Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Warren Piece: Appreciating Mr. Zevon at (What Should Be) 70 -- (repost)

Photo by Andrew L. Seymour, © 1982. From Flickr. All rights reserved.
(Originally posted on 1/29/12, commemorating what would have been Warren Zevon's 65th birthday a few days earlier. Zevon died on 9/7/03 at the age of 56.)

The 1970s were a hallowed time for American (and occasionally Canadian) male singer-songwriters, or just solo rockers, if the distinction is discernible and important.

Among those who rose to fame, and/or continued to make stellar music in the seventies, were Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Leonard Cohen.

Though I was a bit young to attend concerts, at least of my own volition, back then, I feel fortunate that I've seen most of these men live on-stage at some point since, many multiple times.

But an artist who belongs in the same sentence as those luminaries--and like them, in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame--that I never saw live, and ruefully never will, is Warren Zevon.

It's not that I never appreciated Zevon prior to his passing, from peritoneal mesothelioma in September 2003; infectious songs like "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy," among others, have long been favorites and I've owned and enjoyed a greatest hits set since the 1980s.

Illustration by R.J. Matson
But for whatever reason, interest and opportunity never conspired to bring me to the Park West--his typical Chicago venue--or anywhere else he performed. Though I don't recall passing on any specific chances to see Warren Zevon, he stands, like the Ramones and Joe Strummer (of the Clash), as one of those artists I now wish I had made the effort to see, even if it may have been a bit beyond the height of their fame.

For as someone who tends to check Wikipedia to see who was born, or died, on a certain date, on January 24 I noted that Warren Zevon--had things been different--would be celebrating his 65th birthday. [NOTE: Now 70th]. Since then I've been listening to a lot of his music, including some of his later albums I just borrowed from the library, and watching myriad clips on YouTube, that portal of videographic immortality.

So I've been both reminded and newly introduced to just how good--and distinct--he was. Even in the late seventies period when, beyond his American peers, Brits like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker were creating driving, incisive rock tunes, there was something about Zevon that stands as completely unique.

I can't think of any rock star who has ever made the piano sound so exciting--not even Billy Joel or Elton John--and his lyrics were, as David Letterman--on whose show Zevon often guested--offers in a clip included below, "...so vivid, just very evocative, and each song you listen to was like watching a motion picture."

And as portrayed through the clips I've chosen to include below--and well beyond--the range of Zevon's subjects and styles was rather amazing, from songs of quiet, introspective beauty to those of bitingly macabre humor. It's not surprising that Zevon was great friends and collaborators with many of his contemporaries--including Springsteen, Browne, Young, Dylan, the Eagles and later, R.E.M.--or that among those who recognize how honest and profound his music could be, he's still widely revered. Just take a look at the comments on most of his YouTube clips; in a forum that's often exceedingly snarky, you'll commonly see posts saying things like "Nobody could do that! He was a genius." and "RIP Warren. It will be a long time before we see another like you."

So whether you're a longtime Zevonophile--and many are much more fervid than I--or largely uninitiated to the man who was born on January 24, 1947 in Chicago (and, after moving to California, studied piano as a child with Igor Stravinsky), here are some great examples from "Mr. Bad Example"--a song of his not included here.

(Note: The last video below is a compilation of all 12 that you can play through if you'd just like to listen.)

"Excitable Boy" - Like "Werewolves of London," a gleeful rock tune about an disturbing subject. The clip, from a concert in 1982, also shows how great a live performer Zevon was.

"Hasten Down The Wind" - About a romantic breakup, this is, for my money, one of the most beautiful rock songs ever written.

"Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" - In September 2002, Zevon revealed his terminal diagnosis. The next month, he paid his last visit to Letterman's show, where in addition to guest slots he had also filled for Paul Shaffer over the years. He played 3 or 4 songs, with this one--a request from Dave--being the last one he would ever perform in public.

"Disorder in the House" - After his diagnosis, Zevon wrote and recorded a final album, The Wind, on which many of his famous friends made guest appearances, such as Bruce Springsteen did on this song.

"Poor Poor Pitiful Me" - Like most great songwriters, Zevon often proved that songs originally recorded with a full band held up wonderfully when stripped down to just him and a guitar or piano. This clip is one such example, and his 1993 live acoustic album, Learning to Flinch, is even more revelatory.

"Raspberry Beret" - R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry backed Zevon on his 1987 album, Sentimental Hygiene, and the foursome dubbed themselves Hindu Love Gods for a 1990 album of blues covers and this Prince tune. (Note: Originally was a clip of Zevon doing the song on Letterman, but it's no longer on YouTube.)
"Accidentally Like A Martyr" - Another of Zevon's great ballads.

"A Certain Girl" - Further proof of his live prowess.

"Porcelain Monkey" - Off 2000's Life'll Kill Ya, this song's about Elvis Presley.

"Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" - I prefer the studio version, but have always enjoyed this song. Particularly when visiting Denver.

Letterman Tribute and "Mutineer" - On the day of Zevon's death, Letterman and Shaffer pay tribute to him. There's a clip from his final visit, on which Zevon famously shares that the key to life is to "enjoy every sandwich." Also within the video is a clip of "Mutineer" from the last appearance.

"Werewolves of London" - One of the great songs of the '70s, it never gets old. Done here live in New Jersey, hence Zevon sings "Werewolves of Jersey" at one point.

A compilation of all the above videos that will run straight through.

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