Song of the Day, April 14: Detox Mansion by Warren Zevon

zevondetoxhygieneToday’s song finds a master storyteller making the most of his own life experience. Warren Zevon recorded only sporadically for much of his career, frequently derailed by substance abuse and stretches in rehab. After 1982’s solid offering, The Envoy, he disappeared for five years. When he returned, he did so with a vengeance. He hooked up with 3/4 of R.E.M. — guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry, and bassist Mike Mills — and put together one of his best albums. Sentimental Hygiene is full of wonderful moments, but the best may be a jab at the artist himself.

Detox Mansion is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the 80s frenzy of stars in rehab. Zevon opens with the wonderful, “Well I’m gone to Detox Mansion, way down on Last Breath Farm. I’ve been rakin’ leaves with Liza; me and Liz clean up the yard.” The R.E.M. boys join in the fun, providing a surging energy for Zevon’s dark but funny observations. It’s a great package, and a highlight of a long career. Bonus points to long-time Zevon collaborator (and maxi-instrumentalist) David Lindley, whose lap steel work is stunning.

Zevon has touched on his troubles on other tracks as well. On The Envoy, he sang about the compelling need to feel anything. Ain’t That Pretty At All finds him pondering throwing himself against the wall — literally — because “I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.” Grim but witty, it’s a darker take on similar themes.

Enjoy the exploration of Detox Mansion and a look at things that Ain’t That Pretty At All today.

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Song of the Day, Febrary 24: Quite Ugly One Morning by Warren Zevon

zevonbaduglyToday’s song is a delightfully charming look at life on the day after nuclear Armageddon. Warren Zevon’s 1991 album Mr. Bad Example is classic Zevon, blending dark tales, wry wit, odd characters, and sinister dealings. The finest moment is Quite Ugly One Morning.

Opening with the ominous “Don’t the sky look funny? Don’t it look kinda chewed-on like?”, Zevon offers a make-the-best-of-it pitch for dealing with the day after. He’s in great voice, with the desperate wink behind the lyric shining through his vocals. While the “flash of light” mentioned in the chorus makes the subject clear, the elliptical nature of the song lets the devastation apply to many kinds of tragedy, a nice Zevon twist. The singer’s regular collaborators provide stellar backing with multi-instrumentalist David Lindley contributing exotic elements on the saz and the cümbüş. The result is wonderfully engaging.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, February 3: Poor Poor Pitiful Me by Warren Zevon (or Linda Ronstadt)

Today’s song is a surprisingly durable tale of woe. Warren Zevon wrote and recorded Poor, Poor Pitiful Me for his eponymous 1976 album. It’s one of the earliest examples of his wry, dark storytelling. The narrator recounts a series of mistakes, mishaps, and romantic missteps, lamenting the tragic impact of women on his life. Witty, bitter, and funny, it’s classic Zevon. It also features one of the best bizarre similes of all time, comparing a woman who mistreats him to both Jesse James and a Waring blender.

ronstadtpitifulLinda Ronstadt was an early admirer of Zevon’s writing, introduced to her by mutual friend Jackson Browne. She recorded a surprisingly effective version of the song for her #1 album Simple Dreams. She reversed the genders of the characters and toned down the verse that implies an S&M relationship, but otherwise stayed true to the spirit of the song. (She even kept the blender reference!) Ronstadt turned in a delightfully gritty performance, a standout in her catalog and a rare Top 40 hit for writer Zevon [#31, 1978].

Enjoy this wonderful song by its writer and a clever interpreter.

BONUS: For a dark, somewhat twisted tune, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me has had a remarkable number of cover versions. Terri Clark took her version, adapted from Ronstadt’s reading, into the Country Top 5 in 1996; somehow her chipper approach works. Longtime Zevon friend Jackson Browne, who produced the original recording, offered his interpretation on the Zevon tribute disc Enjoy Every Sandwich. He offers a pretty straight Zevon approach, with nice extra crunch added by the harmonies and lead guitar of Bonnie Raitt.

Song of the Day, November 27: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

ZevonWolvesToday’s song is a bit of fun from a master storyteller. Warren Zevon liked to look at the slightly darker side of what makes us human. His songs tended toward tales of the lost and downtrodden, the sneaky and sinister. With a literate sense of lyric, a noirish lens on his characters, and a wry sense of story, he turned out an impressive body of work. His finest album, Excitable Boy, mixes those approaches with a bit more variety, staying true to his muse while finding new ways to exercise it.

One of those moments is the delightful Werewolves of London. With its goofy — but musical — howling chorus and spot-on observations, it feels like a dark novelty hit. The lyrics are true Zevon however, as he looks at the rituals we all undertake to be part of the scene. After all, wouldn’t even a werewolf want to make the most of the nightlife? The music is perfect, with Zevon’s piano driving the action and the rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie working their magic.

Enjoy this delightful hit [#21, 1978] today.

Song of the Day, January 27: Carmelita by Warren Zevon

ZevonCarmelitaToday’s song is one of Warren Zevon’s tales of the lost. After some time in a duo and a solo debut that he later disowned, Zevon teamed with producer Jackson Browne to craft his darkly brilliant eponymous album in 1976. It was a huge leap forward, with smart, literate lyrics and a variety of folk-tinged rock and pop tracks. He became famous over the years for his stories of the downtrodden and outcast — Carmelita is one of the first of these.

With a lovely acoustic guitar figure that conjures up Latin American scenes, the song’s lyrics clash with the sweet music perfectly. Zevon’s narrator is “all strung out on heroin” and looks for solace from his lover, Carmelita. She’s not in much better shape. The pair are oddly sympathetic, with Zevon singing sweetly about their pain. It’s a smart song that indicated the vast talent he had just begun to tap.

Enjoy this dark tale today.

Song of the Day, January 22: Nobody’s In Love This Year by Warren Zevon

ZevonTransverseNobodyToday’s song is Nobody’s In Love This Year by Warren Zevon. It appears on his underappreciated 1989 album Transverse City. The disc is one of his most cohesive and consistent, a semi-concept album about life in the computer age.

This song is in many ways a simple love gone wrong tale. Zevon’s clever use of language and impassioned vocal (one of his best) raise it above that mark, however. In the company of the mad modern world songs that surround it, Nobody’s In Love This Year also reads like another peril of the disconnection of being over-connected. The mordant wit of that placement is classic Zevon. On top of that, it’s simply a great track.

We keep walking away for no reason at all
And no one says a word
We were always so busy protecting ourselves
We never would have heard
And the rate of attrition for lovers like us
Is steadily on the rise
Nobody’s in love this year
Not even you and I

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Album of the Week, September 29: Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

Excitable ZevonSinger and songwriter Warren Zevon was born in Chicago in 1947 and raised in Fresno. He was drawn to music early, eventually leaving high school to move to New York and pursue his career. He and school friend Violet Santangelo had a minor hit with Follow Me as lyme & cybelle. He wrote jingles and contributed songs to other artists — including the Turtles — while finding his feet in the industry. In 1969, he released Wanted Dead Or Alive, a mediocre album that barely hinted at his talents. After doing session work and tour support, he drifted back to California, rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks before they joined Fleetwood Mac and befriending Jackson Browne. Browne produced 1976’s Warren Zevon, a stunning album that announced to the world that its author was a force to be reckoned with. Zevon displayed in full force his cinematic songcraft, mordant wit, and mixture of realism and irony with a dash of politics. The follow-up came in 1978 and achieved commercial success that Zevon had not expected and would never match.

Title Excitable Boy
Act Warren Zevon
Label Asylum Release Date January 18, 1978
Producer Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel
U.S. Chart  8 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Johnny Strikes Up the Band
  2. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
  3. Excitable Boy
  4. Werewolves of London [#21]
  5. Accidentally Like A Martyr
  6. Nighttime In the Switching Yard
  7. Veracruz
  8. Tenderness On the Block
  9. Lawyers, Guns and Money

Johnny Strikes Up the Band is a perfect launching point for the album, a celebration of music’s power and a lament at the state of the world. It welcomes the listener to Zevon’s world and has a wonderful LA sound. Leave it to Zevon to set ’em up just to knock ’em down. Up next is Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a dark exploration of mercenary life, political corruption, betrayal, and revenge. The violence is leavened by his detached, whimsical delivery, but just as the whole thing seems like a darkly comic story, Zevon summons up the spectre of Patty Hearst. The injection of headline reality anchors the lyrics nicely and proves the power of Zevon’s writing.

Excitable Boy is the singalong story of a disturbed murderer, perhaps the creepiest song to ever feature Linda Ronstadt’s harmonies. Like Roland, it’s a (very) darkly comic tale with a very real hook, looking at what society accepts and excuses. It’s the perfect title track, capturing the noir balladry of the song cycle nicely. The next track is Zevon’s only Top 40 hit, Werewolves of London. It’s somehow apt that another archly ironic track pigeonholed Zevon as a novelty act. A wonderful nod to the power of celebrity, the song is one of his most fun, right down to the goofy wolf howls in every chorus. Anyone doubting the dark core of the song should listen to his spot-on delivery of the line “his hair was perfect.”

Side one of the original vinyl ends with one of his finest songs, the aching ballad Accidentally Like A Martyr. While most famous for his sly asides and dark observations, Zevon had a powerful ability to craft love songs, especially those dealing with loss. His delivery is quiet and powerful as he celebrates the inevitable end of a love affair.

Like the first side, the second starts with a danceable track, Nighttime In the Switching Yard. It’s mostly a chance for the band (a great assemblage of LA studio talent) to show off, but it also hearkens back to the train songs that populate early 20th Century blues. A nice nod to his roots — with a good beat — it’s almost a throwaway but provides a nice bit of breathing space. Veracruz is a historical ballad of international politics and interventionism. It showcases Zevon’s interest in how American values impose themselves throughout history and a tender love song to boot.

Tenderness On the Block is a great nostalgia song, a powerful let-your-children-grow-up track. It could be cloying in  less capable hands, but mixed with the other material on this disc works very well. The underlying message seems to be that we all need to grow up to deal with this world and we might as well do it with the love and support of our families. The final track is a virtual theme song for Zevon’s career. Lawyers, Guns and Money is a great story song and a political anthem worthy of Bruce Cockburn. Wrapping his stories, politics, wit, and deadpan delivery into one perfect package, Zevon leaves us laughing even as we wince.

FURTHER LISTENING: Warren Zevon’s career was a spectacular series of highs and stumbles, punctuated with addiction and long breaks in recovery. He worked with an amazing array of musicians and had a huge (if barely commercially rewarded) impact. Warren Zevon is a great collection that properly announces his talents and is the equal of Excitable Boy if slightly less consistent. My favorite of his other albums is the dark reflection on modern life, Transverse City; it was panned on release but has held up well as an eerie warning of the age of Facebook. Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2002 and given only months to live. He focused on his final album, The Wind, with the help of his talented friends. It’s a fitting finale to his career and one of his best efforts even disregarding the circumstances. His work has been anthologized a number of times; the best overview is 1996’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. It’s missing the last couple of albums but the 44 songs are a solid overview of his talent and career.

Song of the Day, January 24: Desperados Under the Eaves by Warren Zevon

ZevonDesperadoesToday’s song is Desperados Under the Eaves by Warren Zevon. After ten years writing and recording in the music business, Zevon came into his own with his eponymous 1976 release. It’s a brilliant collections of stories in song, showcasing his mordant wit and deft hand and dark scenes. The disc ends with one his most personal and powerful songs, a meditation on a life on hold.

Desperados Under the Eaves is set in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, where Zevon intends to drink up “all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles.” He ponders the fate of the down-on-their-luck, noting how every obligation will come due in time.

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 brief, bold strokes, he shows off his great skill in setting a scene. Once the dark gritty tone is established, however, Zevon takes us on an optimistic journey as he and his backing vocalists “look away down Gower Avenue” in a heavenly chant. The bright note is atypical of the singer and brings the album to a powerful close.

Warren Zevon died in Sept. 2003. Today would have been his 66th birthday. Enjoy this wonderful, unusual song and celebrate his legacy today.

Song of the Day, September 17: Lawyers, Guns and Money by Warren Zevon

Today’s song is Lawyers, Guns and Money by Warren Zevon. It appears on his brilliant 1978 album, Excitable Boy. It’s one of the most cleverly developed of his international politics songs, blending a desperate mercenary with his noirish sensibility.

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this

Enjoy this delightful tale of desperation today.

Song of the Day, January 24: Accidentally Like A Martyr by Warren Zevon

Today’s song is Accidentally, Like A Martyr by the late, great Warren Zevon. A mainstay of rock for nearly 40 years, Zevon was never a huge chart success. Instead, he honed a perfect craft merging music and razor-sharp observations, leading to one journalist calling him “the Raymond Chandler of California rock.”  His wit, deadpan delivery, and perfect sense of timing made him one of the lyrically smartest songwriters around; he also was a respected musician, collaborating with hundreds of rock luminaries and lesser lights. (A good friend of mine and I used to play Six Degrees of Warren Zevon; we never needed to go past four…)

It’s hard to pick a favorite from his consistently strong works, but I am partial to 1978’s Excitable Boy. A remarkable album from start to finish, it also features today’s song. The title alone makes it one of the most perfectly representative Zevon tracks. Flawlessly bittersweet, it is one of his finest moments. Warren Zevon died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 56. Today would have been his 65th birthday. Enjoy this great song and remember this fine performer.

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