Normally I wouldn’t review a compilation album, but in this case I’m willing to make an exception. Warren Zevon started out as a folk singer in his teens, but eventually embraced rock and roll. These days, he’s very under-appreciated, despite the fact that he is one of the most respected musicians of the 20th. Century.
This compilation, the aptly titled Genius, was released as a primer to Warren’s farewell album, The Wind, which he began recording after he learned that he was dying of lung cancer. As far as compilations go, this one is actually a very strong reflection of Warren’s career. Not perfect by any means, but nevertheless it does paint a wonderful picture of the chronological progression of his career by placing songs in the sequential order of their respective albums. Even the cover art and photos in the lyrics booklet with the skulls all in dioramas reflecting specific songs on the compilation reflect Warren’s offbeat, sometimes black sense of humor.
The album starts out with Poor Poor Pitiful Me, an ironic rock tune about a man who has too much sex. No kidding. He can’t keep up with the sexual appetites of his various mistresses and wants it all to end.
I'd lay my head on the railroad tracks
And wait for the Double "E"
But the railroad don't run no more
Poor, poor pitiful me
This is followed by a series of more mellow numbers showing his folk influences. The first of which is The French Inhaler. It’s a sad story of the seedier side of Hollywood where would-be starlets were robbed of everything they had by con artists.
Your pretty face
It looked so wasted
Another pretty face
The French Inhaler
He stamped and mailed her
"So long, Norman"
She said, "So long, Norman"
The next is a strangely beautiful ballad about heroin addiction titled Carmalita. Are you starting to catch on yet why Warren never really broke the mainstream?
Well, I pawned my Smith Corona
And I went to meet my man
He hangs out down on Alvarado Street
By the Pioneer chicken stand
This is followed by what Neil Peart would describe as the anti-love song. Hasten Down the Wind is something every man on the planet is able to relate to, as it describes a couple who have reached the end of their relationship, but neither one is entirely ready to give it up just yet.
She's so many women
He can't find the one who was his friend
So he's hanging on to half her heart
He can't have the restless part
So he tells her to hasten down the wind
Track 5 is without a doubt Warren’s most famous song: Werewolves of London. Many have speculated that Warren was referring to the yuppies, but most people are just content for it to be about werewolves. As a matter of fact, my younger brother will browbeat it into you that he’s talking about werewolves if you try to suggest otherwise. But everyone knows that piano riff and staccato guitar with Warren’s famous chorus…
He's the hairy handed gent who ran amuck in Kent
Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair
Better stay away from him
He'll rip your lungs out, Jim
I'd like to meet his tailor
Ahoo, Werewolves of London
This is followed up by a rather bizarre ballad titled Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. It’s something of a folk/ghost story with minimalist instrumentation and driven primarily by the lyrics. The final two lines are particularly cryptic, and have been a subject of great debate among musicians and writers for years.
The eternal Thompson gunner
still wandering through the night
Now it's ten years later but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it
Next is Excitable Boy, an upbeat, jazzy number about a psychotic young man whom everyone just quietly excuses as an “excitable boy." If it isn’t clear to you by now, Warren had a penchant for satire.
He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark
Excitable boy, they all said
And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he's just an excitable boy
Next up, the theme song of the US government: Lawyers, Guns and Money. Though some of the references in this song may elude younger audiences, they were very poignant in the 70’s. This is one of Warren’s best rock anthems.
I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
They'll get me out of this, hyeah
We switch over to a slower number, Interlude No. 1 which segues directly into Play It All Night Long. This folk-rock number is Warren’s take on the decay of rural America, and deals with some particularly risqué themes.
Daddy's doing Sister Sally
Grandma's dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We'll get through somehow
A Certain Girl is a rock anthem that, once again, men everywhere can relate to. You have a close female friend. You really dig her. But you know it’s not mutual. And you refuse to tell your friends anything more than there’s a certain girl you’ve been sweet on and are trying to win over.
Well, there's a certain girl I've been in love with a long, long time
What's her name? I can't tell you (Ahh...)
I can't reveal her name until she's mine
What's her name? I can't tell you (Ahh...)
I've tried to make her time and time again
Still we're introduced as nothing but friends
And there's a certain girl I've been in love with a long, long time
What's her name? I can't tell you (Ahh...)
Looking for the Next Best Thing is a rock tune about the idea that there is no such thing as perfect, so we must settle for second best, which is really the greatest thing life is going to give you. Despite clever lyrics, lush production, and wonderful instrumentation, themes like this prevented these sorts of songs from ever connecting with a mainstream audience who only wanted to hear idealized visions of reality.
Don Quixote had his windmills
Ponce de Leon took his cruise
Took Sinbad seven voyages
To see that it was all a ruse
Detox Mansion is another rock anthem based on Warren’s experiences when he had to be sent to rehab for his reckless substance abuse. His fiancé left him while he was recuperating, so this song was his catharsis, and one can hear a gritty sort of optimism through it all.
Left my home in Music City
In the back of a limousine
Now I'm doin' my own laundry
And I'm getting those clothes clean
Reconsider Me is one of Warren’s touching love ballads, asking a lover forgiveness for deeds he has repented for. Like many of Warren’s ballads, the instrumentation is minimalist, but the production quite beautiful. It’s a very soft, heartfelt song, and a favorite of mine.
You can go and be
What you want to be
And it'll be alright
If we disagree
I'm the one who cares
And I hope you'll see
That I'm the one who loves you
Following up is a bluesy, gritty hard rock number, Boom Boom Mancini. This song is actually based on a real slice of Americana. Ray Mancini was a lightweight boxing champion who accidentally killed a man during one of his matches. Though acquitted in court, it destroyed Mancini’s spirit and his career. Rag time piano and crunchy electric blues guitar interact here to create a real “tough guy" vibe.
When they asked him who was responsible
For the death of Du Koo Kim
He said, "Someone should have stopped the fight, and told me it was him."
They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back
Splendid Isolation is a bluesy, laid-back number about misanthropy. Really. A crooning harmonica mixes trades off with Warren’s voice as he describes his desire to leave humanity behind. Not to beat a dead horse, but ol’ Warren never pulled a punch with his lyrics.
I'm putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don't want to see their faces
I don't want to hear them scream
Everybody knows Raspberry Beret. Warren lends his folky, baritone voice to the cover of this Prince tune. It really shows his versatility as an overall musician in addition to his obvious talent as a songwriter.
She wore a raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second hand store
When it was warm she didn't wear much more
I think I love her
Searching for a Heart is a love song in a similar vein to Reconsider Me, but dealing less with repairing love and more simply finding it. Though he uses similar techniques in writing these sorts of songs, he manages to make each one sound distinctive and avoids clichés.
They tell me love requires a little standing in line
And I've been waiting for you, lover, for a long, long time
I've been pacing the floor
I've been watching the door
Meanwhile I'll keep searching for a heart
Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a very tongue-in-cheek song that seems to dance around several ideas, while never really being too specific. This is also during the period in Warren’s career when he became more experimental, as showcased by the keyboards in this song.
I called up my friend LeRoy on the phone
I said, Buddy, I'm afraid to be alone
'Cause I got some weird ideas in my head
About things to do in Denver when you're dead
Mr. Bad Example is another personal favorite. A very off-beat sense of humor fills this little polka in which the title character unashamedly cheats, rips off, and cons everybody he comes across for his own personal gain.
I opened up an agency somewhere down the line
To hire aboriginals to work the opal mines
But I attached their wages and took a whopping cut
And whisked away their workman's comp and pauperized the lot
Mutineer is the title track from one of Warren’s albums that the critics really panned, but is still a quality song. It’s mostly synths and percussion, and it’s a very low-tempo, plaintive number with a romantic air to it.
I was born to rock the boat
Some may sink but we will float
Grab your coat - let's get out of here
You're my witness
I'm your mutineer
I Was In the House When the House Burned Down is another cryptic song with an all acoustic set behind the lyrics. This was something of a return to the roots for Warren considering this was written very late in his career.
I had the *** till it all got smoked
I kept the promise till the vow got broke
I had to drink from the lovin' cup
I stood on the banks till the river rose up
I saw the bride in her wedding gown
I was in the house when the house burned down
Finishing up this compilation is Genius. This was among Warren’s most artistic compositions, completely divorcing himself from the usual folk/rock ensemble and going for another acoustic set as the backdrop to a cynical musing on intellectual genius versus artistic genius.
There's a face in every window of the Songwriters' Neighborhood
Everybody's your best friend when you're doing well--I mean good
The poet who lived next door when you were young and poor
Grew up to be a backstabbing entrepreneur
For those of you who are looking to get into Warren Zevon, this is the perfect start. In one album, you can see the best of his long, storied career. While most compilation albums are nothing but hodgepodges of radio singles and the occasional title track, this one really does do an excellent job of capturing Warren’s sound as it continually evolved from his 1975 self-titled, all the way to My Ride’s Here released just two weeks before his tragic diagnosis in 2002.
So come September 7, the anniversary of Warren’s death, get this album if you haven’t already, pop it in the stereo, and don a pair of uber-dorky glasses in honor of one of the unsung heroes of American music.