History has been unfair to Warren Zevon. David Fricke’s liner notes to the Excitable Boy re-issue speak of a mid-’70s show where Jackson Browne alerted the crowd to an up and coming, then unknown, Warren Zevon. Unfortunate is how resonant this still is. Aside from the well-deserved ubiquity of “Werewolves of London”, Zevon has once again faded from the public consciousness. His necessarily melodramatic public death has even become a faint echo. And it’s a damn tragedy, considering the genius of so much of Zevon’s music. Yet it is also inevitable. It is the way of an artist of Zevon’s caliber and countenance. Despite righteous exasperation with how long it took anyone to acknowledge even a piece of the brilliant Zevon catalogue, we Zevon faithful must accept what we can get and know that time will ultimately vindicate, nay exalt our FM hero.
The Rhino re-issues pick up with Warren in full tilt. Excitable Boy is a masterpiece of studio-savvy singer-songwriter-dom. The opener warms up singer and audience in meta-rock anticipation. What better way to introduce a perfectly conceived album than striking up the band, and “Johnny Strikes up the Band” explains, in no uncertain terms, the importance of a good pop record, only to give way to one of the finest examples of such. No doubt growing up with the at first unconscious influence of this music primes me for a comfortable identification, but who can help but identify with these tunes? Who has not found “jubilation” in good rock ‘n’ roll?
After the gloomy violence and obscure politics of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, Warren slips easily into the titular role. “Excitable Boy” is the embodiment of one component attitude of Zevon’s — a devil-may-care vulgarity done up in smart, hooky pop. With bright, piano-driven melody, corn-ball, doo-wop sax, and delicious back up vocals, rape and murder never sounded so delightfully carefree. The subtle growl in Zevon’s voice belies the role-play aspect. Warren is the boy and also takes him to task, making fun of his exploits and punishment. Followed by “Werewolves of London”, the record is steeped in gleeful dementia. On the radio and out of context, this is catchy novelty. But give the boy his due, and it is another clever send-up. The sophisticated violence is a brilliant jibe, especially considering its success in the top 40; a foppish, posturing brutality for the kids. Long before the heavy hand of Eminem, Warren Zevon could adroitly mock your desires by giving you exactly what you wanted.
But this is only a facet of this perfect album, as “Accidentally Like a Martyr” immediately proves. The twisted and sardonic can turn on a dime towards the bracingly heartfelt. Few have the chops to deliver such a 180-degree switch without seeming at least somewhat disingenuous. Warren Zevon can do both so well that, especially on this record, rather than coming off as uneven, he appears a complex, fully realized artist. It is nowhere short of amazing that such mannered, composed pop can sound so deeply personal. Without drawing too much attention to itself, Excitable Boy pinpoints the essence of good pop. It is keyed to universal appeal with stray flourishes of bizarre internality. So much of this dichotomy rests in Zevon’s curious phrasing. While never excessively wordy, he can drop stand-out lines within songs that sound like you’ve heard them a hundred times. The howling chorus of “Werewolves” is enough to lure anyone, but where does the admiration for fine clothes and hair fit in the otherwise gory imagery? The somber piano and slide-guitar on “Accidentally Like a Martyr” allow the convoluted title to sound radio-friendly.
The rest of the album almost holds up equally track for track. ‘Almost’, because of the dated, disco-funk of “Nighttime in the Switching Yard”, which might be a hip workout by any other standard, but here sounds like a smarmy throw-away, very much out of place. “Veracruz” is a heart rending lament that indicts U.S. imperialism without getting preachy. The sensitive recorder lines and Zevon’s delicate delivery wholly excuse the borderline melodrama of the Spanish vocals. “Tenderness on the Block” finds a middle ground in Zevon’s moderate shuffle and his weary optimism, a dichotomy embodied here in a girl both “wide-eyed” and “street wise”. And he closes out with his most cynical, shouting, wild side. “Lawyers, Guns and Money” channels weary nihilism, but with tongue planted in cheek and the amps all the way up. Zevon is the full-on snide loser, but also foot-stomping sympathetic rather than merely pathetic.
The extra songs here are clearly not as polished as the final product, but provide interesting insight to this period of Zevon’s career. “I Need a Truck” is a mournful snippet of blues that sounds pastoral against the rest of the album. “Tule’s Blues” has a similar rough charm. These make one wonder how much material was recorded around Zevon’s excellent first two albums. A complete collection of outtakes would be a real boon to fans. If this is all that exists, it is a pleasant glimpse of a prolific perfectionist’s also-rans. The alternate “Werewolves” is interesting only for how subdued it sounds by comparison. The band plays around with it a little more, but lacks the popping intensity of the album cut.
Alongside Excitable Boy, most things will pale, and such is the unfortunate case for The Envoy, the other studio album Rhino has picked up. This re-release is perhaps more appropriate, as this is the first time it has been put to CD, but it is very much for the fans, where Excitable Boy should appeal to most anyone. The warm-as-toast, analogue perfection of 1978’s sound is immediately dismissed a mere four years hence. Title track “The Envoy” and the album that follows are marred by clumsy synthesizer augmentation. The dated difference is immediate and stark. The clever humanism of the restless boy has given way to a distant maturity. Even if the international spectrum described on the titular track remains almost spot-on, the vision of a level-headed peace-keeper is now so much more depressing in a world of “slam-dunk” fake intelligence.
“The Envoy” sounds like a forced response to the bitter anti-politics of “Lawyers, Guns and Money”. While Zevon may still be playing a part in his bombastic optimism, it’s just nowhere near as fun. Where Excitable Boy starts off huge and follows through, The Envoy falters out of the gate. Similarly, “The Hula Hula Boys” and “Ain’t That Pretty at All” sound like diminished echoes of old Zevon. “The Hula Hula Boys” is a pathetic complaint about a cheating woman. The song is silly and fine on its own, but it cops the tender Zevon balladry to such a degree that it renders his authenticity elsewhere suspect. “Ain’t That Pretty at All” sees Warren laying the bad-ass nihilism on thick, but what once sounded sharp is now kind of tired, especially considering the most notable change here is a pretty atrocious arrangement, leaning heavy on an insipid synthesizer.
While The Envoy is certainly uneven, it is not without merit. For fans, especially, this is highly worthwhile Zevon, somewhere between the energy of Excitable Boy and the weirdness of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. Despite his self-consciousness in “The Hula Hula Boys”, Zevon delivers some memorable relaxed material. “Let Nothing Come Between You” is un-ironic romance with a lilting, nonsense chorus. It’s just this side of self-mockery, but Zevon never misses a step. When he acknowledges “frustrated people” that “want to bring us down”, it might be a nod to his own cynicism, or what people expect from him. In any case, he dismisses them in the next line. And “Jesus Mentioned” is some of the finest bizarre beauty in the Zevon catalogue.
“Looking for the Next Best Thing” pulls at the heart strings with shades of power-balladry. Maybe this works via Warren because his sentiments are anything but powerful. It is a soaring tribute to “settling for less”. It is a beautiful bummer. It evokes genuine empathy for Zevon’s difficult maturity on this record. And this is the real reward of The Envoy: It is an awkward mesh of rollicking attempts at a holding pattern and fascinating, sentimental moments. Zevon the performer is at an impasse with Zevon the artist. While he managed to play these ideas against each other gracefully on Excitable Boy, the former is growing tired as the latter becomes more contemplative. The result is tangled, but both Zevons have their moments.
The Envoy‘s bonus tracks prove that this was an all-around marginal period for Warren Zevon. There is the instrumental “Word of Mouth”, which sounds like a suite for a corny cop drama never realized. The alternate “Let Nothing Come Between You” is barely distinguishable and unnecessary. “The Risk” could be an able rocker, akin to the album’s “The Overdraft”, but suffers from mealy-mouthed synthesizer. “Wild Thing” is probably unnecessary as well, but there is a certain charm in Zevon’s earnest belting and manic piano.
Which brings us to the most welcome and most exciting segment of the Rhino re-issues: Stand in the Fire. This live Zevon had, like The Envoy, until now never seen CD release, and it really was a shame. Zevon and backing band Boulder tear through excellent material, culled mostly from Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy. In this reissue, and in general, this is a high point of energy and inspiration.
The set, as we experience it, kicks off with the new song “Stand in the Fire”, which manages to provide an aural approximation of its title. Zevon rumbles through verses to get to the mantra call and response with his back-ups. What begins as a rocking invitation takes on sinister importance as the song ends. This (this song, this concert, this way of life) is all something you can be careless and fun about, or you can be dead serious about it. Warren Zevon is both, at all times.
It is tempting to describe this record track by track, but that’s bound to get repetitive. Every song here sounds more passionate and energetic than its studio counterpart. The backup band acutely accentuates a hard rocking tone in Zevon’s material. This is often smoothed over and subtle in the studio, where the focus is more on the melody or Zevon’s prodigious vocals. These are never diminished in the live setting, but the dual-guitar attack of Boulder pushes some tracks into a crackling burn. “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is a beautiful example of the barest restraint just keeping the song from shredding at its seams. “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London” are revamped, and Zevon resorts to screaming hysterics to match the new intensity. But it is “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” bleeding into “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” that is the rocking high point. As the first song ends with ecstatic variations on the main riff, Zevon’s demand that the audience dance or he’ll kill them is altogether redundant, even in the privacy of home stereo. The band then slows into the deliberate stomp of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. Zevon and the band trade such tangible enthusiasm between verses, blistering solos and garbled shouts of encouragement, that the studio version actually sounds tame.
Of course, this approach could wear thin if not for the underlying attention to detail. Despite turning up the volume and adding guitar solos, Boulder do not obscure the nuances of Zevon’s material. Despite bellowing like a maniac, Zevon does not exhaust his capacity to sing endearingly. “Mohammed’s Radio” gets a stirring rendition that is equal parts stomp and sensitivity.
The re-issue closes with a genuinely beautiful moment. Warren talks to the crowd about his songwriting history and his already troubled personal history. He is short of breath and struggling ever so slightly with this speech. His emotion is evident. He reassures us all that “it’s good to be alive” and begins “Hasten Down the Wind”. The song itself is full of resignation and heartbreak, but it sounds uplifting here. It is a moment of backward-gazing clarity. And now, in the present, it is an even more bittersweet moment. It’s a fitting addition to this set, encapsulating and explaining the exuberance Zevon displays all over the record. Stand in the Fire is the rare live record made at the perfect time. It does not merely cash in on the success of Zevon’s two 1970s albums, it also expounds upon them and elevates both them and the artist. Zevon signs off with words to remember him by, “Keep on rocking, take my love, and via con dios!” Amen, brother.