Starting As You Mean To Go On

There’s a New Year to be withstood,  cold reality to be met with a forearm smash firmly to the bridge of its nose. So, before my resolve is at all dissipated by pointless Facebook Madvice from narcissistic Yoga freaks or by early adopters of the latest political hot potato (“Give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue and you can wipe my ass with it.”) a little musical reinforcement seems to be the very thing.

We have all been there…sofa…crack…thinking to myself,  ’bout my angel dressed in black. Waiting for your prostitute girlfriend to come home with the cheese so that you can re-up. Too high to do anything but sit there and think a little too much. Actually, I’m with Dennis Leary on this one and would never take a drug named after a part of my ass ! Also the women who have supported me through my times of anomie  (and thank you to them all) have not been employed in any sex trade nastiness. No matter, Warren Zevon, has a great rock song about it, perfectly imagined so that we don’t have to. “Angel Dressed In Black” sounds like his “Hindu Love Gods” record with R.E.M. and is from his brilliant “Mr Bad Example” LP from 1991, a must- have for any lover of reprobate rock.

My favourite clip of this song. Lou’s great band had been on a world tour for a year and were just so tight. “Doing The Things That We Want To”, about Sam Shepard and Martin Scorsese, is a better song for losing the accordion and gaining the attack. Fred Maher (drums), Fernando Saunders (bass) and on guitar, the Sergeant Bilko of rock, Robert Quine were as good a band as you could ever wish to see. I was lucky and saw Lou Reed play in London with these guys. On quiet evenings, with a fair wind, I can still hear their  blistering takes on “White Light White Heat” and “Coney Island Baby”. I can hear it too when I dig out that old bootleg cassette bought just a week after the gig. You could say that I was firmly struck by the way they had behaved.

The man who did the world a favour by placing this cover version on the Y-tube is around on my computer clan. We have had to whisper our appreciation of this song as it’s not really acceptable in the UK to disturb the genuflection afforded to Ray Davies and the Kinks. I like the original B-side sung by brother Dave. The beefed-up live version, omitted from the 1994 UK LP, made the 1996 US double LP, resurrected the song and was featured in “The Sopranos”. Peter Perrett’s record “Woke Up Sticky” was a recrudescence too. A friend, disturbed by Peter’s wasted condition, had urged him to get himself together. The friend was Johnny Thunders…hoo-haa ! The stories of excess and devotion to dereliction would be of little consequence had Perrett not been capable of creating some of the greatest  British guitar rock. To hear this assertive return to form confirmed his talent and that, indeed, he was not like everybody else.

Now…that’s better. 2013…bring it on.

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It’s A Dog’s life And It’s Not My Fault (Sentimental Hygiene)

It is serendipity that brings me to consider “Sentimental Hygiene” on the anniversary of the death of Warren Zevon. It is enough to state that the manner of his dying was the measure of the man. There is no sadness at his passing. This music has served me well for 25 years and will do so for the next 25 (with Jah’s grace). I am no necromantic and today I need some….

Those 1980s eh ? Thatcher over here & Reagan over there. The backlash against the “Love Generation”, a coalition which proved to be too loose to prevent the handing back of the reins to the “oligarchy of pimps & preachers who…worship money, power & death” (H.S.T.). So what does a poor boy do, clean & sober or not, when you are not as young as you were & the rules of the game have changed. Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” was a 70s take on “the longing for love & the struggle for the legal tender”. Now his friend produced a snapshot of life in the 80s for those who were “trying to get along”.

There was something else new around in the 80s & that was AIDS. Initially seen as “God’s punishment” on homosexuals, this “epidemic” was used by the forces of reaction to fight back against  more liberated sexual attitudes. There were ad campaigns equating unprotected sex with Russian roulette. Sexual health is an important issue but the agenda was more pernicious. “Sentimental Hygiene”, an emotional attachment with a degree of re-assurance that sexual contact was not gonna kill you, was the best a person could hope for while they were searching for a heart.

Warren Zevon was revitalised on this LP. Old friends from L.A. were still around but the new guests brought an energy to the music, an assertiveness, that matched the new songs. R.E.M are all present, Bob Dylan, Tony Levin & Flea show out on bass, the latter on a song arranged by George Clinton. There is not a Zevon aficionado who had not wanted to hear Neil Young stretch out on one of the rockier tunes. On this title track we got our wish & we were right. This is one of the great track one, side one’s. Here was an album you could play to the unconverted, even the unimpressed & they would listen.

The gap on the record between “Detox Mansion” & “Bad Karma” always produces a little buzz of anticipation for this listener. I am going to hear R.E.M. rock out with Warren on just the funniest “where did it all go wrong ?” song ever. At first I celebrated a return to form, health & humour. Now I enjoy a great rock song. A touch of sitar (just a touch mind) is always a good thing when used well. “It’s a dog’s life but it’s not my fault”. Boy…if i ever get a tattoo.

Selecting 3 tracks from an LP is what I do on these things. It could have been any of them it is that strong. It was not going to be “Reconsider Me” though. I give you some of myself in this blog but I just can’t write about that great song without giving too much. A very important song. This will do the job though.

“Boom Boom Mancini” is the best sports song ever.(The Fall’s “Kicker Conspiracy” gives it a run). Ray Mancini, a world champion boxer at 21 years old, was a blue collar hero who’s all-action, dramatic, often brutal fights made him a star in the 80s. This taut rocker (R.E.M. again) catalogues his career including the fight after which Duk Koo Kim died. Boom Boom was more affected by this tragedy than the lyrics state but the license taken by Warren emphasizes a colder reality about boxing & it’s appeal.It is this harshness that has the fan of the chorus hurrying home to catch the Mancini fight.

Warren Zevon came to Britain to promote the LP & we got tickets for a gig at the Hammersmith Odeon. He played there twice, a month apart, I am guessing we were at the January concert because we were on the case as soon as they were announced. It is this set I am listening to now (I love the Internet). Five of us went together & we met so many friends in that horrible bar at the back of the Odeon. Sue let us get a couple of drinks along & produced a bottle of magic mushroom tea she was contributing to the occasion…well OK.The mood throughout the bar was of eager anticipation. this was a big gig for all of us.

Warren had a great band. I can only name Ian Wallace, drummer for almost everybody. I have always liked very tall women in very short dresses & there were two of those in the band too. It was a greatest hits really but he looked so well, sounded so strong, the whole thing was just so great. I will say that I thought at the time that he would rarely have so many fervent admirers in one place & that he could have played longer. Ah..it was the mushrooms and plain greediness, that’s all. In the 11 years since I had last seen him play a lot had happened to Warren & a lot had happened to me. His music had inspired, provoked, had reminded me of beauty & to keep strong. I was in the moment at the gig but I was storing the positivity & the sense of enjoyment I was getting from being there.

On the way out I asked my good friend & housemate  Carol if it had been a good night for her. She had, I asked if she recognised the songs. She said, “Mal, I have lived with you for 5 years. I know every one of them !”. I learned this year that Carol has cancer. I love her more than I have ever loved any of this music.

I Didn’t Have To Come To Maui To Be Treated Like A Jerk. (The Envoy)

So, how far along was I with Warren Zevon ? It’s been a while. “Bad Luck Streak” made the top 20 in the US & Warren got drunk for the next decade. It was to be another 20 years & he would be dying before he enjoyed such commercial successwith an LP of new songs. In the next 7 years a live album was released.( He has said that he has no recollection of the live shows being recorded). Only one studio record came from this period ,”The Envoy”. I liked them both but then Zevon was my thing.

There are contemporary live clips of Warren performing this song but I can’t bring myself to add them to this. He looks so rough, has a pretty average band & is attempting some sort of rabble rousing, crowd pleasing schtick. His only peer at this time, Randy Newman was getting to play concert halls while people listened. Zevon could rock but he was never a ” rocker”, He was schlepping around the States, the audience wanted those crazy, wild man songs about Lynyrd Skynyrd & werewolves. The result “Ain’t That Pretty At All”. The cynicism about the world was now being turned upon himself. His conclusion, “I would rather feel bad than not feel anything at all”.Warren’s muscular rejection of the beauty in the world makes for a great song. That “I’ve been to Rome…Guess what ?”,  pure Warren. Like Lee Ho Fook’s I’ve been to the Louvre but I did not “hurl myself against the wall”. Saw some prettiness too.

Was this song not a hit record ? If Fleetwood Mac had used this tune with Stevie Nicks singing about some unreal shit like pixies and fairy dust then it would have been. I’m joking of course, it was the hit of the year. All the poodle-haired schlock-rock bands broke up & labels only signed writers of cynical but intelligent songs…yeah right.

In 1982 I had blown a seemingly “perfect” marriage & never expected to fall in love with such intensity ever again. I was, though, “Looking For The Next Best Thing”. Here came WZ & put it more succinctly, more melodically than I could hope to. It’s not just that I found a fellow traveller in Warren. If you are young & reading this please, please stay on that “road to perfection”. It’s a hard road & if you end up appreciating the best but settling for less then that’s not bad & you will not be the only one. Listening to “The Envoy” again there are some really good songs full of sardonic humour. There are 2, apart from this, that sound like hit records. There is this next killer track too.

“Jesus Mentioned” is my favourite song about digging up Elvis Presley ever. I could tell you it is a modern blues which is sad, beautiful & strange,  but it would make this song no better. A mix of my most loved Zevon tracks includes this one from “The Envoy” every time. (Only “Best Thing” made the official hits LP from here).

This LP is not a beginner’s guide. A skinny 31 minutes, there are variations on themes that he has realized better in other songs. However, if you know those themes then the album is rewarding. Asylum, his record label, quit on Warren after this & he struggled for a while. I’m not sure how I missed his visits to Britain. I must have had something really good to do on the nights of his gigs. I do know that, at a gig in London, he was so drunk that people were walking out on him. Re-hab & revival were 5 years away & it was worth the wait.

If you don’t they’ll screw you and if they do they’ll screw you too.

It’s been so great listening to these 30 year old albums. In a Pick n Mix, iPod world it’s so good to spend a day on one artist. “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School” was released in 1980 & there have been few LPs that I have more eagerly & impatiently anticipated. Even today you don’t hear much more than “Werewolves” on the radio. Warren was too odd for daytime & not odd enough for the more specialist radio shows. It was gonna be bought sight unseen because I was not gonna  hear it on the radio. I was not disappointed. There are some great tracks but I think maybe he had used most of the songs from his early 70s stash. There is an element of re-hashing the themes of earlier songs.When I came to make my selection there are 2 tracks which really pick themselves. Both are classic Zevon cuts.  I listened to this LP non-stop for months & these 2 songs are a part of my life.

I have to pick the LP version of “Play it All Night Long”. There are live tracks, covers by Jackson Browne & the Drive By Truckers, but the original captures so much of just how unique Zevon could be in his songwriting. A twisted, gonzo story of incest &  illness, physical & mental, human & animal. The protagonist finding solace in that “dead band’s song” & alcohol, reducing country living to “sweat, piss, jizz & blood”. It’s not just the only song to include the word brucellosis. It is the lack of subtlety, the directness, the satire that Zevon could do better than anyone. Musically, like many of his songs, it doesn’t push as far as the lyrics. Those L.A. guys were just too laid back to get too wild. The two solos by David Lindley are fine examples of how he enhanced so many tunes around the L.A. scene.

Well…”Empty Handed Heart”. In 1981 I was past the break up of my marriage. Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” , a blue collar declaration of meeting the tribulations of life head on,  had been a reference point for long enough. Just as I was moving forward then  the soundtrack needed to change. Here comes Zevon with the perfect summation of the “heart jinxed condition” of having been in love & the possibility of it happening again. There were a number of songs he wrote about love or the absence thereof. Some of them are among the best you could ever hear. “Empty Handed Heart” is the best you can hear. “If after all is said and done, you only find one special one. Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand”. OK , this pessimism, fatalism has never been articulated so succinctly…boy, the times I’ve gone back to look for those diamonds !

The descant, sung by Linda Ronstadt, about good times that will not happen again, is the perfect sweetener to Warren’s determined realism. A triumph.

There are a couple of other contenders from this LP. “Bill Lee” is an hilarious, minimal celebration of a bolshy baseball pitcher, not the only good sports song he wrote. Maybe there is a little more pessimism, maybe there is a little more realism. I’m gonna leave it at two selections because, even though 3 is the magic number, I’m getting too predictable with this 3 picks from each LP.

The copy I bought of “Bad Luck Streak” was, I think, a crappy pressing. The sound of the first few tracks sounded pretty muddy. I never took it back for exchange. I probably blamed the production. It did not really matter this was a worthy addition to the canon, a maturing of a great talent who was finding out what he did best.

You better stay away from him. He will rip your lungs out Jim.

So, to the next Warren Zevon LP, “Excitable Boy”. Much anticipated by myself & most of the people I knew. We had played the last one until the vinyl was wafer thin. However great “Warren Zevon” was it did not sell  a light. Just got into the Top 200 in the USA. There was a buzz about him because of Ronstadt’s covers & because of his famous mates. I suppose his record label, Asylum, wanted to make him a star with this one.

The 9 songs on the album total just 31 minutes. The production, by Browne & guitarist Waddy Wachtel is rockier, with perhaps less variety than before. But that’s it…it is an essential LP of the 1970s. The title track rushes along getting stranger by  the verse. It ends with the sociopath boy building a cage from the bones of the girl he had earlier raped & killed…macabre mayhem…just an excitable boy ! The track that everyone knows Zevon for, “Werewolves of London” follows. A Top 30 single with perhaps the greatest lyrics of any hit single. I had missed a chance to eat at Lee Ho Fook’s in the early 70s, before this song. When I finally did go there, in the 90s, I was pleased that there was a poster of Warren on the wall with the lyrics to “Werewolves”. Yes, I did get a big dish of beef chow mein !

You’ve heard those. Of the “strange” songs I have opted for “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”. The story of a mercenary’s ghost who seeks out his murderer across Africa to get revenge. Now these are stories for pop music ! “Knee deep in gore”..go Mr Zevon. The song builds from just piano through the chorus to a climactic last verse. “In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine & Berkeley. Patti Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun & bought it”. End of the song, no last chorus, no fade out. No judgement just the fact of a world of political violence.

 

“Accidentally Like A Martyr” was always going  to be one of my choices here. This live show is from 1982 & does not have the subtlety of the record. No matter, it’s a lovely version. A killer ballad which, in 3 minutes encapsulates the end of a relationship. “The hurt gets worse & the heart gets harder”…oh yeah. The line “should have done, should have done we all sigh” has resonated throughout my life. There will always be a “should have” but there is never any point in any of them. I’m not saying regret is for assholes, just learn & try not to do it again. Jesus , I think you can tell that I have listened a little too closely to Warren’s lyrics…they are just so precise, so good. It’s a great tune as well. He’s is never just about the lyrics.

Another non-album version to close. This, again, is a great version (or why choose it ?) and a chance to see Warren say “improbable & grotesque mischief” (Oh no, this video is now blocked). “Lawyers, Guns & Money” is a short story about a playboy getting hooked up in some overseas shenanigans. The “shit has hit the fan” & the appeal is to his, presumably wealthy, father to bail him out. The protagonist, like that of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” expresses some astonishment at his predicament…”the innocent bystander” down on his luck. An American abroad. “Excitable Boy” was a Top 10 LP in the USA. Warren was on his way…yeah sure. His taste for the darker sides of life was gonna bite him in the ass.

At the time of this record I was living in Birmingham. There were a group of guys I knew who would take 3 months leave from work & travel to India. For the scenery, you know what i mean. There was always someone over there, someone just returned & others preparing for the journey. We had said our goodbye to one of our friends earlier. We werejust saying how he would be missed. The doorbell rang & it was Micky. We thought we would not see him again for 3 months. He had come to get a copy of “Werewolves of London”. He didn’t want to go to India without it. The thought of this gentle hippie, somewhere in the mountains of Kashmir, listening to Warren’s song still makes me smile. OW WOO !

She took me back to the Hyatt House, I don’t wanna talk about it !

You finally get on the world wide Interweb & you look for something intelligent about some shit you know about. You know, to find out more stuff , maybe connect with some like-minded people. Like you would with a book (remember them ? ) or a good magazine. You pretty soon find out that’s not so easy. There’s a bunch of cool fansites dedicated to completism but when it comes to discussion…well  you may as well read Y-tube comments. It can be THAT dumb.

OK. I’m gonna have a go at writing something proper about Warren Zevon. You know Warren…OW-WOO ! Werewolves of London…that’s the guy.I’m just going to do the first LP . There are some of his LPs that are so important to me that I would not do them full justice if I banged 3 together at one time. The LP (not his first, but if you were on to the 1969 one then you were one of the very few) was released in 1976. Produced by Jackson Browne, endorsement enough in those mid-70s. Aided by the rock aristocracy of Los Angeles. There was even a Beach Boy & an Everly brother on backing vocals.

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I’m going to start with “Desperado Under The Eaves” because it was the first track I heard from the album. One morning in Birmingham the local station, BRMB, played this on the morning show. I stopped my routine, I had been waiting to hear some of this. My wife would have to wait for her coffee in bed…boy, she had me trained well. The string section  intro echoes “Louisiana 1927” by Randy Newman. The two verses are conventional enough. Then the pay-off…”I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaian hotel, I was listening to the air conditioner hum. And it went….hmm, hmm, “. OK. Harmonies from the air con, that’s new.

After years of listening to the song I still hear those Newman references. In the field of erudite, literary, ironic cynicism it is these two writers who carry the swing. The line ” but except in dreams you’re never really free” marks Warren as either a pessimist or a realist.I still love to hear the sweet hum of the air conditioning. As the song ends looking away down Gower Avenue what does he see ? The “Hollywood” sign symbolic of the city of dreamers. I am aware of the biographical genesis of the song but, y’know, I think Zevon aimed for something more in his work. Something which applied to the more general condition than to just his own screw ups.

I bought the LP & loved it. I knew that L.A. music. in the 70s it could have a softness to it not always to my liking. This was tougher, more sardonic & more imaginative. The songs, the arrangements, sometimes have the veneer of L.A. smoothness. It perhaps takes repeated listening to get to the subversion that is going on here. Linda Ronstadt, the sweetheart of the Cocaine Cowboy Rodeo, recorded 4 of the album’s songs. Her hit version of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” takes an hilarious macho boast about excessive female attention & reduces it to blancmange.

“Mohammed’s Radio” is a song which has gained resonance over the years. “Everybody’s desperate trying to make ends meet. Work all day, still can’t pay the price of gasoline & meat. Alas their lives are incomplete.”. Soothed by the sweet & soulful drum of Mohammed’s radio, the General knows that watchfulness is necessary. Man, this is the USA in the 21st century ! I make no claims for Zevon as a prophet. I do think that  his songs could capture aspects of Life’s condition which are universal. The performance of the song we see here, with Jackson Browne’s band is as good as British TV got in the mid-70s.

I’m spoiled for choice for the final clip. the beauty of “Hasten Down The Wind”,  the class of “The French Inhaler”, the junkie lament of “Carmelita”. I am going with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” because this is Warren at his most hellacious. He & Hunter S. Thompson captured that “what the fuck ?”, boundaries are there to be crossed spirit better than anyone. Whenever  things are too much fun or my mind is racing with a shitstorm or I just get offered another line…Hey ! I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead !

In December 1976 my wife & I travelled from Birmingham to London to see Jackson Browne play. We wanted to be with good friends who had listened to this music with us. Warren was the support act. I don’t know if the rest of the audience knew the album but our posse thought it was the record of the year. We cheered every introduction, sang along with every chorus & generally went nuts for the man. I’m sure the people around us wondered what was going on. Jackson Browne was superb that night. he was promoting “The Pretender” & had some body of work behind him at that time. Seeing Zevon perform almost all of this record was an unforgettable treat. I don’t really have a favourite Zevon LP, different one’s for different moods. This one is possibly the strongest collection of songs he ever got together at one time.