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Warren Piece

A call to his new label, Artimus records in New York, informed me that Warren Zevon "is on the road but he's on the list to call you. It just depends on what kind of mood he's in."

I knew the call wouldn't come. I can respect a songwriter who shuns interviews because he doesn't feel like it. That tells you he's in the game for all the right reasons.

And Zevon's rep is grounded in such non-American Bandstand gems as "Carmelita" and "Excitable Boy" and a Tough Guys Don't Dance posture maintained by booze and Smith & Wesson. Zevon steered clear of bong-rocker tags bestowed upon other L.A. canyon bohos Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, among others.

And that, of course, was in the 1970s. So not counting sporadic fill-ins for Paul Shaffer on Letterman, it seems ages since Zevon was a component of pop mainstream.

Some may recall the 160-second hook-heavy bliss of "Excitable Boy," which had to be the first song ever to make it to radio whose premise involved a boy who rapes and murders a girl. And despite the deceptive title, that song demonstrated that Zevon didn't write rock 'n' roll songs out of the rage and frustration of adolescence -- the old I'll-never-get-over-high-school-long-live-rock-'n'-roll junk -- but from an impetus of chaos that spurs great fiction writers.

The appeal of his songs centers on the welding of narrative with melody; and the narrative itself centers on violence -- physical, emotional and sexual; love, or its approximation; and incident. He has the ability to make images both believable and creepy. The songs always offer a glimmer of something else.

The glimmer belies an insistence that says songwriting is inherently bound by rules and restraint. It says it's more about the need to write songs unreservedly, using trusty black- humor devices to conceal self-loathing, or, as demonstrated in the lovely "Hasten Down the Wind," writing in third-person to mask personal disclosure.

Zevon's flaws surface when he's slumped in self-pity or the repetitiveness of an uninspired writer. And his songsmithing has continued to be dominated by the same sense of things well into middle age -- topical rants, trivial sexploits, detoxing with Liza and noirish L.A. deconstructions. Influenced by virile fiction writers like Updike and Mailer, Zevon in the past oftentimes lampooned himself in the role of the stern-faced philosophic, one who sees autobiographical takes perhaps too revealing and emasculating. Using fiction to absolve oneself of personal responsibility is a trick as old as bad breath. But even during his most unlistenable moments -- 1989's Transverse City and 1990's R.E.M.-debacle Hindu Love Gods -- a turn of phrase charged on loss reminds you that everyone has midnights they regret.

The self-educated son of a pro gambler, and a classical composition prodigy befriended during high school by Igor Stravinsky, 53-year-old Zevon has been pedestalized by songwriters everywhere since his debut album, Wanted Dead or Alive, saw light of day three decades ago. Chart-powered hippies, croaky cowpokes and honest-to-God rock messiahs have, at one time or another, recorded Zevon's work. The short list hosts Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Dwight Yokam, Dylan, Springsteen and an Eagle or two.

Zevon's just-released record, Life'll Kill Ya, is threaded with his patented cynicism and irked wit. Spare arrangements (guitar, bass, drums, pennywhistle, etc.) allow his lumbering baritone leeway to bully the melodies that are as classic as the Brill building. Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were brought in to produce based on the work they did with Radiohead, a Zevon fave.

Here he sounds like Zevon of old: an overeducated crusty riddled by dissolution that's taken to verbal sparring in a local bar, where all his bravado and insight find home in unbroken haste of dialogue that grows increasingly more vicious as the drinks ensue. At closing time, the old guy is still sitting there and gazing at his likeness in the mirror behind the bar. Just as he did all day long, alone on a bar stool, only now his shrewdness has turned to melancholia.

On the album's title track, Zevon, like the shrewd barfly, urges "You've got an invalid haircut/It hurts when you smile/Better get out of town/Before your nickname expires."

"Hostage-O," a song he describes as an "Elizabethan ode to S&M," is odd and unsentimental and an eyebrow-raiser even from Zevon's throat: "You can treat me like a dog/If you make me feel what others feel?" Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again" gets a drowsy treatment that seems less ironic than perhaps we might expect. On "Dirty Little Religion," he sows the seeds of personal history: "I like to think I've earned my reputation/For trying to take the bull by the horns/I make a dirty little religion out of luvin'/It's a dirty little religion, hallelujah."

Self-destruction and social displacement are constant rudiments in Zevon's song blueprint, part of its sordid, rock-myth allure, certainly, but identifying his place between pessimism and transcendence. On Life'll Kill Ya, death and aging are recurrent themes. "Old age is an equally appropriate if not more appropriate subject for rock and roll than misunderstood youth," he says on "Now the hearse is at the curb and I'm laughing to keep from crying. I'm so fucking old. It's something I say to audiences."

Zevon need not crack jokes to satisfy anybody, except for the short-sighted handfuls who say he's little more than a dull pop anachronism who represents a backdated view of songcraft, and a protagonist lacking in essential tools to safeguard his rock 'n' roll stardom.

Shit, Zevon was always ancient as dirt, even at 25, when he was exhaling heart-barking lines about the junksick and the lovesick: "I hear Mariachi static on my radio/And the tubes they glow in dark/And I'm there with her in Esenada/And I'm here in Echo Park."

Few of the 13 Warren Zevon albums have made more than polite chart appearances. His biggest mover, 1978's Excitable Boy -- which yielded the hit "Werewolves of London" -- was only certified platinum in recent years. Zevon's record sales casually waned with each release, while quality fluctuated.

From his bio: "Before this album I had been in semi-retirement mode. I'd play a benefit here and there or do the Letterman show if they called, but I had basically been taking my retirement and learning to play flute. I think one of the keys to my personal happiness and my personal chaos is that I never get anything down to a science. Every time I get on stage I still kind of think, 'what am I doing here?' despite being a really old-time whore in the best Bob Fosse dancer sense of the word. To me, everything seems like that goldfish in the song by Ani DiFranco, who just keeps going around in its bowl but every time it passes the little plastic castle it's like it's brand new."

Zevon is a songwriter aging with his personal gripe attached, but doesn't err by heaving it onto the idiom of his time and calling it cultural identity.

At the risk of sounding banal, Zevon is a survivor who has thrived by observing. And as an observer, he's just made another record with its own testimonial listed right there in its title: Life'll Kill Ya.

And survival, as Zevon has proven often enough, is but one option. Hell, survivalist Hunter S. Thompson has even quoted him. Now what can that say about the man?

Warren Zevon is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 1, at Alice Cooper'stown. Showtime is 8 p.m.

Contact Brian Smith at his online address: [email protected]

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith