I woke up this morning in a terrible state, basically I had to take a very physical lesson in not eating lime-flavored shrimp ramen, no matter how broke you are. I now find myself with an entire day to sit around in pain, and it reminded me that we haven’t checked in on one of my favorite artists in a while:
Now, last we left Warren Zevon, he had just gone from total obscurity playing piano in an Irish pub in Spain to releasing two amazing albums and was well on his way towards the top… or at least a very comfortable place closer to the middle. Either way, as it always is, the pressure was on to follow up Excitable Boy with something equally… well… exciting. At least, I imagine the pressure was there, apparently Warren himself never felt it. In an interview from about 8 years ago, he revealed that he never really considered himself a rock star who would rise and fall according to the whims of the public, but instead a successful folk singer who somehow stumbled into fame once or twice.
That’s really a good attitude to have about it, but Zevon’s approach to folk music was certainly rock-inspired, at least in Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. Nearly every song is a rocker, and some of them seemed destined to be great live hits, since they hardly deviated from the established chord progressions and melodies, and this album would perhaps be the only example of Zevon subscribing to the “more choruses, the merrier” attitude of recording that has remained so popular in country music. However, none of these things are particularly bad, in fact this album is quite a strong release, but the lack of “Werewolves Of London” type hits signaled a decline in record sales that the next album would solidify.
The album starts, interestingly enough, with a bouncy set of strings playing a piece of music that gives way to the rock guitars. The song “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School” is very sparse lyrically, but seems more concerned with throwing out dual lead guitar solos and a really kickin’ march-inspired beat. The oft-repeated line “Down on my knees in pain” is certainly something I can relate to.
The one “single” that charted from this album is “A Certain Girl”, which is a very catchy R&B song, actually first recorded by Ernie K-Doe (written by Allen Toussaint), and is thus a cover. It was rare for Zevon to cover songs, but whenever he did it was usually way better than the original (as I understand, he covered Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” which is yet another instance of artists I love crossing paths). The hook is this song is really excellent:
Zevon: There is a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time
Backup singers: What’s her name?
Zevon: I can’t tell ya.
Backup singers: Ahhhh…
That “What’s her name” bit is repeated through many lines, with the backup singers conversing with the singer on many points. I always love this move. Something similar happens on The Rutles album too.
The next song is a bit of a rhythmic jam called “Jungle Work” which is another song about mercenaries, only without the ballad-type storytelling of “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”. It’s still groovy, though, and is a type of song he came back to a few times in the earlier albums.
Then, as is customary in these types of albums, the mood is slowed down with a piano piece called “Empty-Handed Heart”, which is a song of heart-break, a subject Warren seems to have no trouble writing about, no matter how complex the subject. This time, it was divorce from his wife, but not a messy, hate-filled one, in fact they remained friends and he charged her with the task of writing his biography when he died. The lyrics to this song are somehow better than the ones in the previous albums’ ballads, which is something that Science once called impossible, but Warren did anyway.
An interlude brings us from that song to the next, which is quite fancy, but the next song is “Play It All Night Long”, a live favorite poking viciously at Southern life and, in particular, “Sweet Home Alabama”, which opens up the chorus:
Sweet Home Alabama
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long
As Wikipedia concedes, it’s probably the only song to make full use of the word “Brucellosis”. The song is quite catchy and actually one of my favorites from his Stand In The Fire live show.
Another song that’s great live is “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”, which is the first Zevon song to feature Bruce Springsteen, as I understand. However, I’m not sure what he did in the song, other than helping to write it, because there are no background vocals, and that doesn’t seem to be him playing guitar. Oh well, it’s a song about being a “shooter” (perhaps an outlaw) and wooing a girl named “Jeannie” much against her lawman father’s wishes, but finally he gets his way… or does he? This song is so much better played raucously live.
Another interlude brings us to the song “Bill Lee”. I have no idea what this song’s about, though I love the opening lyrics:
You’re supposed to sit on your ass and nod at stupid things
Man, that’s hard to do
And if you don’t, they’ll screw you
And if you do, they’ll screw you too
Another fun part is where he says “Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t, like…” and instead of saying anything, he plays a harmonica line. It’s kind of like how trumpets would be used to signify adults speaking in all those Peanuts cartoons.
A strange song indeed, given the minory tone of the rest of the album, is “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado”, which has this wood-block driven tropical beat, accordion sounds, all kinds of synths, and an interesting story about a gorilla stealing your identity. Don’t get me wrong, the song is entertaining and very clever, just a REALLY sharp left turn compared to the rest of the album. Still, this is also a sound that Zevon would re-visit, and he always writes his “funny” songs with this kind of cheesy electronic music. I have no other explanation than that this is 1980 we’re talking about here.
Then we’re right back to the fancy piano playing for “Bed Of Coals”, as if the previous song didn’t even happen. The lyrics were co-written with T-Bone Burnett, a famous guy, and seem to be about alcoholism, maybe not to the profound effect of “Desperado Under The Eaves” but certainly to some kind of effect. My particular favorite line is:
I’m too old to die young
And too young to die now
It’s a good song, overall, and has a slide guitar solo that sounds suspiciously like it is being played by one of The Eagles. I bet it’s Joe Walsh. He played slide on one of my favorite Zevon tunes that I will talk about in many, many months.
A strange piano and bass melody opens up “Wild Age”, in fact the interplay between bass and piano is interesting all throughout. I guess that’s what happens when you’re playing with a legend like Leland Sklar. The song is basically about living “the wild age”, and is about irresponsible youth, and would probably be only 1 minute instead of 4 1/2 if it weren’t for the chorus. Man, so many choruses! At least there’s some screaming descant near the end.
With that, Zevon’s first of many “unpopular” albums ends. Again, I consider the whole thing to be strong, particularly the first half, and I believe it’s the last album Zevon used strings quite so heavily on. He even avoided using very many of them (if any at all) on his final album.
Now I am off to lay down and listen to more music and maybe eat some toast. Please join us next time as we examine yet another album, every single day, here at Album Du Jour.