Warren Zevon invaded the mainstream only briefly during his career but in so doing forged a memorable persona with the public. Preludes, a double disc package of unreleased demo recordings combined with an interview on cd, illustrates how much more there is to the man than the combination of comic absurdity and latent violence in songs such as “Excitable Boy” and “Werewolves of London.”
A collection of demos unearthed by Zevon’s son Jordan reveals the depth of Warren’s musical resources even though most are recorded with the composer alone at the piano. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” and “The French Inhaler” do not exhibit the polish of subsequent studio recordings, but Zevon’s exacting musical sense is as readily apparent as is a self-deprecating humor that only partially camouflages a heart-on-the-sleeve vulnerability.
Ironically the demos of well-known songs such as “Poor Poor Pitiful Me" are ultimately less interesting than tunes he never officially recorded such as “Going All the Way” and especially “I Used to Ride So High. ” The often stentorian vocal intonations and classically-trained piano skills can’t lessen the surgical precision with which he dissects emotions on “Tule’s Blues,” while the author draws vivid character sketches of an LA cowboy scene (that ultimately affected him as much as he affected it) in “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.”
Tossed glib observations for comment, on the interview disc included in Preludes. Zevon clearly bore no illusions about his work and consequently sounds somewhat diffident when first asked about the creative process. He resignedly alludes to the artistic impulse as a burden, but it’s particularly insightful to hear how Warren clearly warms to his subjects, such as his time with The Everly Brothers and especially the pleasure he derives from stage performance.
The generally superficial nature of this conversation is fully offset by the music on the other disc as well as the inclusion of a well-designed booklet of rare photos and essays, equally touching and insightful, from Zevon business associates like Artemis label founder Danny Goldberg and musical peers such as Jackson Browne. The colorful side of Warren Zevon’s person may pervade the mainstream, but Preludes captures subtle personality traits just as essential to his unique character.
The initial release of expanded remasters from Warren Zevon’s Elektra/Asylum catalog were clearly chosen carefully to reaffirm the man’s musical strengths as well as the public persona with which the mainstream audience is most familiar.
Contrary to the studio professionalism of his accompanists and the polished Jackson Browne production on Excitable Boy, a latent violence permeates Zevon’s most famous songs including this titletune. The most infectious piece Warren ever wrote, “Tenderness on the Block,” is also present and provides continuity with 1982’s The Envoy, itself an exhibition of how Warren’s predilection for the hammering guitar riff, as evidenced on its title song, was a proportionate balance to the pop instincts represented on “The Next Best Thing."
But it’s the reckless abandon of Warren Zevon’s stage performance, brought to a boiling point by the gung-ho bar band Boulder behind him, which makes Stand in the Fire his definitive album. The otherwise unrecorded originals included here, the title song and “The Sin,”(where the dated sounds of synthesizers are minimized in favor of David Landau’s brutal electric lead guitar) reaffirm that impression of absurd humor laced with kamikaze aggression epitomized in a frenetic “Werewolves of London.”
In its debut on compact disc, Stand in the Fire is the only reissue of the three with extra cuts that add more than a curiosity factor to the original. In stark contrast to the hell-bent intensity of the music that precedes them, the understatement and vulnerability displayed in four extra tracks are the antithesis of the stereotyped Warren Zevon persona.
“Johnny Strikes Up the Band” and “Play It All Night Long” invoke the bonding power of music, while the other two encore numbers comprise a fond adieu offered by the performer to his audience at the conclusion of the show. Zevon’s gracious expression of gratitude to the remaining attendees immediately follows an invitation for suggestions of what to play, the result of which are solo piano renditions of “Frank & Jesse James (an allegory for The Everly Brothers with whom Zevon once toured) and “Hasten Down the Wind:” bereft of sentimentality, yet imbued with deep passion that solidifies the performer’s connection with his audience, these recordings prompt the thought that there has been no rocker simultaneously more down-to-earth and larger than life than Warren Zevon.