Friday, June 15, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: PLAY THOSE DEAD MEN'S SONGS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 15, 2007


Writer Carl Hiaasen sums it up best in the liner notes: “One of the most heinous crimes in rock ’n’ roll was the suppression, intentional or otherwise, of Warren Zevon’s mind-blowing Stand in the Fire.”

I’m not sure if it ranks up there with the murder of John Lennon and the fatal stabbing at Altamont, but the weird failure to release Zevon’s definitive live album on CD for all these years — who knows, and who cares why — indeed is a dirty, rotten shame.

But now, nearly four years after Zevon’s death, that wrong has been righted. Now, at a time when some music-biz pundits are actually contemplating the death of the CD format, Stand in the Fire is finally on CD. At his favorite barstool in Rock ’n’ Roll Hell, Zevon chuckles.

I can’t say it was “worth the wait,” but, dang, it’s great to hear this album in its entirety again (plus some bonus tracks). Every song is a jewel, and most of them just make me wish I had louder speakers.

One of the stranger ironies of Zevon’s twisted career is that while he sang wicked and brutal songs of murder, mercenaries, extremism, and vice, he sprang out of the ’70s Los Angeles wimp-rock scene. His truest champion was Mr. Sensitive, himself, Jackson Browne. And I’m sure more people are familiar with Linda Ronstadt’s renditions of “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” than with Zevon’s. (That’s unfortunate, but as Zevon says in his introduction to “Hasten Down the Wind,” “This is the song that came along and intervened between me and starvation, thanks to Miss Ronstadt.”)

Zevon’s 1970s music established him as a respectable maniac as far as lyrics went. But his production, featuring elite Southern California studio cats, was restrained and subdued, not that much different from records by Browne, Ronstadt, The Eagles, etc.

But Stand in the Fire, released in 1981, mostly featured — instead of his regular sidemen — members of Boulder, a little-known Colorado bar band that reportedly specialized in Zevon covers. The result was ferocious. The Stand in the Fire versions are the way that songs like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” should be heard. “Get up and dance or I’ll kill ya!” he shouts at his road manager in the frenzied final minute of the latter song. He sounded like he meant business. It could be the motto of the entire album.

Even “Mohammed’s Radio,” the only “slow” song on the original version of the album, crackles with a crazy, clunky energy it never had before. There’s even some offbeat political commentary on events of the day: “Ayatollah’s got his problems too/And even Jimmy Carter’s got them highway blues.” Most of the tunes here probably could be considered Zevon’s “greatest hits,” but there also are some Zevon tunes that aren’t on any other albums, such as the title song and “The Sin,” one of the most rocked-out assaults he ever recorded.

On the original LP, the closing number was a crunching cover of “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger.” That seemed like a fitting summation — Zevon neatly identifying himself with a founding father of rock with a song some might consider politically incorrect. But the CD has four bonus tracks following “Gunslinger.”

That messes with the symmetry a bit; perhaps some of them should have been interspersed among the original selections. But I’m glad to have these tunes on the album. The best bonus song is the underappreciated “Play It All Night Long,” a snarling insult to Southern living. “‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ play that dead band’s song,” goes the backhanded tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd that serves as the refrain.

Stand in the Fire’s new closer is “Hasten Down the Wind.” The band is gone, and it’s just Zevon at the piano. His voice is haggard, sometimes breathless, and you can almost smell the sweat. Grudgingly, I have to admit it’s a more satisfying conclusion than “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger.”

As the audience cheers, Zevon bids his fans goodnight. “Thank you very much,” he says. “Keep on rocking. And take my lung. And vaya con Dios.” A proper farewell and words to live by.

Also recommended:
*The Future Is Unwritten
by Joe Strummer. Strummer’s another rocker who left too early. But, unlike Zevon, there’s been no major lapse in reissuing and recycling just about everything that he recorded with The Clash.

This album is a soundtrack for an upcoming documentary about Strummer, who died in 2002. It’s a strange little collection. Many of the songs here are songs by other artists — Nina Simone, MC5, Tim Hardin, Eddie Cochran — with introductions by Strummer on his BBC radio show. (My favorites are Elvis Presley’s “Crawfish,” a bluesy tune from the King Creole soundtrack, and the accordion-driven “Martha Cecilia” by Colombian singer Andres Landeros.)

Some previously unreleased versions of Clash tunes are here. But special treats are songs by other Strummer bands. “Keys to Your Heart” is a peppy little number by the pre-Clash group The 101ers. But even better is “Trash City” by Latino Rockabilly War, a late ’80s Strummer band whose music featured great percussion.

His latter-day band The Mescaleros is featured on a couple of songs, the vaguely African sounding “Johnny Appleseed,” and “Willesden to Cricklewood.” The latter song could infuriate hard-core Clash fans. It sounds like a slow, dreamy lullaby. You can’t get much further from “White Riot.” I would have preferred to end the album with more Latino Rockabilly War.

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