pecking order.
He nevertheless commanded a diehard posse of admirers (as tested on the live acoustic “best-of” LEARNING TO FLINCH (1993) {*7}); the kind of rock solid fanbase that allowed the man to subsequently sign yet another major label deal, this time for R.C.A.
The resulting self-produced MUTINEER (1995) {*5} was relatively laid-back, suggesting that the L.A. firebrand (now approaching his 50s) was absorbing middle age with at least some kind of contentment. For followers of the philosopher he was still the bees knees, but without any allegiances, reviewers had time to pick over the bones of promoted big-ticket items from `Seminole Bingo’ and `The Indifference Of Heaven’, to the anchor title track and a rare cover by way of JUDEE SILL’s `Jesus Was A Crossmaker’.
Spurred on by appearances on the David Letterman Show, the early-doors millennial release from the master of sharp-eyed sardonica a la, LIFE’LL KILL YA {*7}, found ZEVON’s worldview as reassuringly ironic as ever; a cover of STEVE WINWOOD’s `Back In The High Life Again’ summing up the L.A. minstrel’s ability to reflect life through his own curiously refracted lens. For an artist – now on Artemis Records – supposedly burned out, this poignant record depicted disillusion, disease, decay and even death (a la `My Shit’s Fucked Up’, `I Was In The House When The House Burned Down’ and `Don’t Let Us Get Sick’), and pointed to fragile icon ELVIS through `Porcelain Monkey’.
2002’s MY RIDE’S HERE {*6} wasn’t quite so incisive; with its cast of literary collaborators – showcasing novelist Carl Hiaasen (on `Basket Case’), legendary journo Hunter S. Thompson (on `You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared’) and even fan David Letterman (on `Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)’ – often serving to detract from the strength of the writing rather than adding to it. Another sardonic song cycle underlining an extra peppering of tracks he scribed with Larry Klein and Paul Muldoon respectively, there was also a cover of SERGE GAINSBOURG’s `Laissez-Moi Tranquille’.
Shortly after the record’s release, Warren was diagnosed with a severe form of lung cancer (peritoneal mesothelioma) and told he had only months to live. As single-minded as ever, the singer set about filling his remaining time with a farewell album, and exclusive promotion and interviews on the David Letterman show. Boasting a credits list that read like a roll-call of classic American rock – a la RY COODER, DON HENLEY, JACKSON BROWNE, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, TOM PETTY, DWIGHT YOAKAM, EMMYLOU HARRIS and T-BONE BURNETT guesting amongst others – THE WIND (2003) {*8} was an epitaph every bit as cynical, emotionally raw and unrepentant as he would presumably have wanted it. Even the cathartic cover of DYLAN’s `Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ bore no trace of regret or self-pity, whilst the unintentional trilogy of despair and death pitted mournful pieces `Dirty Life And Times’ and `Keep Me In Your Heart’ next to rockers `Disorder In The House’ and `Numb As A Statue’.
Sadly, Warren passed away on September 7, 2003, only a matter of days after the album’s release. Five months later, his aforesaid final album won him a brace of Grammy awards.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG // rev-up MCS Sep2019

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