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By Michael E. Miller
A little more than a decade and a half ago, when Warren Zevon was the Excitable Boy, talking a great game, playing with guns, and out-drinking anyone foolish or self-destructive enough to challenge his virtuosity with a bottle, you could've gotten great odds he wouldn't survive long enough to see his 30th birthday, much less his 45th. "I'll sleep when I'm dead," he sang, and there were many who believed nap time was just around the bend. Somehow Zevon survived, witty, irascible, and erudite as ever, a bona fide rock rogue.
He's been dry for years, doesn't perform acrobatic maneuvers with his piano very often, and he's more likely to wield a fishing rod than a .44 magnum in private life. But to say that Zevon has (shudder) mellowed would not be fair. In fact, during the interview for this article the songwriter, just returned from a five-month solo tour of the world, is comfortably ensconced in his West Hollywood (California) abode, sitting in his living room staring at 96 DAT tapes, on which he's recorded every performance of the past 150 days in anticipation of compiling a live album.
Theoretically, Zevon is promoting his upcoming appearances at the Stephen Talkhouse, but he's refreshingly reluctant to beat his own drum, maintaining a healthy aversion to the conventions of the self-aggrandizing artiste. This is, after all, the man responsible for the greatest alliterative snippet in the history of rock lyrics: "Little old lady got mutilated late last night."
Zevon doesn't like to discuss his songs at length, and he prefaces highfalutin statements about the artist's life with disclaimers as to his right to call himself one in the first place. He does not consider himself a gifted pianist, swears he quit playing lead guitar on a recent tour just when he was really beginning to get the hang of it, and has, in the past, compared his singing voice to that of Nick Nolte. To hear Zevon tell it, he's barely qualified to appear on the Gong Show, much less Late Night with David Letterman (where he's a frequent musical guest despite himself).
Of course he doesn't really believe it, but his version of a plug sure beats the hell out of the smug, self-serving crap that usually streams from the mouths of rock and rollers unworthy to lick Zevon's bootstraps. The man is a veritable fountain of pithy commentary and acerbic wit, even if his utterances won't sell tickets. For example, Zevon is told that the character of South Beach has changed radically since his last excursion down the peninsula, that it's trendier and has taken on a distinctly European flavor.
"You mean like Pompeii?" he deadpans.
Every time Warren Zevon released an album -- from 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School through last year's Mr. Bad Example -- critics hailed it as the one that would restore his popularity to the level of his late-Seventies peak. His best work since Excitable Boy, they always said. Unfortunately, the record-buying public rendered a different verdict. "It's fairly conventional for artists to be remembered for one thing from when they were young, whether it's The Naked and the Dead or whatever, that nothing else is ever quite as good as," Zevon explains. "Maybe if you're lucky, then you write something good when you're old, and maybe they'll think of you for that, too. When you're dead, I suppose."
Zevon is philosophical about the fact that the oft-predicted commercial comeback has not been forthcoming. "Do I wish that sales were a little healthier? Yeah, that's obvious," he says. "But for anyone who's made a living, as I have, for twenty years playing exactly what he wants to, going to Perth and playing guitar for two hours, and never having to play `Tie a Yellow Ribbon,' that individual should be really fucking grateful. It's probably the most agreeable way of making a living I know."
Agreeable, he says, even with the biz's well-known drawbacks, such as his multi-year absence from the studio during the early Eighties. One excuse for any such hiatus might include partial blame being placed on disappointing record sales. "Not partially," Zevon spits bluntly. "Entirely. I was cut from the swimming team."
The release of a long-awaited best-of album on Asylum, 1986's A Quiet Normal Life, rekindled interest in the master storyteller's career. In those days Zevon toured hard, playing songs ("Boom Boom Mancini," for example) for South Florida and other audiences that everyone knew should be waxed. Virgin Records attempted to capitalize with 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, featuring support work by members of R.E.M. Once again reviews were pos, sales so-so. In 1989 Zevon confounded fans and critics alike with a synth-heavy, overdubbed sci-fi concept album, Transverse City, which bombed commercially despite including overlooked gems such as "Nobody's in Love This Year."
Shifting gears again the next year, Mr. Z found himself in a disposable blues band called the Hindu Love Gods -- him plus Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck. Ironically, the Love Gods' rowdy cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret" provided Zevon with a big college-radio hit, even though the same album's treatment of Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man" was by far the better cut.