They were playing Warren Zevon in the pizza joint where I sat nursing a Chinese cola: a little “Mohammed’s Radio” in the afternoon to help digest your shrimp-and-anchovy special. A few more of his toe-tapping near-hits wafted from the speakers, 20-year-old sagas of defeat, dissolution, and romanticism all shot to hell. Cool, I thought. And then out of nowhere came the sickening death-rattle grin of “Ain’t That Pretty at All,” a 1982 song that never grazed the charts or the anthologies, a roar of spleen, contempt, and dismay that summed up Warren Zevon’s noble philosophy, not to mention his illustrious career. “So I’m gonna hurl myself against the wall/Cuz I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.”
Put that on your pizza and swallow it. With such a sterling recipe for success and happiness, no wonder the mention of Warren Zevon’s name nowadays elicits responses like “Was that him pulling substitute-bandleader duty last night on Letterman?” or “Wasn’t he in detox with Elizabeth Taylor?” or “I thought he died ages ago.” Ruin as well as obsolescence was always built into the equation of his work, part of its waggish rock-wastrel charm—what’s the point of being the anti-Jackson Browne when nobody quite remembers anymore who Jackson Browne was in the first place? Like a disbarred lawyer hustling shady real estate schemes, Zevon’s been running in place for years, through too many or not enough erratic albums, amicable record-label divorces, dead-end gigs, and blown chances. By 1995’s washed-up-and-out Mutineer he was still gamely singing, “I’m a junk-bond king playing Seminole bingo,” putting the best face on a lost cause. You could feel the flop-sweat under the singer’s collar, smell last night’s piss on his shiny $300 shoes. Not a pretty picture, to be sure, but then unreconstructed fatalism has always been the one true source of Zevon’s music and sense of black humor: the absolute assurance that all his bad dreams were bound to come true, all his worst fears were grounded.
Zevon’s latest missive from the tomb is Life’ll Kill Ya, on which he sounds a lot like life itself—one vicious motherfucker of a laugh riot. “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down” kicks things off, at once totally predictable and an enormous revelation. Here’s the same old Warren with a brand-new trickster bag—strummed folk implosions topped off with a weird demi-falsetto quaver, a bad-medicine-show jamboree right out of Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Playing most of the album’s instruments (guitar, piano, a hint of theremin and pennywhistle) in front of a rough two-man rhythm section, he’s stripped away the fussy, conservatory-trained ornamentation that was always tripping him up. (Did anyone ever make it all the way through Transverse City?) I’d call Life’ll Kill Ya a roots record if I actuallythought Zevon had any, unless they’re in the Hollywood Delta blues (the ominously hilarious “My Shit’s Fucked Up”), Elvis-overdose impersonators (“Porcelain Monkey”), and the unshakable conviction that the private dick in The Long Goodbye should have been played by Bo Diddley (just about Zevon’s entire oeuvre). Life’ll Kill Ya has all the absurd eloquence of the best Christmas decoration I ever saw, hung in the front yard of a ramshackle house adjoining a Seventh-Day Adventist church: a simple pink flamingo dangling from a noose.
So what if he rewrites “Mutineer” as “Hostage-O”; the melody’s as timeless and ancient as a (de) Sade ballad or a Dave Davies B side, and who would refuse the chance to hear Zevon implore, “I can see me bound and gagged/Dragged behind the clownmobile”? There’s something perversely inspirational in the vast store of conviction and personal authority he can bring to a line like “The shit that used to work—it won’t work now.” Over a somber, vaguely Elizabethan guitar figure, Zevon’s languid baritone will make a nest of the shit that overtakes the best and the least of us alike. “That Amazing Grace sorta passed you by,” he mutters with the stone-faced finality of a fitting epitaph: From the president to the rest of us lowly interns, we’re all fucked in the end.
For “Ourselves to Know,” Zevon reaches all the way back to A.D. 1099 and the vainglorious road show known to Christendom as the Crusades. Singing as your basic knight-errant ostensibly bent on restoring “the one true cross,” he sees all his valiant hopes fall by the wayside, heaps of armor scattered along the road to Jerusalem like so many monuments to reckless folly. Still, the song has a strangely buoyant cast—a plaintive, melancholic esprit de corpse that lends the whole enterprise an air of quixotic nobility. After all, folly has always been its own reward for Sir Warren, and here he could be telling fortunes from the bones of saints: Everything falls apart, nobody wins, and the only grail is the long downward journey to self-knowledge.
There’s chivalry in honorable failure, in the righteous cause of reducing Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again” to a snail’s dirge or ending Life’ll Kill Ya with the homespun benediction of “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” Be good to each other, he implores, be brave, “play nice.” He’s wasting his breath, of course, but what else is breath good for? Whether you’re a hopeless cynic or a hopeless romantic (or in Zevon’s case, the epitome of both), life will find you, chew you up, and torch the family manse for good measure. Don’t worry, though—Warren’ll keep the home fires burning until your return.