Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Warren Zevon - Stand In The Fire

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #18:
    “Don't it make you want to rock and roll / All night long…”

Ten years after the recording of this 1980 live and lively Warren Zevon album, I saw him in concert on a bill, oddly but wonderfully enough, with X, which I thought of as the perfect Soft Dark L.A. Underbelly Show. The only out-of-place anomalousness of this L.A.-osity was that I was seeing it in Phoenix, where I was living at the time (imagine the pervasiveness, though: "Los Angeles -- Have Soft Dark Underbelly, Will Travel"). 

But whatever the state of my geographic discombobulation, I was witnessing a marvelous teaming of the so-called California Mafia and SoCal Punk -- although I would argue that the sardonic and cynical Zevon was too dark and edgy ever to Take It Easy, and he could indeed run on empty forever without falling behind, or so it seemed at the time.

But I digress -- though accidentally, like a martyr. Stand In The Fire, however, never deviates, staying the course from beginning to end as a ferocious and fiery concert album of fervor and fun, with selectively cherry-picked cuts (“The dog ate the part we didn’t like,” states the liner notes). Not only was it “recorded live at the Roxy” in L.A., but it was recorded at a time when Zevon was at a peak performance level, trailing clouds of big-hit glory with radio staples like “Werewolves Of London” and “Excitable Boy,” and garnering critical kudos for such songs as the poignant “Carmelita” and “Tenderness On The Block,” and the punchy “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.”

A representative sampling from his early albums up through Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School is backed with a stellar band featuring blistering, controlled-chaos lead guitar from David Landau. Zevon proves himself a commanding, expressive performer, and a strong personality adept not only at striking up the band but in revving up the crowd. At one point in the often gruesome “Excitable Boy,” during the point when our highly-string titular psycho “dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones,” a blood-curdling Hollywood-style scream, off in the background, can be heard -- right on cue.

In addition, a rollicking and raucous version of “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” leaves little doubt that “the shit has hit the fan” for a down-on-his-luck globe-trotting adventurer caught between a rock and a hard place: “Dad, get me out of THIS ONE!” Furthermore, “Werewolves Of London” especially showcases Zevon’s zeal; as he describes how a “Little old lady got mutilated late last night” (which disturbingly rolls a little too trippingly off the tongue), he deliciously alters a line that should send shivers down the spine of sensitive singer-songwriters everywhere:

    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
    And he’s looking for JAMES TAYLOR!

Later in the song, when he gets into the more tonsorial elements of werewolf-dom and  recounting how he “saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's,” Zevon delivers the next line -- uttered in the studio version in a dryly sardonic tone -- with a lot of attitude here, becoming jealously, royally pissed-off at his hirsute adversary. "HIS HAIR WAS PERFECT!" he screams as he huffs and growls off to the end of the song like Lon Chaney, Jr. chasing after the queen.

Once you hear these live versions of some of Zevon’s best known songs, it's hard to go back to listening to the relatively tame originals. You might even find yourself sneaking a listen to Stand's “Mohammed’s Radio” just to hear the call-and-response, outdated reference though it may be, between Zevon and the girly chorus: “Even the Ayatollah has his problems”/ “What a cry-baby!”  But it’s a close-call when it comes to “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” another solid rocker here but, to make way for on-stage tomfoolery, my favorite lines (up there with the "Waring Blender" ones) get all messed up and muddled:
    Well, I met a girl at the Rainbow bar
    She asked me if I'd beat her
    She took me back to the Hyatt House...
    ...I don't want to talk about it.
I miss hearing that sheepish admission, “I don’t want to talk about it.” But there’s not too much else I regret about Stand In The Fire as it closes with the raucous drive of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and a propulsive rave-on cover of “Bo Diddley’s A Gunslinger.” Live albums can be hit-or-miss affairs, and since this one has consistency on its side you can’t help but think of the coulda-been inclusions like "Hasten Down The Wind," “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” (both of which made it onto a later live album), and "Carmelita."

All in all, though, Stand In The Fire -- though a reminder of how much Warren Zevon is missed -- is still a sumptuous treat. You'll enjoy every sandwich.

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