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This article first appeared in Goldmine, August 18, 1995, Vol. 21, #17, Issue 393. It appears here by arrangement with the author, Steve Roeser, who retains all copyrights and publication rights. Its republication here does not imply permission for use in any other way, including duplication. Permission is also NOT given to link to this page from any other website. Thank you.
Left Jabs and Roundhouse Rights
by Steve Roeser
Never underestimate a romantic. These
might be the words of wisdom for those who have ever counted themselves
fans of singer/songwriter Warren Zevon, especially the ones who haven't
really kept up with what he's been doing over the past 15 years. The iconoclastic
recording artist, who in the late '70's could rival comedian Steve Martin
for being one "wild and crazy guy," what with his songs about
werewolves, mercenaries, desperadoes and people who find themselves in
tight spots in far-off places were they don't belong ("Dad, get me
out of this!"), has perhaps mellowed a bit but hasn't lost his edge.
Fame did not come early for Warren Zevon, but it did come, finally, in 1978 when his second of two albums produced by longtime friend Jackson Browne, Excitable Boy, became a Top 10 record, partly on the strength of his biggest hit song, the hilarious and irresistible "Werewolves Of London." That's when the world found out about this Zevon guy, but by then he was already a highly-respected songwriter in his native Los Angeles, whose self-titled 1976 album on Asylum Records contained no less than four songs that were covered by Linda Ronstadt, at that time one of the most formidable singers in rock.
Ronstadt chose the Zevon ballad "Hasten Down The Wind" as the title track of her 1976 album release (also on Asylum), enjoyed a hit single with the maniacally wonderful "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," and also recorded the Zevon compositions "Mohammed's Radio" and "Carmelita" before the end of the 70's. Coincidentally or not, Peter Asher, who is presently Zevon's manager, produced all those records for Ronstadt. Asher also makes a singing appearance on Zevon's newest album, Mutineer.
Zevon is not an easy person to get a handle on, and as a creative artist in an industry that is only so tolerant of indulging an individual's muse, he is even harder to peg. Throughout a professional music career that began in the mid-1960's, when he was one-half of a boy/girl folk-singing act called Lyme and Cybelle, Zevon's life as a composer and recording artist has gone through periods when he's been incredibly prolific, as well as times when he seemed to have all but dropped off the face of the earth.
But through it all, he remains one of the most talented writers, daring lyricists and gutsiest players rock has seen over the past two decades. Zevon may have summed up his lifelong history as a musician in one of the songs on Mutineer, "Piano Fighter," where he sings, "I worked in sessions and I played in bands/A thousand casuals and one-night stands." It's an endless entertainer's highway that still stretches out ahead of this tireless performer.
Born January 24, 1947 in Chicago, Zevon's musical aspirations were fostered and encouraged by his family at an early age when they came to Los Angeles to live. He had formal training in classical piano, and in junior high experienced a personal acquaintance with legendary Russian pianist Igor Stravinsky, who resided in the Hollywood Hills. (Zevon's own parentage is Russian and Scottish.) Zevon says about his childhood aspirations only that he "composed various classical pieces--some finished, some not."
Instead, he got involved in folk music as a teenager, taught himself guitar, faked his way into playing on commercial recording dates and got work writing ad jingles. He also wrote songs for other people, such as producer Kim Fowley, and played on their records.
He made his first album in 1970, Wanted Dead Or Alive (billing himself as a one-man band called Zevon), around the same time that he landed a very fortuitous job as musical director for the Everly Brothers. The Everlys continued to provide moral suport for Zevon, personally and professionally, for many years thereafter. Phil Everly was just one of a number of stellar musical talents that joined in the making of the Warren Zevon album in 1976. It's a trend that continues to the present day.
Whether Zevon is just very well-liked by his colleagues, fun to be around, musically inspiring or all of the above, a list of artists who have played on his records is most impressive. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bobby Keys, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks all appeared on Warren Zevon. Some of the same people, plus Jim Horn, Jeff Porcaro, Jennifer Warnes and Ronstadt, among others, contributed to Excitable Boy, while other members of the Eagles, notably Joe Walsh, were involved in the making of his 1980 album Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School.
Zevon has made two albums with R.E.M., and he has also collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Chick Corea, John Patitucci, Jerry Garcia, Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Stan Lynch, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Howie Epstein, David Lindley, George Clinton, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Petters, Bruce Hornsby (Mutineer), Graham Nash, Mark Isham, J.D. Souther and David Gilmour.
And he keeps writing those songs. They are as varied and unpredictable as the tune "Detox Mansion" from his 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene, which comments humorously on his own attempts to face a drinking problem, to the beautiful ballad "Searching For A Heart," which was used in the movie Grand Canyon.
The vicissitudes of Zevon's life and career are the stuff of novels, and he has counted several novelists among his friends and songwriting partners, including Thomas McGuane, Carl Hiassen (co-writer of the songs "Seminole Bingo," another Zevon narrative of white collar crime by "a junk bond king," and "Rottweiler Blues" from Mutineer) and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
One of Zevon's most celebrated early songs, "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," was written with the owner of a tourist bar near Barcelona, Spain in the period after Zevon's stint with the Everlys, when the songwriter fled L.A. with his then-wife and spent a summer singing Irish folk songs as an ex-patriot troubadour. ("We had to have a long, serious discussion about whether we should come back," he said.)
Perhaps things have come full circle for the 48-year-old Zevon in 1995. On his current tour he is backed up by the popular Irish band called Something Happens.
One of Zevon's newest songs, the devastating "Indifference Of Heaven," has an effective dose of insouciance in his references to Springsteen and Billy Joel ("I haven't heard from either of them about it," he remarked innocently enough). But he's just as likely, in a given song, to mention longtime colleagues like guitarist and past producer Waddy Wachtel (a relationship that goes back 25 years to the Everly Brothers days) or songwriting partner Leroy P. Marinell, with whom he wrote "Werewolves", "Excitable Boy" ("He rubbed the pot roast all over his chest") and "Ain't That Pretty At All," among others.
Between1970 and 1976, Zevon did not put a record out, in all likelihood because he had no recording contract in sight. The same was true in the period from 1982 (when he made The Envoy with all the usual suspects) to 1987, when he finally reappeared with the outstanding Sentimental Hygiene album. But in all those years of apparent non-productivity, Zevon could hardly have been taking it easy. He had a son, Jordan (now age 25) to support.
Zevon's connection to Hollywood has meant that, from time to time, his songs have also turned up in the movies. Tom Cruise strutted around a poolroom to "Werewolves Of London" in The Color Of Money and, in his hottest period of the late '70's, Zevon music was also used in the feature film FM. But the songwriter's involvement with the big screen began as far back as 1969, when a song he had written, titled, "He Quit Me," intended for a band called Smokestack Lightning that he thought he was going to produce, ended up on the soundtrack to the acclaimed motion picture Midnight Cowboy.
Seeing as how more than a few well-established songwriters were angling hard to place their tunes in the film (Dylan had written the song "Lay Lady Lay" as a title theme for the project, but it was passed over in favor of "Everybody's Talkin'"), the inclusion of Zevon's song was a slight coup for the young composer. (He was credited as W.W. Zevon.)
Possibly the most well-read and intellectual songwriter in rock, Zevon's sophistication and insightful writing style may be the very reason why he is not more widely known. Given to habitually doing things on his own offbeat terms, he has more often than not gone his own way, treading water far from the mainstream but keeping a keen eye trained on the strange activities taking place along the shore. From "Desperadoes Under The Eaves" to "Bad Karma," Zevon's observations on life in song form are some of the most acute and astutue to be found anywhere.
But he is not above engaging in a self-deprecating assessment of his abilities. "I wish I sang better," he said as he prepared for his 1995 summer tour, a few days after having performed "Seminole Bingo" on Late Night With David Letterman (Letterman being a huge Zevon fan). "That's my only active wish. I think if I sang like Don Henley, this would be a lot more agreeable business. If I could think, 'This melody needs a fast triplet here,' and sing it, it would be a lot more rewarding process for me. I may have been better suited to being like an action movie hero or something, instead of a singer."
Yet, for all his imagined shortcomings, Zevon is one of rock's most distinctive vocalists, his ballad-singing being consistently sincere and captivating, his rockers typically punctuated with a macho array of snarls, growls, shouts and chants emanating from the lower register of his vocal range, always keeping his tales lively and entertaining. Whether he's howling like a werewolf or screaming like a banshee, when you hear that voice you know that it's none other than Warren Zevon.
And maybe he wasn't fated to be an action hero, but he has done some acting, and will be appearing (as himself) on upcoming episodes of the HBO series Dream On. He has also gotten into writing music for television, scoring such shows as Tales From The Crypt, Route 66, TekWar and Drug Wars.
Among his dozen albums are two live collections, Stand In The Fire and Learning To Flinch. The first, released in 1980, was taken from a week's worth of engagements at the Roxy in L.A. and contains high-energy performances (with a band that was super-hot) of material that had been on his previous three studio albums, as well as songs that appear on no other Zevon album, such as the title track, "The Sin" and "Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger." Zevon also pulled out all the stops on the version of "Werewolves" included here, changing lyrics and singing the tune with the kind of joyful insanity that all grown men should hope they might be able to channel at least once in their lives.
He also performs "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" on the live Roxy album as if possessed, at one point ordering his "aide-de-camp" George Gruel to, "Get up and dance, or I'll kill you!" The album holds up incredibly well 15 years down the line.
Learning To Flinch, released in 1993, is a 76-minute collection of solo Zevon performances of songs spanning his career, captured around the world on his 1992 tour. In recent years, taking on the role of the wandering minstrel that he perhaps wanted to be as a 20-year-old, Zevon has been referring to himself as a "heavy metal folk singer."
Although his albums of the '80s and '90s have received scant attention relative to his status in the late '70s, Zevon has never been dismissed by the critics, probably because his own standards are as high as anyone's. In his Record Guide Of The '80s, Robert Christgau gave Zevon's work consistently high marks. Although he didn't care that much for Bad Luck Streak, Christgau awarded a grade of A- to each of the albums that followed it, Stand In The Fire, The Envoy and Sentimental Hygiene, while giving Transverse City a sunny B+. Christgau is typical of critics who are too smart and too appreciative of quality to put down an artist who has always refused to write music that is aimed at the lowest common denominator of record buyer.
As he approaches age 50, Zevon seems to have backed down very little from his combative stance of old. Putting the gloves on and going a few rounds with him can be a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, but ultimately a rewarding one. He's a warrior, but a gentleman as well. And although it's a rare day when Zevon agrees to an in-depth interview, especially with the print media, his songs speak for him as well as anything. If you like your rock 'n' roll shot through with passion, intelligence and humor, then Warren Zevon is most certainly your man.
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Goldmine: Many people know you, of course, for your more humorous songs. But throughout your career you have always balanced that part of your music with thoughtful ballads such as "Hasten Down The Wind," "Accidentally Like A Martyr," the two that were on Sentimental Hygiene, "Reconsider Me" and "The Heartache," and songs like "Searching For A Heart" and "Similar To Rain." Do you feel that perhaps your greatest strength in your music is as a writer of ballads?
Warren Zevon: No, I don't think I've ever thought of it in terms of greater or lesser strength, at all. The album, the only album, that influenced my ideas about record productions or pop styles was Revolver, at a very formative age. A record which changes stylistically for every track. I thought that was appropriate. I thought that was what pop music was supposed to do.
Goldmine: Obviously the music business of today is not what it was in the 1970s. But were there any similarities, do you feel, between how you made Mutineer and how you recorded your self-titled album in 1976?
Warren Zevon: Similarities? No, probably none. None whatsoever. Mutineer is the first album of mine without a demo stage. Recording at home enables one to eliminate the demo stage, and the presentation stage in the studio, too. So, in that sense, I'd say it was completely different.
Goldmine: Do you thik the way you write your songs in the '90s is anything like your songwriting method of about 20 years ago?
Warren Zevon: Well, in some ways, it's exactly the same. But there's a thin line between songwriting and arranging. And differences in, like, who plays. A sea change like this, in means of recording, means that the approach to arranging is vastly different. If you're making a demo, or if you're finishing a song, and you're intending to play it by yourself, or you're intending to play it live, or your intention is to play the demo for studio guys, or show them the song, then the composing kind of stops at an early stage. When you're working this way, it continues for a long time. Like until you mix the record, or until you go into the studio with the tapes. I don't know if that makes sense, but it sort of extends the possibilities for a longer periond of time.
Goldmine: When did you start studying music, or the piano, seriously?
Warren Zevon: Well, I was interested in playing the piano from as early as I can remember. So I guess I had, I think they tell me I had, about three years total of piano lessons, off and on.
Goldmine: How did the connection with Igor Stravinsky come about? How did you get introduced to him?
Warren Zevon: By the band teacher at Dana Junior High school in San Pedro. He was a classical session player, a trumpet player. He took me to a Stravinsky/Robert Craft session. And after that I corresponded with Robert Craft, and he invited me to come and visit them, which I did a few times. So, I met Stravinsky, and talked to him and sat with him. But in no way was I like friends with him or anything. There is, actually, in the latest definitive biography, or book. about Stravinsky, by Robert Craft, a little bit about me and my visits. Which is exactly accurate, more or less. In which Robert Craft commends me for not claiming a relationship with Stravinsky. Although I haven't been above allowing the press to make perhaps a little more of it than there actually was. He was very, very gracious and nice to me but [that was all].
Goldmine: At what point did your focus switch from classical music to more of the popular music that was happening in L.A. in, say, the early '60s?
Warren Zevon: Well, I don't think it ever did, but in the early '60s I got interested in folk music. And, you know, there's a natural progression that I presume almost everyone makes from the "popular hit" kind of folk music of that era, to the sources of that music. So that you start out with the Kingston Trio, and you end up at the Ash Grove, that amazing folk club that was on Melrose, I believe, in the '60s, where the house band was the Rising Sons, as you may recall.
Goldmine: Yeah, with Ry Cooder?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, and Taj Mahal.
Goldmine: The Ash Grove, then is a place where you started playing when you were in your late teens?
Warren Zevon: I think I might have played a hoot night there once. I mighta gotten up and played a song, in my mid-teens.
Goldmine: There's a story you've told about meeting Brian Wilson in the '60s. At that point you must have had at least some contact, and seen something of the inner working of the music business. Is that so?
Warren Zevon: Well, let's see....My memory is not even what most people's is, much less what it oughta be for a discussion like this [pause] In the mid-and late '60s I did a little session work, and I had signed with sort of a mentor, who was a very, very fine engineer and producer, and still is, Bones Howe. And what I knew, I knew mostly through Bones Howe. I made little singles with this girl from high school.
Goldmine: So, that was Lyme and Cybelle?
Warren Zevon: Uh-huh. Bones produced those. Bob Thompson, a very fine arranger, arranged 'em. And through Bob and various people, I guess I would get a little session work.
Goldmine: And that was around the time that Bones was recording the Mamas and the Papas and those people?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, later on when he started producing, he produced Elvis, and the Fifth Dimension, the Association. Before he started producing [Tom] Waits, considerably before then. He was the first producer to get a credit for Elvis, I believe. So, inner workings, I don't know. I had a friend who had been in the Beach Boys. And, at one period, I rented an apartment in a building that he had.
Goldmine: Bruce Johnson?
Warren Zevon: No, no. David Marks. He was one of the original, original Beach Boys. But he like wasn't a close enough cousin or something. David and I were hanging around, I guess it was Western [Recorders], when I met Brian Wilson.
Goldmine: Who was your partner in Lyme and Cybelle?
Warren Zevon: Her name was Violet Santangelo.
Goldmine: And you were Lyme?
Warren Zevon: Uh-huh. After shave. Cybelle came from an art house movie.
Goldmine: How many singles did you do?
Warren Zevon: Two. The first one
was called "Follow Me." And the second one was the Bob Dylan
song "If You Gotta Go, Go Now."
That was the second single. There was a song called "Like The Seasons" on one of [the B-sides], that was also the flip side of "Happy Together." We were on the same label as the Turtles [White Whale], and they became dear friends. And the other one was some ballad or other, "I'll Go On," that's the name of it. We wrote all of 'em, except the Dylan song. That was banned. It was too risque for radio in most places.
[Ed. note: There was also a third Lyme and Cybelle single, "Write If You Get Work"/Song #7]
Goldmine: How long were you together, a year or two?
Warren Zevon: Not any more than it took us to make those four [actually six--ed.] sides. And we went on a TV show, Lloyd Thaxton.
Goldmine: Was Dylan much of an influence on you when you were starting out professionally?
Warren Zevon: The greatest. He was the greatest influence on every singer/songwriter. On everyone with any job remotely like this. Anyone who denies it is lying. There is only Dylan.
Goldmine: So, you were heavily into his first few albums, the first four or five?
Warren Zevon: Certainly. I'm still into his albums. Dylan can do no wrong. Dylan doesn't have to make Blonde On Blonde every time. I had a dear friend who once complained about what Dylan was doing, in whatever decade it was. And I said, "You're only mad 'cause you worshipped him, you love him so much. Stop pretending you dont! He's the greatest."
Goldmine: Is "Worrier King" kind of a takeoff on "Corrina, Corrina" [from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan]?
Warren Zevon: Oh, is that the "bird and the whistle" song? Yeah, I guess so.
Goldmine: What are two or three of your favorite songs that Dylan's written?
Warren Zevon: Oh, God. I don't know if I could...[pause] I couldn't do that, and have a conversation. I'd have to sit down and, like, brood. Or else, I could just gradually name like a hundred. You know what I mean?
Goldmine: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Warren Zevon: Well, I remember seeing Dylan solo, at Santa Monica Civic [Auditorium]. I don't know when that was. But one had never heard the songs that became hits, and he played them all solo--"Tambourine Man" and so on, and so on. It was pretty fuckin' overwhelming. It was like being able to read the complete works of Thomas Mann in an hour and a half, in terms of awesomeness. Actually it was quite a bit like being able to read the complete works of Thomas Mann.
Goldmine: When it comes to sports figures, both you and Dylan have written songs about professional boxers and baseball pitchers. If you could be reincarnated as a well-known sports figure, who would you choose to be?
Warren Zevon: No, I don't answer those "If you could come back as any 14th Century poet" questions. Sorry. My father was a boxer, though. So, I have a particular interest in Ray Mancini, I think.
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Goldmine: On the outro portion of "Boom Boom Mancini," the studio version, you play a great piano solo. But that's kind of a rare thing on your albums. Is there any reason why you haven't done more of that?
Warren Zevon: Duncan Aldrich has been my partner in most recording projects, and touring projects, for the past decade. For some curious reason, Duncan and I spent all night doubling that piano part with guitar. And I don't know why, but I think it's worth noting. So I have, in fact, never played a piano solo but that it was also a guitar solo. Is there some reason?
Goldmine: Yeah, well, it's just you're so equipped to play a lot of piano, but you don't seem to take solos on your records.
Warren Zevon: I don't like piano
solos. I remember that my manager and co-producer wanted me to play, like,
lead piano on one of the tracks on Sentimental Hygiene, and I made
him give me $200. I said, "Piano is like drudgery. You know, that's
my job. So you oughta pay me."
Yeah, I don't like, um, I'm not interested in rock 'n' roll piano. I find it a little grating. As a percussion instrument, I'm not that crazy about cymbals, either. So I'd rather use it percussively in the low mid-range, like I do. My idea of piano solos, comtemporary piano solos, are more like... like Chick Corea! [laughs] Bud Powell. And since I couldn't begin to play that way, I'd rather get somebody else to play lead piano, like Michael Wolff, who I got to play piano parts [on Mutineer], because they involve playing lead piano.
Goldmine: Who is a jazz pianist whose style really impresses you? You'd say Chick Corea?
Warren Zevon: I'm not a big jazz fan. I missed jazz, kind of. And by the time I came to it in life, it was too intimidating to enjoy thoroughly. Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Michael Wolff. Michael has shown me a lot of things. Michael is actually a wonderful pianist, remarkable. And Herbie's probably the King. I think that's a fairly general consensus.
Goldmine: Is there a contemporary classical pianist whose style really impresses you?
Warren Zevon: I confess that I don't really know this guy from that guy so well. I certainly know what classical music I like, but I'm not sure if I know which quartet I like playing "Beethoven's 13th Quartet." Glenn Gould was my hero. Glenn Gould was my idol. I loved him. But, of living guys, I'm not sure if I know Richard Goode from whatever the latest best interpreter is.
Goldmine: Who do you think is the most underrated keyboard player in rock?
Warren Zevon: [pause] Who are the keyboard players in rock?
Goldmine: Well, there probably aren't that many left. Jerry Lee Lewis just made a new album.
Warren Zevon: He doesn't interest
me. Seriously, who is there? I'll tell you, I remember I had a job, some
kind of bullshit musical director [gig]. Phil Everly had a TV show [Johnny
Cash Presents The Everly Brothers Show, summer of 1970], a really cool
little TV show, back when they had that show The Midnight Special.
And he had very interesting guests. He had Kris Kristofferson on when he
was starting out, and all these people who naturally revered the
Everly Brothers. Both Phil and Don are very, very funny, and witty and
charming. It was quite a good show. And I remember Billy Joel came on,
one of the new guys. And he sat down and started improvising this massive
[Aaron] Copeland-esque thing on the piano. And I was the show's piano player.
You know, like I was [Paul] Shaffer.
And I was standing behind Billy, watching him do this. And, in all seriousness-- and I told him this 10, 15 years later-- I turned on my heel, and walked off the set. Whatever idea I had about myself as sort of like a classical pianist-turned-rock-guy evaporated in one moment of standing behind Billy Joel. So, I think he's a wonderful player, but I don't think he's underestimated. [laughs] He's a great player. I don't know. [Little Feat's] Billy Payne's good.
Goldmine: You've written a couple of songs which would qualify as country songs, like the one you did with T-Bone Burnett, "Bed Of Coals," and "Heartache Spoken Here." Which country artists have made a lasting impression on you?
Warren Zevon: Well, during the period, and it was around 1970, that Waddy and I played with the Everly Brothers, at that time I was exposed to country music. And I think it's safe to say that the single very impressive figure to me was Merle Haggard. I do remember that Dolly Parton was just coming out at that time, and was also clearly, remarkably good. It's something that may be easy to forget about someone who has become such a superstar personality. But she was an extraordinarily good singer/songwriter, originally. I remember those two.
Goldmine: Going back to earlier times, what was the first Bo Diddley record you ever heard?
Warren Zevon: I think I had the
album Bo Diddley's A Gunslinger. The first few albums I bought,
I guess around high school age, I had a John Lee Hooker album and a Bo
Diddley album, and then some singles. You had to go to a different part
of town from where I was to get Muddy Waters singles. I had him on singles.
And also, I should add, I must admit the fact that out of folk, and around
the Ash Grove times, I got mostly interested in blues. And that was kind
of a consuming interest for a few years.
And the pivotal figure in blues music, to me, was John Hammond [Jr.]. I also told John Hammond this, 20 years later-- to his exquisite embarrassment-- that he was like this incredible, overwhelming influence on me. And I learned all about the other blues cats from John Hammond's Vanguard records. But I can't say that I didn't like John Hammond's performances often better than the originals. You know, "Worrier King," actually what it is, is an homage to John Hammond. It was a great thrill for me to meet John Hammond, and to sit in his dressing room. I asked him something about his guitar, and he handed it to me and said, "Just put this on that finger, and yeah, slide it like that. You can do it!" [laughs] As only a virtuoso could say, effortlessly: "You can do it."
Goldmine: Over the past 10 years, it seems like you've been playing the guitar a lot more. Why is that? Why have you been concentrating more on the guitar? Have you been, or does it just seem that way?
Warren Zevon: No, I do it at every opportunity. And there are a number of reasons. The primary one being, like I said, I don't like rock 'n' roll piano. And I love guitar. I loved Hendrix. I mean, really, really loved him. As if he were one of the great classical composers. And he was. That's how I saw him.
Goldmine: Did you ever see him live?
Warren Zevon: No. And the portability. I play a Steinberger. Everywhere I go, I have my little Steinberger, and I like it very well. Purists don't like it, but fuck 'em. I mean, it suits me very well. And it's immensely portable, of course. And if I have any self-mythologizing idea of myself, it's that I'm this sort of homeless, Graham Greene kind of character. Which is not so far from the truth. So the portability has a great appeal to me. It always did. There have been many periods in my life when I couldn't even afford to have a keyboard instrument. People wonder why you aren't writing more acoustic piano songs. "Well, because you're not buying the records, and I hocked the Yamaha the year before last! That's why!"
Goldmine: Yeah, they never think that could be the reason. That it was some practical, economic thing.
Warren Zevon: No.
Goldmine: You've become friends with Neil Young in recent years. What have you learned about guitar playing from him, or just from watching him, or listening to him?
Warren Zevon: Um.... [long pause]
Learned? I don't learn so good, no matter how good the teacher is. Except
that he confirmed my ugliest fears about my guitar playing once. Because
he said, "Let me watch your fingers while I learn this song."
And I said, "It won't help." And he said, "You're right.
It's really weird!" [laughs] I have no guitar technique.
And that's unfortunate. But when I taught myself to play guitar, I was
imitating banjo parts, and modal shit. I don't know what I've learned.
Neil is certainly one of my very, very favorite musicians, and guitarists, certainly. One of the things that's very obvious to me about Neil is that you can never imagine his fingers. I mean, all the sort of big, glossy-band lead guitarists with the signature-model guitars, even a shitty guitarist like myself, a technically non-proficient guitarist, I can see where their hands are. "Yeah, that's position
# 27. Yeah, that's 'Honkey Tonk Women,' position 12, caption 2."
Neil's playing is about what he's composing spontaneously. It's not about his fingers. And what he composes spontaneously is often extraordinary, amazing stuff. So to me, I think he's kind of in that lofty region of the Stravinskys and the Mileses, and the great creators out of the void.
Goldmine: He himself has spoken about Hendrix, saying he couldn't imagine how Hendrix did what he did. So, if Neil Young says that...
Warren Zevon: Well, it's just a quality that all art sort of has. You know, "How did he come up with that?" We're not really supposed to know. Because if we know, then it's all [merely] craft.
Goldmine: Right. You've been known to perform Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" occasionally to close one of your shows. Were you into the early rockers like Cochran, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and those guys?
Warren Zevon: When I started working for the Everly Brothers, I realized that I had liked them. I mean, I haven't been completely lacking in some enjoyment of Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. But I just didn't pay attention to that period of music, obviously.
Goldmine: In your press bio, you are described as having been an "inept" session player.
Warren Zevon: I played a lot of real normal, straight sessions. And, you see, I had this Rickenbacker like Roger McGuinn's. So they'd realize that there was this guy they could get who had that guitar. And it took a session or two for them to realize that I couldn't play it. So I'd be called upon, and I'd be sitting at a chewing gum date, next to Glen Campbell or somebody. A lotta dates with Hal Blaine. I can't imagine what would go through their minds. Hal and Joe Osborne and Larry Knechtel: "Here's that kid again who can't play a note!" [laughs]
Goldmine: But you had a good guitar.
Warren Zevon: I had a good guitar, and I was a young, young kid. I'm not saying it with shame, exactly. But it would've been nice if I could've played it, I suppose. But it was certainly exciting to be on those dates, with those cats in that era.
Goldmine: What were some of the jingles that you played on? Did you write any of them?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, I wrote a Camaro one that the Turtles and I sang on. I wrote a Boone's Farm Apple Wine one that me and Byron Berline and [actor] Harry Dean Stanton did. Because they asked me if I could get the Dillards. And the Dillards, Rodney Dillard's band, are sort of a pretty sophisticated bluegrass harmony band. And I said, "Yeah, sure, I can get the Dillards." [laughs] So I introduced them as the Dillards. "Here's Harry Dean Dillard." Harry Dean did the announcing, he was great. And I did one that played on the R&Bstation, with a band that I was trying to produce, an R&B group, and they let me play lead guitar. They were called Zaghiti, Rangi, Benji and Harold.
Goldmine: How did the job with the Everly Brothers come about?
Warren Zevon: That was also through David Marks.
Goldmine: You just got an audition somehow?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, I went in and I think they were both there. I just played "Hasten Down The Wind." I said, "Here's a song of mine." And Phil said, "Can you play like [country pianist] Floyd Cramer?" And I said, "I certainly can!" He laughed and said, "You're hired." They were wonderful guys.
Goldmine: Especially on your earlier albums, you had a lot of great harmony singing in the background. Did you learn about how to arrange vocal harmonies from working with the Everly Brothers?
Warren Zevon: No, I never paid attention. I learned things 20 years later. It was like a cold. It took me 10 years to realize that I don't know 'em, 10 years to realize that it's possible to learn them, then another 10 years to learn how to do things. And then I find, within a 30-year struggle, I know how to do harmony parts. It's true.
Goldmine: Is it true that you disown your first album, Wanted Dead Or Alive?
Warren Zevon: Oh, no, on the contrary. Other people do. But that's their problem. There are some amusing things about it. Like the fact that there's only one drum track. Maybe there are two drum tracks. We just kept speeding it up and slowing it down, or playing it backwards. On the reissue, they deleted the most interesting track, which was some kind of weird, acid-head instrumental I played live, with all my friends in the studio. No, it's interesting because it's essentially a guy alone trying to make a rock album that sounds like John Hammond. Fifteen years later, I got R.E.M. together and tried to make a rock album that sounded like John Hammond. hindu love gods is a John Hammond album. My first album is like a terrible John Hammond album, with drums. Those blues tracks are from John Hammond albums.
Goldmine: Whey you say "reissued," do you mean on CD?
Warren Zevon: No, it was reissued when Excitable Boy came out. It was co-opted, or whatever you call it. [zevonfan1 note: Wanted Dead Or Alive has since been reissued on CD.......see Discography]
Goldmine: Why were you billed as just "Zevon" on that first album?
Warren Zevon: I guess it was like a passing idea that I had. I was confused at the time, because I had a nickname from my surfer days, which was "Sandy." But then, I had a cousin, Sandy Zevon, who's a surgeon. It's quite true.
Warren Zevon: It is true. You could look it up! Dr. Sanford Zevon.
Goldmine: Oh, I believe you.
Warren Zevon: Perhaps, though, the most interesting thing about Wanted Dead Or Alive is the cover. The cover, all the graphics in fact, were done by Richard Edlund, who went on to found Industrial Light and Magic. They've won, like, the most special effects Academy Awards in history, for Star Wars and all these movies.
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Goldmine: Was "Excitable Boy" a sort of "answer song" to "Wake Up Little Susie"?
Warren Zevon: Um, I'm sure it crossed our minds, the "little Susie" part.
Goldmine: In the same sense, if "Sweet Home Alabama" was an answer song to "Southern Man," does "Play It All Night Long" qualify as an answer song to "Sweet Home Alabama"?
Warren Zevon: Yeah.
Goldmine: Do you play it down south?
Warren Zevon: Oh, certainly! Of course I do, especially in Alabama. I couldn't wait to play it in Alabama, the first time. I said to someone who works for a paper in Alabama who became a friend of mine, I said, "Gee, so-and-so told me I shouldn't play this song here. I shouldn't play this song south of the Mason/Dixon Line." He said, " Well, he was wrong, wasn't he?" It went over very well. I've heard that the Rossington Collins guys [ex-Lynyrd Skynyrd members] liked it.
Goldmine: Were half the songs that were recorded for the Warren Zevon album written before you went to Spain?
Warren Zevon: I think all of them were. We made a demo album. We made that whole album in a demo form. I don't have a tape of it. I can't imagine who might. I don't think I have a tape of it. Well, who knows what I have. It's in storage somewhere. But it was interesting. It had a lot of the same people. I think it had Don Everly on it. And it had Lindley, of course, and Jackson and Waddy. A different rhythm section. Lindsey Buckingham was on that one. And a girl who was a friend of the producer's, whoever he was, who played chamberlain. So, this demo album had a chamberlain on it.
Goldmine: What is that?
Warren Zevon: Chamberlain is a forerunner of a Mellotron. Chamberlain is the original sampler. It actually plays analog tapes, samples in the form of analog tape. So when you play this keyboard, it would play a tape of an oboe [for instance]. It was immensely fragile. You'd have to carry this huge thing around. It was a huge analog sampler ... And also, we'd be remiss if I didn't note, again, that "Werewolves Of London" was Phil Everly's idea.
Goldmine: Oh, was it?
Warren Zevon: Entirely. [laughs] Yes, it was.
Goldmine: How so?
I was living with him. Because I was in one sort of trouble or another.
And he told my wife and I we were welcome. Well, they both said, "You
can move in with us." Don in an apartment and Phil in his house. So
we were staying in Phil's guest house. And he said, "I'm working on
this solo album. Why don't you guys write a song for me? Write a dance
song. Like.. "Werewolves Of London." That's exactly what he said.
I just said, "O-kaayy..."
And I was over at Roy Marinell's house, and Roy started playing the figure. And Waddy walked in and said, "What are you guys doing?" And I said, "We're doing the 'Werewolves of London.'"And Waddy, without batting an eye, said, "You mean, 'Aah-Ooh! Werewolves Of London'? And we said, "That's right." And he sat down and we wrote it in 20 minutes. But it was entirely instigated by Philip.
Goldmine: Roy, or Leroy, is the same person you wrote "Excitable Boy" and some other songs with. Was his input kind of the demented part of the lyrics?
Warren Zevon: No, I don't know if, to any degree, that can be attributed to anyone in particular.
Goldmine: You all contributed to the lyrics?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, passing a line from each of us around. I remember certain lines and whose they are. I think most of the first verse was entirely Waddy. I thought it was pretty remarkable that he spontaneously delivered himself of this sort of Paul Simon-esque verse. No sooner had we told him we were "doing the Werewolves of London," than he said, "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand/Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain."
Goldmine: When you did the track with Waddy and Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, how many takes did you do?
Warren Zevon: Well, that was the last of several different ensembles that played it. And I don't remember how many we did, but I remember that Waddy said, "I think we're done." And Mick stood up and said, "We are never done!" But we played it before. We'd recorded it with different groups. And I remember the Jorge Calderon said, "I think you need a real band. Not like 'cats,' but a band." And I said, "Really? You mean like Buddy Rich?" [laughs] I remember that. And Jorge said, "No, I was thinking more like Fleetwood Mac. Let me call them." [laughs]
Goldmine: So, you were tight with all the Fleetwood Mac people?
Warren Zevon: No, I didn't know the other guys. We all knew Lindsey and Stevie. They were kind of in the Waddy circle. I had done a whole tour with Lindsey, too, a Don Everly solo tour.
Goldmine: When you have people like David Lindley and Rosemary Butler, who both helped out with the first album that Jackson Browne produced for you, and they're still with you today [on Mutineer], and other people like Waddy Wachtel and Jorge Calderon, is it easier because you're working with people who you've known for a real long time like that?
Warren Zevon: No. It's not easier or harder. I don't mean anything by that. I love them, and I'm glad they're there, and I'm glad for what they do. But it's not easier or harder than bringing in Larry Klein for the first time and working with him, like I did. Certain things, maybe. There'll be an eleventh hour call to Jorge, because he will sing a certain way that I know will work perfectly. And in fact when I did [call Calderon], Duncan said, [Zevon with Scottish brogue] "Boy! You can tell you guys have been singin' together for 20 years." Because I imitate him, and he imitates me, and it comes out [like] some thing we do.
Goldmine: When you were done with the sessions for the Excitable Boy album, did you have the feeling that you had a real outstanding album in the can?
Warren Zevon: No, we had the feeling that we had a real short album in the can. [laughs] It just seemed a little short on the minutes side, but there wasn't anything we could do about it. We had had some of those songs when we did the first album. I can't imagine this kind of luxury today. I think we had "Roland" and "Werewolves" when we did the [Warren Zevon] album, but they didn't fit on that album. And people were playing "Werewolves" by then, so we were not completely innocent of the idea that the song had at least some kind of potential. 'Cause people would roll on the floor when I'd show it to 'em.
Goldmine: People who knew you were playing it in clubs or whatever?
Warren Zevon: Yeah, I guess Jackson was playing it.
Goldmine: How did you and Jackson become friends?
Warren Zevon: I think it was '68. There was an Elektra producer named Barry Friedman, whose nom-de-whatever was Frazier Mohawk. He had a house in Laurel Canyon where a lot of musicians got together, and I met Jackson there.
Goldmine: Later on, after you guys became known, say, in the late '70s, did a kind of "friendly rivalry" exist among people like yourself, Jackson, Don Henley, and perhaps Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, as to who could come up with the best new song in your circle of people?
Warren Zevon: No, I don't think
it was rivalry. Well, except that you'd tell someone, with the purist
admiration, "I wrote that," or, "Can I play you a
new song?" or, "I can't stand it," or something. But I can
certainly remember hearing a new song, an extraordinary new song of Jackson's,
well, I heard lots and lots of his songs for the first time, sitting at
a piano. Or J.D. Souther. I knew those two guys, but I didn't know anybody
else. I never knew Don to have him, like, sit down and say, "Here's
my new song." I knew Bonnie to say hello to, and I don't know Joni
But over the years, certainly, I heard new songs of Jackson's and John David's many, many times. And, I don't know, maybe it's the sweet mystery of youth itself, but I don't think it ever occurred to me, "Jesus, I can't stand living, that song's so good!" Now, I probably would. It just always made you [feel] moved and happy.
Goldmine: What prompted your move to Spain?
Warren Zevon: It was just kind of a disillusioned period. And my ex-wife and I thought we should do something interesting while we were young, before we settled into any kind of groove. And certainly, instead of being like frustrated Hollywood people who had knocked on too many doors and had sore knuckles, we figured there was a big world out there and places where you could live cheap in it, which turned out to be quite true. We had a wonderful time.
Goldmine: It's safe to say that you are the only writer in rock history to rhyme "gender" with "Waring Blender" ["Poor Poor Pitiful Me"]. Did you ever have second thoughts about how far out you could get with a song idea?
Warren Zevon: No, I never had those thoughts. I wondered why popular music was so square. Because I had been reading Norman Mailer from the time I was 12 years old. I don't think it occurred to me that I was trying to make some kind of breakthrough in the popular song. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now that, for the most part, there were some kind of restrictions on the subject matter of songs. And it was quite the opposite in every other art form.
Goldmine: There have been times when you did not live in L.A., but you've mostly lived in L.A. So one would conclude that many, if not most, of your songs were written here. And a number of them, in one way or another, seem to be about the experience of living here. How has your life over many years in Los Angeles informed your songs and your music, do you think?
Warren Zevon: I don't know... Questions get a little broader than I can get a handle on. It's like, you do an interview with a European guy, who's only half speaking English, and asking you, "What's America like?" And then he comes back with, "But are you a patriot?" And, "What about Dole?"
Goldmine: [laughter] No, I'm deliberately not asking you about politics.
Warren Zevon: No, I know you're
not. And the answer I'm getting at, I guess, is there's something so general
and generic about Los Angeles itself, that I think it's hard to ... [identify
it]. Unless there's a Los Angeles that we think was in that movie version
of The Big Sleep. Not the one with Mitchum, the other one [with
Bogart]. That's the Los Angeles that we pretend is like we grew
up in, or is still there. Some kind of late-Chandler/early-Ellroy Los Angeles,
that really none of us live in.
And you and I both know that we're speaking like three blocks apart, so you know what I'm saying. [laughs] "Do we mean like Book Soup [West Hollywood] Los Angeles, or do we mean, Compton." So, I think the city, and the growing up in it, or living in it, is such a broad experience, that it gets to the point where if you're not talking about The Big Sleep, I don't know what you are talking about.
Goldmine: "Mohammed's Radio" is a song you wrote that talks about a time when people believed in the power of music more than they do anymore. Do you still believe that the best music has the power to give people "hope through hard times," let's say?
Warren Zevon: Well, I think it's the nature of all art to do that. But I guess that song was like a rare, drunken, sentimental slip into something that I generally abhor. Which is the whole idea of rock 'n' roll as some kind of spiritual, worth-dying-for phenomenon. I don't play that! [laughter] Gimme a break with all the black leather, and the pounding on the stage, and rock 'n' roll as an anthemic, magnificent whatever.
Goldmine: Do you still play that song?
Warren Zevon: Mmm, sometimes. Every third tour.
Goldmine: What did you think of Hank Williams, Jr.'s version of "Lawyers, Guns And Money"?
Warren Zevon: I thought that was great. Now, mind you, I've never heard a cover version [of a Warren Zevon song] I didn't like. I don't understand them folks that object to, or resent, cover versions. By its very nature, somebody singing your song, I think, is delightful. And in some cases, is musically [revelatory]. Ronstadt's version of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" is vastly better than mine. It's much more like the song. And Hank's version of that song was really great. It was hard for me not to imitate him for a couple of years after that.
Goldmine: When Linda Ronstadt recorded your songs, did that kind of provide a measure of validation of your work, in the eyes of the music industry, that you hadn't had [before then]?
Warren Zevon: I don't know ...
Goldmine: Was there almost a sense of "I told you so" to certain people who didn't think you really had great songs?
Warren Zevon: No. When I played
several songs of mine in somebody's living room, in some weird place in
the world, when I had never made a record and never done anything ... But
I played them the songs-- at the risk of sounding immodest-- I "became
famous for," that was impressive. I had all those songs, and
I was just some guy, some scruffy kid, and played a bunch of those
songs that became a hit or whatever, in somebody's living room, on an out-of-tune
piano. That was pretty impressive. That might get ya laid.
On the other hand, when Excitable Boy was in the Top 10, the president of the record company brought me in his office and said, "Well, so you sold 700,000 copies. There was a time when we would've celebrated that. But, I mean, the Eagles have sold 14 million, worldwide." So it was like, "You failed." And people, including myself so much later in life, don't understand that about fame or fortune.
There's some guy standing there, maybe yourself -- usually yourself -- saying, "It's no good." You're in a place where it's a given that you have a Top 10 album, and you wrote and performed it all. But you still went and made a "bad job of it." So, I'm just saying that I think that just having those songs was the point at which they had the most impact. Not the point at which one said, "Well, this album sold 1.2 mil less than the last one that had that other song on it. See? Too bad."
Goldmine: So, you even felt that when Excitable Boy had really charted [highly], that you still didn't have a sense that you'd succeeded?
Warren Zevon: Well, I had a sense
that I succeeded, because I remember when I was a kid, I saw a gold record
at Bones Howe's. And I thought, "Man, I guess that's an achievement.
That'd be some sweet shit." And at that point  I had a gold
album that was just a big closeup of my face. And I thought, "Yeah,
well, there's that. That's that deal."
So, certainly, I had a sense of achievement. And that's when they were just gold albums. They weren't like gold micro-digital tapes, or some configuration that doesn't have that "old movie" look, a gold album with my picture on it, and I thought, "That's pretty good. I guess I did this job. And that's nice." But at the same time, I had the powers-that-be telling me that it was really insignificant.
Goldmine: How much have you ever been affected by New Orleans music, and musicians like Professor Longhair?
Warren Zevon: There's some stuff
I enjoy, like the Meters and the Wild Tchoupitoulas -- aren't they the
Meters? [Ed. note: The Wild Tchoupitoulas were a group
of "Mardi Gras Indians" in Louisiana who recorded one album for
Island Records in the mid-70s, backed by some members of the Meters]
And all that Allen Toussaint stuff.
Professor Longhair and Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] scared me. Unless I could get [Dr. John] to sit me down and show me how to roll my hand like that ... I think I could do it, but it would be less completely mystifying. I have a certain sacrilegious lack of interest in "grooving," per se, the whole idea of "the white groove." Maybe this is all a reaction to a critic who once reviewed me and said that I had "two grooves, only two: slow march and fast march." To which I can only respond, "You want groove? Eddie Palmieri has groove." Or fill in the [blank] prominent, white singer/songwriter, rock star of our age. "What groove? This drummer hits two and four, am I a nano-second sooner or later?" I don't know. It's ignorance, I guess, masquerading as smart-aleckry. But I still mean it.
Goldmine: You wrote a song with Bruce Springsteen 15 years ago. ["Jeannie Needs A Shooter"]. When you wrote "Splendid Isolation," did that line of his from "Hungry Heart" come to mind, "I don't care what anybody says/Ain't nobody want to be alone?"
Warren Zevon: No.
Goldmine: Okay, just checking.
Warren Zevon: [pause] Although I
will say that when we wrote "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead,"
and we got to the line, "Home is where you hang your head" --
or whatever the line is--someone said to us, Leroy, Waddy and I, "You
know, that's an Elvis Costello line." And we said, "It is?"
I mean, he's great, but we didn't realize that. So we said, "It is?"
and they said, "Absolutely, it's from blah-blah-blah." And the
three of us looked at each other in silence, and then in unison we said,
"Well, that's too fuckin' bad!"
Of course, the irony is that now there's a major movie coming out called Things To Do In Denver When We're Dead [sic] for which we are entirely uncompensated and unacknowledged. That's poetic, isn't it?
Goldmine: That's not right. "The Indifference of Heaven" is such a great song. You are into many different novelists, but I don't know how much you care for Henry Miller.
Warren Zevon: I've never read Henry Miller. But "The Indifference of Heaven" is like a novelist. A certain novelist.
Goldmine: Which one?
Warren Zevon: Martin Amis [Time's Arrow, London Fields]. It's like a Martin Amis song. And that was one of the reasons that is was teriffic to get Peter [Asher] to sing it. Because it was like having an English intellectual singing harmony.
Goldmine: He does a great job on that. Somehow, a remark that Henry Miller made in one of his books came to mind upon hearing that song. He said something to the effect that he continued to write to try to "wash the dirt out of his belly," or something like that. Is that a good reason to try to write a song, to try to get rid of that feeling? [no response] ... When you think of "Indifference Of Heaven," which has got a certain mood to it, a certain kind of philosophical outlook to it ...
Warren Zevon: What's the line again?
Goldmine: "To try to wash the dirt out of your belly." He said, "You'll never quite do it, but you try anyway." Is that a good reason to try to write a song like that?
Warren Zevon: No, the line makes me shudder. The one thing that's intolerable to me is a kind of crudeness. Anything's okay but a fart joke. Even having said that sentence makes me filled with self-loathing, just to hear myself say it. It's strange, but it's true, though. I know [my image] is supposed to be violent, and lots of cussing and everything, but there's a certain kind of inelegance that gives me the creeps. [laughs] I never much read them Beat guys, or them "dirty belly" guys. I'm more like a Graham Greene/Thomas Mann kinda guy, restrained and disciplined guy.
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Goldmine: You've been on several different labels, but now you are on Giant, a label run by Irving Azoff, and he was your manager years ago. Does it just feel comfortable making records with an old colleague like that?
Warren Zevon: Well, it works out nicely. It was very exciting being the first American on Virgin and having Paula Abdul videos and Herb Ritts [photo] sessions. The down side of it was, I think that Jeff and Jordan [Virgin Records executives] woke up one morning, looked around and said, "Who's this guy again? Did he come with you?" And the other one said, "Isn't he like Jackson Browne, with novelty hits?"
Goldmine: Was hindu love gods conceived as an ongoing project?
Warren Zevon: No. I didn't have anything to do with the packaging or anything. They [R.E.M] think I'm exploiting them, and I think they resented [that], but it has nothing to do with any of us. I told my manager, "This is all yours. I don't want to see it, I don't want to argue about it, I don't want to hear about it. Whatever you want, whatever you're gonna do, it's up to you."
Goldmine: What's the story behind some of the cover choices for that album, like the Prince song ["Raspberry Beret"], for instance?
Warren Zevon: Well, it was probably [Andrew] Slater, the manager. He was the guy who suggested it. Kind of an amusing idea.
Goldmine: Is it true that that song became some kind of hit [for you]?
Warren Zevon: No. Well, that's a very vague, ambivalent .. I've had a lot of hits by that "some kind of hit" definition. I've only had one hit, that I know of, between you and I. But I've apparently had quite a few of those "some kind of hits."
Goldmine: Was that album recorded around the same time as Sentimental Hygiene?
Warren Zevon: No, it was precisely the same time, because we had an extra day. We finished ahead of schedule. We had a month of studio time to do the album and we finished ahead of time, so we did the hindu jam session deal. We did it in one day.
Goldmine: hindu love gods is a cool album. I'm sure you would've preferred that more people had heard that one.
Warren Zevon: Well, we ultimately would have preferred it not come out at all, I think. It sold for like a dollar.
Goldmine: Was there other material that wasn't on there, other tracks you did with them?
Warren Zevon: Yeah. "Mother-In-Law." "Tennessee Stud." That one was good. I don't know what happened to those. We recorded those in Georgia.
Goldmine: What was going on with you during the five-year period between the making of The Envoy and Sentimental Hygiene albums?
Warren Zevon: I was touring solo. It was the first time that I had toured like a real touring guy, instead of going out for a month, with a band and an album. It was the first real nuts and bolts, bread and butter touring. Mostly me and Duncan.
Goldmine: Sentimental Hygiene is one of your most underrated albumns. I looked at the review I wrote of it in 1987 and there's a remark in there about "the primary theme of your songs is the desperate need for love." Would you disagree with that? [no response] Or lets say, a person's desperate need for love.
Warren Zevon: I think it would be perilous for me to try to think of an overview kind of theme for myself. You don't want me to do that. 'Cause the next time I sit down with the guitar I'm gonna be thinking, "Now, should I write one of them 'desperate need for love' songs like I told that cat I wrote?"
Goldmine: [laughter] I wouldn't want you to do that.
Warren Zevon: I don't want to take that chance.
Goldmine: No, that's okay. Back in the time when you were writing the commercial jingles, was that the last time anybody tried to get you to conform to their way of doing things, when it comes to work?
Warren Zevon: Um ... Well, nobody
tries to do that as much as your own best friends. The people you love
do that. I mean, the people you love do that in the studio. It's part
of life. They don't do it so much in TV writing. It's very interesting
and surprising. They don't do it that much, like you'd think. In fact,
they just don't use it if they don't like it. They use the romantic
theme for the chase. But they don't tell you how to write the chase.
Or, if they do, they tell you so early on that you don't mind hearing it. You don't mind hearing the director saying, "Well, I have a mauve feeling about this guy. I think he's a lapsed Lutheran, and I think that informs his pathos. And I think there's a hubris aspect to his .." And you just nod and say, "Yeah, crazy. I got all that." [laughs] I like that work. I enjoy it very much. It's really exhausting, but it's a lot of fun.
Goldmine: You've written many songs with animal themes. Are animals more intelligent than humans?
Warren Zevon: [pause] Taken collectively.
Goldmine: Do you see some of the newer, big, established rock bands, like Pearl Jam, R.E.M, U2, having the same kind of respect for musical history that the musicians of your generation were required to have, or seemed to have automatically?
Warren Zevon: What do you mean?
Goldmine: Well, it seems like a lot of bands that are big today, the ones that are being embraced quickly by MTV viewers, are sort of breaking all the rules of the music that preceded them. The rock music of today just seems kind of thin.
Warren Zevon: I still don't know exactly what you mean. I'm not uninterested in the question, but I want to get you to elaborate as much as possible.
Goldmine: Well, for instance, if Neil Young wants to work with Pearl Jam, that's his business. But are they on his level? Some people might question whether a band like Pearl Jam are of the caliber of a Neil Young. They have a huge audience, for sure, but ...
Warren Zevon: I have to say that I haven't really heard Pearl Jam. And I don't know why. It's not that I haven't heard "young music" or alternative music. I just somehow don't seem to know what Pearl Jam sounds like.
Goldmine: It just seems like a lot of the bands that are big now would never have been big at an earlier time, if they had to rely purely on their music. Because they just don't have the chops, and they don't have the songs. Maybe that's showing my age, too.
Warren Zevon: Well, I dunno. I don't know what "chops" means. Keith Emerson had chops. That's chops. Um ... I have a theory. It's a long, boring, and ultimately depressing one. Which is that all art forms evolve, and die. There's nothing you can do about it. I wanted nothing more than to be a classical composer and conductor. That's what I wanted. That's what was exciting to me. That's what I believed would be rewarding, and every thought of it was fun and exciting, romantic, swashbuckling, whatever. The problem was that there was no such thing. And there really hasn't been any such thing since a cat named Anton von Webern [Austrian composer, 1883-1945] was around. He was like "the last classical composer," in the same way that maybe Samuel Beckett was the last traditional writer, or something. This is my theory, and I told you it was boring and depressing.
Goldmine: No, no. Go ahead.
Warren Zevon: So, what happens when
there's no more literature is that there has to be something else. What
happens when there's no more classical music is that, all of a sudden,
bar music becomes elevated to the artistic stature of what classical
music was in the 19th Century. So, a conglomerate like the Beatles and
their producer becomes every bit as important and of the same caliber
and quality, as the great classical composers of the century before. With
certainly no depreciation in quality of artistic, spiritual, whatever.
So, what I'm getting at is, maybe rock 'n' roll is just running out. See, I think that these art forms, they run out. If you want to be a classical guy today and you want to write symphonies, like I wanted to do, then you pick the decade of the past that you want to write like. And you do some gimmick to "put a spin on it," as the critics say. And that's what you do. And I don't think that's so very vital. "I'm gonna write like Mahler, but with radios playing."
For some kind of multi-media, ah ... That's not what I mean. I'm getting carried away with my analogy. So, I don't think there's gonna be another Bob Dylan. I don't think there's gonna be another guy with an acoustic guitar and a leather jacket that comes out of the folk tradition. I do think there's gonna be another guy, or gal, certainly. But I think that they'll be a songwriter/filmmaker. I don't know who the last painter is that matters. Julian Schnabel? But he's still like some other guy, or whatever. So now you've got painters where half the canvas is op art and the other half is some style from 1910. It's just fragmented, post post-modernism [sic].
So, maybe that's about done. Basically there has to be new art forms. The next Picasso is gonna be a virtual reality guy. So, maybe these bands, they don't have the stature 'cause they don't have the benefit of riding the crest of classicism. And that's why. It's not that they're less talented, they just have the disadvantage of being at a historical point past the peak. That's what I think. That's my theory. Nirvana, they were awful fuckin' good. They really were.
Goldmine: But are you saying that the good part about them was the originality?
Warren Zevon: No, I thought the good part about them was the music. But it was a post-modern deal. It's hard to say that you like certain things of Samuel Beckett's the same way you like something 50 years before him that was in a more conventional kind of large, clear, moving, organized kind of structure. It's a lot easier to say you liked Rubber Soul than Nirvana. But I think there was a lot of talent in Nirvana. A lot of talent in that guy.
Goldmine: What do you think of Tori Amos?
Warren Zevon: Haven't really heard
her. First couple of albums of P.J. Harvey's, I thought they were real,
real great. I'm a little less fond of this new one, 'cause it sounds like
the influence of Nine Inch Nails. I mean, they're fine, he [Trent Reznor]
is fine. But I don't want to hear him as a influence on editing styles.
I'm not interested in Quentin Tarantino's influence on swearing styles,
either. [laughs] "James Ellroy Swearing School." [Harvey's] first
two albums, Dry and whatever the other one was, I thought were everything
that alternative should be, because they were a little baffling to someone
my age. But they were of a whole different kind of thrust of lyric point
of view. And they were dissonant and weird.
For someone to be playing that way, it's like she's playing some kind of Bartok shit with that trio. And I thought that was magnificent. That fulfilled my highest ideas of what these young people are doing. It's kind of scary. I like that Frank Black kid, too.
Goldmine: Can you get away with giving a performance without playing "Werewolves Of London" as part of your show?
Warren Zevon: There's no reason why I should. There's no justification for it.
Goldmine: Well, you want to play it, then.
Warren Zevon: I tried [omitting
it] once. And we got, like, hate mail on the bus. One of our favorite musicians
said to us, yeah, he tried to stop playing such-and-such. And I said, "And..?"
He said, "You put it back in." If you had a lot of hits, and
you hated 'em all, and somebody made you do them, then it could
be burdensome. But playing one three-minute song that still seems funny,
that was and is an homage to Hunter Thompson, I don't mind playing it.
That's a fact that seems to elude most journalists because, I guess, it's
so obvious. And it wouldn't occur to Hunter, because he's too much of a
southern gentleman to consider the fact that he's been ripped off.
No, what I've said is that, [only] in the special circumstance that you had some big work you were composing and performing that excluded doing a lot of different tunes. Or if you were undergoing a sea-change transformation, like Neil did for awhile: "I'm gonna play you 20 new songs, and you're gonna like it." and [so long as] people kinda know you're gonna do that, then that's fine. It's fine to not do what's expected of you. But otherwise, just going out there to play songs, and you're too bored, or too cool, to play some old song that you know they want to hear, then it's fucked-up. It's like, "I'm too cool to make you happy. No, not for three minutes."
Or even several songs times three minutes. It's like telling the audience, "Hey, I didn't put these songs out to make you happy, I did it to buy that big house in Montecito. And I don't live there anymore, so .. I'm not gonna make you happy now!"
Goldmine: When did you get into fishing?
Warren Zevon: Well, it wasn't the first time in my life, but recently when I started fishing it was because of my dentist, Dr. Stan. Who is a consultant on many, many matters, spiritual and profane. He said, "You're going to Tasmania? Well, you gotta get up on the stage and tell people you want to go fishing. Just tell 'em from the stage." He's always saying that. He says, "You want an old '50 Chevy truck like mine? You gotta tell 'em on the stage. Just stop the show and say, 'Does anybody know where I can get ..?' You can pick up a great deal! Well, when you get to Tasmania, you've gotta go fishing." That's like the dream of every trout fisherman. So, I found I could spread the word that I was gonna be in Boseman and I wanted to go fishing.
Goldmine: I have a question written down here, but I know this is probably the kind of thing you don't like. Here goes. Which is more accurate about you as an artist: that you have a truly cynical world view, or that you have a peculiar talent for writing songs from a cynical, yet neutral, point of view?
Warren Zevon: [muffled groan] That's unworthy of you.
Goldmine: Okay, skip it.
Warren Zevon: I think that's one your dentist told you to ask me.
Goldmine. No, I don't even have a dentist. You've always seemed to be part comedian. And obviously, the lyrics to some of your songs are very funny.
Warren Zevon: Well, I think humor has a great deal of value. Humor is definitely good. My father was a very funny guy. A very funny guy in a very special kind of characteristic way, that is probably not unlike whatever kind of way that I'm funny, at my funniest or best. My son is a very, very funny guy.
Goldmine: No matter how serious you might ever care to get with your music, and at times you are clearly going in a serious direction, have you always consciously kept in mind that this is, after all, show business? And that your job is to "keep 'em laughing," or "leave 'em laughing," as the saying goes?
Warren Zevon: No, but I think it
is very, very, very, very important to remember that it's show business.
'Cause if you forget, then it's one of the things that I really am against,
like even more than the Sandinistas. And that's hypocrisy. I really don't
like that. And it's hard, I find, this year because now there's a new "slacker
style" of interviewer. Like radio. And it's hard for a person who's
been on the radio for several years to pretend like they're not in show
business. And I find it very grating. [Generation] X-er is a hard style
to keep up, when you've got just as much mascara caked around your eyes
as the old guys in Vegas.
I think you have to say, and I've always said this, "Perry Farrell, Perry Como: same job, same guy." Same fuckin' guy. I don't care if he rubs broken glass on his chest, or if he wears a white dinner jacket. It's the same fucking job! Don't be a hypocrite. If you can say something serious and important and moving, and something about your feelings and/or humankind, that's great. But as soon as it gets stupid, you better get 'em laughing. Because otherwise, it'll be horrible. Hypocrisy and pompousness, which go hand-in-hand -- that shit'll make your skin crawl.
The purpose of art is not to educate. The purpose of art is not to prosletyze or sway the vote. There's something else for that, and that's fine, but it's not art. Not fine art. The purpose of fine art is to say, "Gee, this planet's not so bad.
Look at this nonsense the human race is coming up with." You know, "I'm just a person, like this Paul Simon fellow. That makes me feel better." That's what art is supposed to do. One of the things my ex-girlfriend used to say is the thing she hated more than anything, about any kind of art or any kind of show, was being told how to feel. So, if you find yourself telling people how to feel, then you're straining for effect, and you're better off trying to make people laugh. It's fine to tell 'em how you feel. Not to tell them how to feel. Thanks for the thought, my dear.
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This article first appeared in Goldmine, August 18, 1995, Vol. 21, #17, Issue 393. It appears here by arrangement with the author, Steve Roeser, who retains all copyrights and publication rights. Its republication here does not imply permission for use in any other way, including duplication. Permission is also NOT given to link to this page from any other website. Thank you.