Warren Zevon: My Ride's Here

NZ Listener

 

MY RIDE’S HERE, Warren Zevon (Artemis)        

 

The word that Warren Zevon is dying of lung cancer reached me almost the same day as his new album, eerily titled My Ride’s Here.

 

Written and recorded prior to the prognosis, the apparent prescience of the title shouldn’t come as a surprise; his previous album was called Life’ll Kill Ya. In fact just about any of Zevon’s discs could serve as his own black-comic epitaph, adorned as they all are with his logo - a photograph of a skull dressed in Zevon’s trademark spectacles, a burning cigarette dangling from its grinning mouth. And he’s been mocking mortality in song at least as far back as “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” from his 1976 self-titled breakthrough album.

 

For a long time Zevon was as scary as one of his songs. Jackson Browne, who produced his early albums, has recalled him “just tearing off into the night in Morocco one time, drunk, by himself. For him, it was all about trials by fire."

 

Even after the raging alcoholic cleaned up in the mid-80s his writing hardly stayed on the straight and narrow. Though it will inevitably be his sole hit, 78’s “Werewolves Of London”, for which he is remembered (and taken on it’s own it passes for novelty), the past decade has seen some of his darkest, funniest and most consistent recordings.

 

That said, My Ride’s Here is unlikely to bring Zevon a last-minute burst of mainstream recognition. In many ways it encapsulates the traits that have confined him to cultdom all these years.

 

Zevon’s melodies are big, almost bombastic, like folk tunes reborn as rock symphonies. Whether playing guitar (of which there is a lot here) or piano (for which he’s better known) he stomps out his chords with an unyeilding force that hints at his obsessive nature. The opener “Sacrificial Lambs” is a case in point; by the end of it you feel a little like the sacrifice in question. And he has a weird predilection for marches. There’s one on this album called “MacGuillycuddy’s Reeks”: a lost-love song with a Scottish setting, spookily written from the point of view of a man confined to a hospital bed.

 

For some, Zevon’s voice will still be the sticking point. Unlike Lou Reed, a similarly literary songwriter who makes an artform of turning melodies into monologues, he’s a real singer, clearly articulating his frequently pretty tunes. Yet his stentorian delivery can get exhausting over ten tracks. It’s not hard to hear why, for the most part, Linda Ronstadt has had more luck with Zevon’s songs than Zevon himself.

 

But those who seek mirth in the same places as Zevon all seem to find their way to him. On Ride he has written songs with such natural soulmates as spoof crime writer Carl Hiassen and gonzo journo Hunter S. Thompson. Since Zevon’s illness, Bob Dylan has been paying respects by performing a handful of his songs each night in concert.

 

In the end it is Zevon’s gallows humour that will always confine him to the margins. Firearms are a favourite topic. Somehow when black gangstas rap about this stuff it has mass appeal, but when skinny sons of Russian immigrants do it people start to get worried. All the way back to “Roland, The Headless Thompson Gunner” Zevon has taken a disconcerting delight in depictions of extreme violence. This time he almost parodies himself in a song called “Hit Somebody”, the saga of a hockey anti-hero with lurid images of “blood on the ice” and a shouting cameo from David Letterman.

 

And then there’s the finale, from which the album takes its title – quite possibly the last thing we’ll hear him sing. It’s classic Zevon, fearless and mad, throwing Jesus, John Wayne, Shelly, Keats together in a Texas hotel and recording the punch-lines. The final verse finds Zevon looking death straight in the eye, and he still can’t resist cracking a joke. “I was staying at the Westin/I was playing to a draw/When in walked Charlton Heston/with the Tablets of the Law/ He said ‘It’s still the Greatest Story’ I said ‘Man I’d like to stay/But I’m bound for glory/I’m on my way/My ride’s here…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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