Two Cheers for the John Huston of Rock and Roll


This guy walks into a 7-11. He pulls out a gun, pops the clerk and empties the cash register. There's blood all over the place and, probably, a slim space of time between now and the state pen.

So, if you're in this guy's shoes, what do you think about? Where to run? Where to hide? What you're going to say when the patrolman is shoving your sorry ass in the rear of a state vehicle?

If you're a character in a Warren Zevon song, you think about the vast weight of time, how forgiveness is as hard to get as it is to give and, mainly, God's absence. You think that if Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen lived in our neck of the woods, they wouldn't be singing about better days. They'd sing about "the vast indifference of heaven."

The vast indifference of heaven? Okay, so it sounds a little writer-ish for a garden-variety thug. But that's Zevon. No matter how awful the creeps he sings about are, he doesn't deny them their moment of last-gasp, rope's-end lucidity. They don't have to read Wallace Stevens to know about death's ironic scraping; they've got the scars to prove it.

Such moments are frequent throughout Zevon's albums, and they show up on his new one, Mutineer (Giant/Warner Brothers). This is comforting to report, considering the title, cover and liner art, which suggest nothing so much as a man easing into the Jimmy Buffet Home for Would-Be Vagabonds. ("Mutineer" is one of those pussy Buffet phrases like "pirate" and "Margarita" and "nautical weaver," whatever the hell that is; the kind of dime-store Treasure Island imagery you resort to when your world view is shaped by waking up drunk on a yacht.)

Truth be told, the title track is quite uninspired, but most of the rest of the album is pure Zevon: pounding keys, thunderous drums, the howling gee-tar of Waddy Wachtel, and that deep, weather-beaten voice leading you down one dark alley after the next.

For those who remember him only for his brief spurt of Top Ten fame "Werewolves of London," all the rage back in the Carter Administration the easiest way to describe Warren Zevon is to say he's a little like Randy Newman or Tom Waits.

Like them, he's a master of the warped, cynical monologue; his songs are tales told by and about idiots, con men, drug addicts, special agents, gamblers, good old boys and psychopaths. The angry white male who drives his Winnebago into a lake. The bitter loner who dreams of being Michael Jackson in Disneyland away from the ugly masses at last. The "excitable boy" who rapes and murders his prom date, then digs up her grave and builds a cage with her bones.

But Zevon who operates in a kind of film noir atmosphere might have a closer affinity with someone like John Huston. The protagonist in Huston's films and Zevon's songs share a kind of fool's integrity, a dogged determination to play out their course, whether noble or foul, long after common sense tells them to quit.

Think of Sterling Hayden at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, speeding away to his dream home in the country while bleeding to death from a gunshot wound.

Or Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on a wild goose chase for a handful of gold dust that will blow away as soon as he gets it. Life is a gamble, and the odds are simply too high for you to do anything but make it up as you go along.

That's certainly the case for the high-ballin' junk-bond king in "Seminole Bingo," the first cut on the disc. On the run from the SEC, our antihero hides out in Deep Florida, only to lose his ill-gotten gains at a local Legion hall. Like all Zevon's opening numbers, this one erupts into action, with Wachtel's fierce guitar chasing this yuppie scum as he makes his way down the Tamiami Trail.

Zevon doesn't usually indulge his spiritual side, but I guess it's there on an obscure cover, "Jesus Was A Crossmaker," wherein the Son of God proves to be a lot tougher than his publicity usually allows.

But "Monkey Wash and Donkey Rise" may be a little closer to the bone for the Z-man a Hinduistic voyage to "a party in the center of the earth." Long a fancier of advanced weaponry, Zevon also reveals a tender love for mean-ass dogs: "If you come callin'/He'll be maulin' with intent to maim/Don't knock on my door/If you don't know my Rottweiler's name."

There are weaknesses. "Poisonous Lookalike" sounds like a pale rewrite of "Finishing Touches" on Zevon's last studio disc, Mr. Bad Example, and the title song is a wet finish.

Mutineer is what rock critics generally call a solid effort; it breaks no new ground, but it doesn't often suck, and it very often soars. And, I might add, when you put it on your CD player in the year 2025 it won't sound old, because it is ruthlessly unsentimental.

One definition of sentimentalism comes from Vladimir Nabokov: "the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to evoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader." It's a fair description of what you hear on the radio, and what you never hear from Zevon.

This is why I still find myself digging around on the floorboard for his cassettes. He is the best short-story writer in rock and roll.

Rodney Welch frequently reviews whatever strikes his fancy for POINT.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 7/9/95