Warren Zevon Play that dead mans songs
Thursday, 21 October 2010
Any songwriter who begins a song with the opening lines “Grandpa pissed his pants again…” has got to be listened to. The fact that he joined in an argument started years before by Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd has nothing to do with it. You may know the story… don’t you? Well it goes like this – back in 1970, on his “After the Goldrush” album Neil Young wrote an anti-racist song called “Southern Man.” He returned to the subject on his 1974 album “Harvest” with the song called “Alabama” The lyrics of these songs seemed to piss off a whole load of Southern good old boys! Good I think it was meant to - but the good old southern boys also had a voice – they had a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd, who answered Neil Young’s criticism with a song of their own “Sweet Home Alabama.” Its often thought that the two bands didn’t get on – not true, in fact Lynyrd Skynyrd were Neil Young fans, their main songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant even wore a Neil young t-shirt for the cover shot of their “Street Survivors” album and the feeling must have been mutual 'cos its claimed that Neil Young wrote the song “Powderfinger.” for them. Instead The Beat Farmers did a great cover version of that!

Then in 1980 along comes Warren Zevon with his song “Play it all night long.” It contains the chorus –

"Sweet home Alabama",
Play that dead band's song,
Turn those speakers up full blast,
Play it all night long.

I don’t know what he felt about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I don’t think Warren Zevon liked the south, as the song contains some of the most vitriolic anti-southern lyrics you can find this side of the Mason Dixon line, irony dripping from every letter in every word. Take a look at the third verse -

Daddy's doing Sister Sally
Grandma's dying of cancer now
the cattle all have brucellosis
we’ll get through somehow

Mind you what else would you expect from a songwriter who produced the song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, (co written with an ex-mercenary in a Spanish Bar) or even Excitable Boy, less a song more a plot for an x-rated horror movie.

Listening to Warren Zevon isn’t a cosy way to spend your time. He doesn’t write about summer time and easy living. He writes and sings about his own and other people’s frailties, his own heroin/cocaine and alcohol addictions, his own fears and neurosis. At one point he was nicknamed F. Scott Fitzevon, a reference to the novelist F Scott Fitzgerald who’s self inflicted, alcohol fuelled death Zevon seemed determined to imitate.

To understand Warren Zevon we have to place him in his own period of music history – Warren Zevon was at the heart of the LA cocaine culture. He shared rooms with Buckingham and Nicks just as they joined forces with Fleetwood Mac. In fact if you check out the contributors on his first album it reeks of that LA coke vibe Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, various members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt.

But fame and wealth are difficult butterflys to trap. After poor sales of his 1982 album The Envoy he was dropped by Asylum Records. He only found out by reading about it in Rolling Stone Magazine. Not Asylums finest moment. Between 82 – 84 Zevon collaborated with, of all people, Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, three out of four members of R.E.M, along with backup vocalist Bryan Cook in a project they called Hindu Love Gods releasing a single called “Narrator”. It didn’t sell.

Zevon was in a low patch that continued in a downward spiral into alcoholism. He left the music business to whistle up its own arse for a few years, returning with another album “Sentimental Hygene” in 1987. If you can find a copy check out the credits on this album - contributors include Michael Stipe, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, George Clinton, as well as Berry, Buck, and Mills and Waddy Wachtel. Not a bad line up!

His follow up album 1989’s “Transverse City”, featured a list of names that could have appeared in a who’s who of 60’s psychedelia. Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, Jefferson Airplane members Jack Casady & Jorma Kaukonen, keyboard player Chick Corea and guitarists Jerry Garcia (Greatful Dead) , Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and (again) Neil Young. Unfortunatley again it didn’t sell and oce again Warren Zevon saw his recording contract slip slide away!

In 2002 Warren developed a chronic cough and was diagnosed with inoperable mesothelioma (a form of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos). He refused treatment – instead going into the studio to begin recording “The Wind”, his final album. Many long time friends turned up to help him make this final record among them - Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, David Lindley, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and Dwight Yoakam.

On October 30, 2002, Zevon was featured as the only guest on the hour long Late Show with David Letterman . As his introduction the band played "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" Zevon performed several songs and spoke at length about his illness. "I may have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years." He said. He died a year later September 7, 2003, aged 56, at home in LA.

His final album went gold in December 2003 and he received five posthumous Grammy nominations, including Song Of The Year for the ballad "Keep Me In Your Heart". “The Wind” ended up winning two Grammys, while "Disorder in the House", Zevon's duet with Bruce Springsteen, was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.

To me Warren Zevon is a vital link between the 70’s LA cocaine spangled star-dust and the harsh realities of the 21st century. In a way his life sort of explains why the Eagles went wrong, why Fleetwood Macs album “Tusk” is crap and why there’s no such thing as a good Linda Ronstadt album.

Seven years after his death his work still demands to be listened to – Listen to his pseudo love songs like Carmelita (“….hold me tighter, I think I’m sinking down – cos I’m all strung out on heroin on the far side of town). Listen to early stuff like Frank and Jesse James or Mohammed’s Radio. Listen to his cover version of “Knocking on Heavens Door” recorded at his final recording session – you can hear the tears of regret from the other players – but not his. Listen to his cover of Princes Raspberry parade – ten times better that the original version. More balls, more urgency – no comfort zone. That’s sums him up nicely. With Warren Zevon there is no comfort zone.

I did manage to see him perform live - just the once. It was at either Hammersmith Odeon or up at Finsbury Park Rainbow. I can never remember which one. I know who I went with though and that helps to date it – funny how you can date the gigs you went to by past wives/girlfriends – somewhere I still have the ticket stub. I do remember that the audience was disappointed that he played the gig as a solo act – no band and throughout the concert there were cries of “where’s the band?” What I do remember was an intense young man with a tangle of blond hair performing most of his “Excitable Boy” album.

No record (or download) collection is complete without some of his work His music makes me want to shout, to yell, sometimes to dance, sometimes cry. It makes me angry, makes me sad, and occasionally makes me laugh, mainly at the irony of life, the universe and everything! It helps me keep a perspective on the world that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been listening to the man’s music since the 70’s. It makes me realise that, but for the grace of God, lack of song writing talent, and lack of finance, I could have become that alcoholic cocaine addict – that we are all only human after all – and that’s something worth singing about! May your Hindu Love Gods watch over you as you play that dead mans songs, now go and turn those speakers up full blast and play it all night long.