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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.
For much of 1991 and the first part of this year, Zevon toured with a band in support of his first solo release on Giant/Reprise, Mr. Bad Example. That album reunited the excitable one with his favorite guitarist, Waddy Wachtel, who played a large part in Zevon's late-Seventies popularity. Never one to sit still for long, Zevon leaped back into the fray with his solo tour as soon as the Bad Example jaunt concluded.
He says he looks forward to playing South Florida again, if only for the opportunity it affords him to hook up with some old cronies. "When I come down," Zevon explains, "I usually see my friend Carl Hiaasen, and we talk about how much we'd like to go fishing, and then I get back on the bus and leave. This time I'm looking forward to telling him about my largely unsuccessful but nevertheless picaresque Tasmanian trout-fishing trip." It will have to be a short story. The fishing expedition lasted less than two hours.
Many of Zevon's friends -- like noted authors Hiaasen and Tom McGuane -- are passionate anglers. It would appear fishing rods have attained favored toy status among the Hemingwayesque set. "It's a little like the last frontier," Zevon says. "Better than golf, I guess."
Considering the lycanthropist's many references to great literature and famous scribes, along with the ironic bent and colorful storytelling of his lyrics, it's not outrageous to suggest he might be thinking about following another singing fisherman, Jimmy Buffett, into the murky depths of prose writing. "No. Not at all," he says. "They want me to write liner notes for the live album, but I don't want to do it. If I spend two years, conceivably, working on a song, why turn around and write a paragraph, trying to be cute, describing the song, inventing some kind of story of where and how I wrote it besides sitting right here on the `sofa of suffering' with a pencil? Even after all these years, I enjoy writing new songs, and I'm never able to do it without some literary point of departure. When I sit down at the typewriter, if there was any reason for me to be writing at all, maybe by the third sentence I'd go, `Wait a minute! I can play this in G.' And I'd go get the guitar. If I were to try to write anything other than songs, I'd feel like I was waiting till I got to the hook, so I could start playing an instrument and singing."
It's difficult to imagine that until recently Zevon, one of the rock era's most gifted lyricists, never understood how big a part the words played. "I actually never really thought so," he claims. "I would have always said that I'm essentially a musician and a composer and I just kind of write these little poems so I'll be able to keep playing the guitar."
The man who wrote absurdist masterpieces like "Werewolves of London" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" often frets that his lyrics sound awkward, especially when a song is new. "It sounds dumb for a long time," he says, "and then it gradually becomes as if someone else had written it. Maybe ten years later you look back at it and it has that `written in stone' quality that any song you like has, and you realize it could never have been written any other way. And sometimes the dumbest line becomes the best line by the end of the process."
That helps explain why Zevon prefers his fledgling second career, scoring motion-picture soundtracks, to standard songwriting. "It harks back to my early classical [music] aspirations," he says. "Underscoring is a criminal amount of fun, like having the lyrics already written, and lyrics are so much the hardest part of my life.... But [writing soundtracks] is very competitive. There are a lot of cats we never heard of who went to Juilliard and write wonderful underscoring. There are a million of those cats. Now, if they need thecat who sings, `Aahhooo,' then they have to hire me."
Nobody will ever mistake Zevon for the easily bruised poseur. He not only doesn't take offense to less-than-worshipful treatments of his songs, he welcomes them. "I always liked other people interpreting my songs. I never understood the songwriters who were so finicky. I always thought it was delightful to have covers, and I guess I like just fucking around with the songs myself. I think of myself -- Jesus, I don't know how to put this -- as sort of a pure artist in the sense that I'm trying to entertain. The more spontaneous my work is, the less encumbered it is by my ideas about what it should say, the more likely it is to be honest, if there is such a thing."
That's another thing that's refreshing about Zevon -- his total lack of concern for political correctness. Try to picture Jackson Browne, a longtime friend and supporter who is the epitome of earnestness among singer-songwriters, warbling away about mercenaries, con men, and gamblers. "Martin Amis, who I don't agree with philosophically but who is a brilliant writer, said that any writers who set out to be politically correct are immediately fucked," Zevon notes. "Whatever it is I do, perhaps it's of less positive value to our culture than my colleagues who write songs about what we should be doing in and with the world we live in. Still, that's what I do."
True to form, Zevon is selling himself short. While he may not have written a "Masters of War" or a "Joe Hill," a song such as "Gorilla, You're a Desperado," with its send-ups of EST, Transactional Analysis, and the whole late-Seventies, early-Eighties cultural malaise, is every bit as valid a work of social criticism. "Invariably there may be a message you can derive from it," he admits. "`Try to think straight' or `lie to yourself as little as possible.' But after all, it's only songwriting."
WARREN ZEVON performs at 9:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $25.