Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Onward to Sarcasm

Although he did evince an undeniable early penchant for songpoetry, the question of whether Warren Zevon was a wimp was always a setup. First you'd point out that Linda Ronstadt paid the rent, then you'd notice the .44 or whatever on his dinner plate. You'd add lots of stuff about violence--not satirized, you'd say, but embraced and exorcised simultaneously--and cite a personal life bent by prodigious quantities of vodka and domestic turmoil. Bam--case closed. This was no wimp, this was rock and roll's answer to Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah. On almost every album, especially Excitable Boy and The Envoy, he sang the wild subconscious of the American male. Werewolf, rapist, check passer, mercenary, dope dealer, James brother, NSC operative, he put his head on the EE tracks for penance, and when the train didn't come he hurled himself against the wall of "the Louvre museum." Also, he rocked out.

Excitable Boy went gold and "Werewolves of London" became a hit of sorts and then a classic of sorts, but Zevon's dementia failed to win him a pop following. What's more, it never made a dent among the young insanity fans who keep the indie circuit going round. So chances are you could use A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon, which Asylum compiled last Christmas after Zevon cast his corporate lot elsewhere. The selection forgives more of his singer-songwriter reveries than one might prefer, but only "Accidentally Like a Martyr" throws up the kind of tuneful fog Ronstadt fell for on the tastefully omitted "Hasten Down the Wind." Unlike so many songpoets, Zevon's a real writer--most of his lyrics you can listen to, frequently, ravers even more than songpoems. I'll take him over his boy Ross Macdonald any day, because he imagines his tricksters, blackguards, and flat-out psychotics as individuals. In fact, he fucking inhabits them, for better and worse. A decade-plus after it began to surface, Zevon's best material--more than a best-of can contain--still kicks you in the gut so you wanna get up and shout about it.

On his first new album in five years, Sentimental Hygiene (Virgin), Zevon doesn't go for the same intensity. The songs are often played for satiric laughter, sarcastic rather than ironic much less inhabited, and three exploit the travails of stardom, a topic he's never stooped to before. Off alcohol and working on the fourth love of his life since interviewers started counting (she's an interviewer herself, and may she prevail), Zevon might even be accused of losing touch with his demented muse. But in fact the album is a hoot and a half, starting with the star songs. "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands" updates "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man," "Trouble Waiting to Happen" establishes the right unrepentant distance from his amply documented binges ("I read things I didn't know I'd done/It sounded like a lot of fun"), and "Detox Mansion" sends up every pampered substance abuser turned therapy addict in Tinseltown, starting with WZ: "Well, it's tough to be somebody/And it's hard not to fall apart/Up here on Rehab Mountain/We gonna learn these things by heart." And while you could complain that "Boom Boom Mancini" reduces lived violence to show business, it doesn't minimize Zevon's complicity--not only has he made a few bucks in the business himself, but rushing home to watch the rugged lightweight demolish Bobby Chacon, Zevon is every hapless spectator who feels his life is one long "game [of] be hit and hit back."

Maybe sarcasm is underrated. Maybe the kick of Zevon's excitable-boy classics is just a species of sensationalism, which has its limitations even if it too is underrated. After all, Zevon's cathartic embraces and leaps of identification don't seem to have exorcised too damn much, not jut in the world outside but in his private life, so maybe something else will do the trick. One reason I prefer The Envoy to Excitable Boy, which his faithful cite as the standard work, is that it also tries something else, balancing insanity with half-resigned love lyrics. The lilting betrothal "Let Nothing Come Between Us" is as much a song God wrote as "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" or "Ain't That Pretty at All." And crucially, what makes it such a winner is as much its lilt as its conjugal virtue, because the real question about Zevon has never been whether he's a wimp but whether he's a clod--whether his sense of rhythm is good enough to induce you to listen as frequently as his lyrics deserve. I'm not talking swing or funk or anything arcane, just straight propulsion of the sort punk made commonplace. Sure his ravers rock out, but no matter which El Lay sessioneer is keeping time--Rick Marotta, Jeff Porcaro, Russ Kunkel (though not Mick Fleetwood, who makes "Werewolves of London" go)--they stay on the beat rather than racing it to the end-groove. More than any metaphoric flight, that's why this classically trained pro never caught on with the younger set. And on Sentimental Hygiene he means to make it right.

Zevon could be accommodating the evolution from 1982, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, to the DOR tempos of now pop. But the difference is more than George Clinton, whose arrangement carries Zevon's unnecessarily evenhanded retelling of the Mau Mau myth. This album has a rhythmic lift that gives its sarcasm an edge, most gloriously on "The Factory," which sings the collective ego of the working-class hero, dissenting with a touch of nasty from the tragic paeans of the best-known of Zevon's many hairy-chested collaborators, Bruce Springsteen. Thank Zevon's latest sessioneers, anchored on all but two tracks by the Waddy Wachtel homages of R.E.M. minus Michael Stipe, and give special credit to unsung drummer Bill Berry, who's always deserved (and played) something a little more kinetic than folk rock. And then hope that Zevon stays together enough to keep honing his craft. Would-be exorcists we've got plenty of these days.

Village Voice, June 23, 1987