Excitable Boy
Stand In The Fire
The Envoy

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon’s music has never failed in its primeval, passionate march to break the barrier of conformity. Although the late singer-songwriter’s substance and style were often deemed too unorthodox for the mainstream, a coterie of high-profile contemporaries along with a dedicated and core audience kept Zevon at the forefront right up until his death from lung cancer in 2003. Rhino, in their infinite wisdom, have reissued three key recordings from the Zevon canon, two of which have never been available on CD before. While the remastered, expanded Excitable Boy will register resoundly with fans far and wide, the live Stand In The Fire and The Envoy suitably round out the artist’s diversified palette of words and music.

Warren Zevon, through a quagmire of misfires and backroom sessions, hit his stride in 1978 with the release of Excitable Boy. Produced by close friends Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel, the record has Zevon signatures like “Werewolves Of London,” which draws largely from what the songwriter called “noir life.” The song, featuring Fleetwood Mac’s potent rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, boasts a comic narrative that leaps back and forth between London and Los Angeles, documenting the mistrials and troubles of a modern-day werewolf. The theme of chaos looms even larger in “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” where our hero gets into hot water with the Russians, Cubans, and Hondurans despite being “the innocent bystander.”

Excitable Boy is equally propped up by the tuneful, friendly opener, “Johnny Strikes Up The Band,” along with the the ever-engaging title track and morose love-gone-bad tale described in the verses of “Accidentally Like A Martyr.” The remaster of Zevon’s biggest selling album features four bonus tracks, including an alternate take of “Werewolves Of London” and three unreleased, raw outtakes of “I Need A Truck,” “Tule’s Blues,” and “Frozen Notes.”

Recorded live in 1981 during a five-night stand at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood, Stand In The Fire has been out of print since the heyday of vinyl and cassette tapes. As a CD, it demonstrates how Zevon truly burned in a live setting, salivating in a rock and roll stage show supported by an exceptional band with an arsenal of riveting, spine-chilling songs. The title, opening track sets the mood, while “Jennie Needs A Shooter,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen for 1980’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, sustains the tongue-in-cheek disposition Zevon mounts continuously. The big hits — “Excitable Boy,” “Werewolves Of London,” “Lawyers, Guns And Money” and ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me” — tumble out like long-lost friends. And then, amidst all the reverie of straight-ahead rockers like “The Sin,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Bo Diddley,” are the stark, emotive moments of “Mohammad’s Radio” where the singer taps below the surface into a deeper, more powerful message that overshadows the shenanigans of a wayward life awry.

Stand In The Fire gets some extra juice with the inclusion of “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” and “Play It All Night Long,” along with a couple of numbers from the singer’s 1976 debut album, “Hasten Down The Wind” and “Frank And Jesse James,” a song written in the early 70s for and about Zevon’s former employers, The Everly Brothers.

Barely cracking the Hot 100 upon its 1982 release, The Envoy remains an integral cog in the whirly twirly zeal of Warren Zevon’s catalog. Sober and clearheaded, the excitable boy toned down his officious persona in lieu of a more introspective, “adult” approach. The title track, written all those years ago, is on target with the present Middle East crisis, before “The Hula Hula Boys” lightens the load, suspended by a rockin’ swing and vocal assistance from Lindsey Buckingham.

Much of The Envoy is marred by the high-production values of the early 80s, which tended to soften the bite of potentially lethal hits with way too much sugar and synths. But that doesn't stop Zevon’s dry and drab drollness from breaking through on a few of the songs. Who can’t love “Jesus Mentioned” where the singer, upon journeying to Memphis to summon the spirit of Elvis, emphatically makes the suggestion of, “Digging up the King/Begging him to sing…”

“Charlie’s Medicine” is another close-to the-hip, understated piece that assumes a classic Zevon storyline. “Never Too Late For Love” flows easily over a simple progression and eloquent, direct lyrics. “You say you’re tired/How I hate to hear you use that word/I know it hurts…” The reissue features an alternate version of this one, along with three outtakes, including a saucy, rockin’ take of “Wild Thing.”

Looking back at his rich and varied musical legacy, one can see that Warren Zevon consistently worked at his craft, despite the personal demons occasionally jumping into the fire to stir up disorder. He returned five years after The Envoy with Sentimental Hygiene, an inspired effort that features Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and members of R.E.M. His output stayed relatively on track until the very end, culminating with 2003’s The Wind. As always, the singer had his share of supporters; but it was the songs, the voice and the soul that drew peers and fans alike to the genius of Warren Zevon.

~ Shawn Perry

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