Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Let Nothing Come Between You

... except, of course, the inexplicable release schedules of record companies.

I'm jazzed right now. I've just discovered that two (count 'em, TWO!) of my favourite albums of all time are finally making it to CD. Even if I weren't 3000 miles away from the remnants of my beloved old vinyl albums, I would still have snapped these up on disc years ago if they'd been available. I played the originals to death, and every scratch and scar, hiss and pop, was the mark of my love (and a cheap stereo).

What albums am I ranting about?

Only two of the greatest, most satisfying albums to ever be put out by one of my favourite song writers: MR. WARREN FRIGGING ZEVON!

For years there's been a gaping hole in his catalogue, and it's finally being plugged with the domestic release later this month of THE ENVOY and... lemme take a breath... STAND IN THE FIRE.

It's been particularly galling that these two have been MIA while the close-but-no-cigar TRANSVERSE CITY (his hit-and-miss cyber-noir experiment) and his sketchy, thin Kim Fowley-produced "debut" have been readily available for years.

For those of you who don't know, the late Zevon was the two-fisted, classically trained piano fighter best known for the freak 1978 novelty single WEREWOLVES OF LONDON. But Zevon was always much more than that. His songs were as American as a handgun, tough but tender howls from the wilderness, whether he was singing about headless Thompson machine gunners come back from the grave seeking revenge, ill-fated Southern rock bands, Frank and Jesse James or his own slow death from cancer a few years ago. His songs were laced with grim humour, a sardonic fatalism and a bruised romanticism that fans of hard-boiled and noir literature would recognize immediately. And his love songs could be so unabashedly honest and candid that they could take away your breath -- or break your heart.

THE ENVOY came out in 1982, long after the next big thing expectations unleashed by WEREWOLVES' success had crashed and burned, and Zevon along with it. Yet it has some of his greatest collections, including the ballsy title track that alternately mocks and glorifies diplomats who jet around the world trying to do good but often making it worse. With its call-outs to Mid East frictions and backroom deal-cutting, it hasn't aged an iota. Meanwhile, the twelve-step, twelve-string "Charlie's Medicine," about a pill-pushing doctor who ultimately samples too much of his own product, is the perfect look at middle-class, middle-age addictions -- a subject Zevon saw first hand a few times. "The Hula Hula Boys" is a cuckold's goofy little ditty about a vacation turned bad, and "Jesus Mentioned" is perhaps the finest (and saddest) song about the death (and music) of Elvis I've heard. And then, of course, there's the turn-it-up grind of "Ain't That Pretty At All." It ain't pretty, maybe, but it gets the job done.

But if it's grind you're seeking, STAND IN THE FIRE (1981) is the one you want. A single vinyl album when it was released it put the boots to all the fat, bloated double live albums that flooded the record racks in the seventies and eighties. FIRE is tight and taut and relentless, a career summary that rocks like a mother, containing definitive versions of the Springsteen-Zevon "Jeannie Needs a Shooter" (betrayal and possible betrayal) and "Mohammed's Radio" (Zevon sang about rocking the casbah in this ballad before anyone had every heard of The Clash). Even better, he puts the fire-and-brimstone crack-and-sizzle danger into "Werewolves," "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" that was missing in the studio versions. And the encore of "Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger" is jaw-dropping, turning a typical Diddley boast into a mission statement of darkness and menace and, amazing, sheer joy. Zevon was supposedly clean and sober when this was released, and the sheer exhilaration of him and his band, loaded for bear, comes through loud and clear. They didn't just stand in the fire, they rocked out in it.

Draw blood!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dare I say that I prefer Zevon's version to the original "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger"? Heretical maybe, but his version rocks hard. I love to crank that and feel that Bo Diddley beat in my bones in a way that is different from when Diddley himself played it.

Great stuff indeed!

10:48 PM, March 06, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you aware of Zevon's association with Ross MacDonald? You might want to read http://warrenzevon.com/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl?num=1104824786

Also, while you're there, if you to the site's main page, you can get more news about other upcoming releases (including a bio in the form of interviews with 87 of his friends, associates and family), as well as click to sign a petition (you sign with your mouse) to try to get Warren into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

5:51 AM, March 07, 2007  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...


It's old news, a story I've told -- and occasionally written about -- for years, actually. Even before Tom Nolan dragged it out again in his awe-inspiring biography of Macdonald. I'd followed the story years earlier in the pages of ROLLING STONE.

The album Zevon dedicated to Macdonald is BAD LUCK STREAK AT DANCING SCHOOL and, perhaps not surprisingly, it's my favourite of Zevon's albums. Besides the Macdonald connection/dedication, there's a song about Bill "Spaceman" Lee, the Montreal Expos' pitcher, the original studio version of "Jeannie Needs a Shooter," "The Wild Age," and arguably the best thing since "Long Long Time" that Linda Ronstadt was ever involved in, "Diamonds in the Sand."

You can read my account of the Macdonald/Zevon shuffle at http://www.januarymagazine.com/features/macsmith.html -- part of January Mag's Macdonald tribute.

By the way, the much-touted Holy Trinity of American Private Eye writers was, at best, only fifty percent American. Chandler was a British citizen when he wrote the Chandler novels and Macdonald was 1/2 Canadian. Only Hammett was actually American.

1:30 PM, March 07, 2007  

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