DEFENDING MY LIFE ONE ALBUM AT A TIME (#97 Warren Zevon)

#97 Warren Zevon Stand in the Fire (1980 Asylum)

Info: 10 tracks

When and where I acquired it: In one of my regular records stores (don’t recall which one) in the early 80’s.

Why I acquired it: It was recommended by the Rolling Stone Record Guide 1982 Edition (see below). And I already knew I liked “Werewolves of London.

Other Rankings: Rolling Stone Record Guide (1982 Edition): 5 stars (out of 5); Christgau’s Consumer Guide A-

Warren Zevon wasn’t an obvious descendant of the Rock and Roll Trio…except on this live album where he found the ferocity that so often escaped him on his numerous fine studio efforts. I loved his ballads but nothing ever lived up to this stomping set, which consisted of Warren, an obscure band from his record label and an amazing guitarist  named David Landau blazing through a couple of new songs, the cream of Zevon’s early albums and “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger.”

Drawn from a five-night stand at L.A.’s Roxy, it starts out with the surging title cut and rolls from riff to head-snapping riff. As for the singing, had Zevon been able to bring this kind of passion to more polished versions of these hook-laden tunes he would have had…more than one hit! I wouldn’t want to suggest “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” or “Excitable Boy” or “Lawyers, Guns and Money” were prime Top 40 material just because you can’t get them out of your head…but they ain’t that much stranger than “Werewolves of London”!

I never know if it’s my imagination, but it sounds like the crowd(s) and the music get louder cut-by-cut, with the main man throwing in an occasional new lyric, until he finally turns “I’ve got a .38 Special up on the shelf/And if I start feeling stupid I’ll shoot myself” into “I’ve got a .44 Magnum up on the shelf/And I don’t intend to use it on myself!” before he starts speaking in tongues and closes the show by out-stomping Bo Diddley himself.

But what brings this close to the spirit of early rock ‘n’ roll is not the choice of cover–it’s the combination of pure joy and raw anger. There was no shame in Zevon never duplicating it on record Nobody else did either.

Standing in the fire was a legitimately heroic pose in 1980 at the Dawn of the Frozen Silence, which has now descended on us so thoroughly that the next time we are allowed to draw a breath, we’ll be standing in a fire quire literally…And the likes of Warren Zevon won’t be anywhere to be found.

Next up: Neil Young

DEFENDING MY LIFE ONE ALBUM AT A TIME (#98 The Rock and Roll Trio)

#98 The Rock and Roll Trio (aka The Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio) Tear It Up (Recorded1956-57, Comp Released 1978 Solid Smoke)

Info: 17 Tracks

My Copy: Vinyl

When and how I acquired it: Sometime shortly after I heard about it in the 1980 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide.. God knows where I bought it but it’s been played to death and still looks and sounds pristine, as do all my other records from this beautiful label. Solid Smoke, you were a godsend.

Why I acquired it: It’s reputation suggested a mind-blowing sound which suggested it was necessary. You could practically smell the fear coming off the pages where the crit-illuminati composed their careful, tepid praise where they tried to argue it wasn’t. Who was right, them or my gut? It’s here so you know the answer.

Other ratings: Rolling Stone Record Guide 1980 Four Stars (out of five). Also recommended by John Morthland’s The Best of Country Music.

Every other major rockabilly act, even Jerry Lee, had at least a thin coat of polish. At least in these early years, Johnny Burnette, his brother Dorsey, and their friend Paul Burlison, looked, acted. and, most importantly, sounded exactly like what they were: tough Memphis rednecks who fought like junkyard dogs amongst themselves, banded together against anyone else, and knew Elvis mostly as the kid from down the street they picked on in high school on the rare occasions they deigned to notice him at all.

There’s a story that Burlison, their guitar player extraordinaire, discovered feedback when his amp got knocked loose by accident in the studio. Maybe, but you can bet nobody else would have kept it.

There’s also a body of critical thinking that says Johnny’s voice was overhyped, somehow not “authentic” (that prized quality most critics wouldn’t know if it bit off their finger–a quality I’m convinced is closely related to their willingness to forgive murder more readily than disagreement, which they also pretend to prize–they’re a complicated bunch).

That’s hogwash. Morthland went along with the crowd on Johnny’s singing because he was a nice man but he was right when he said they were the only major talents who were more into Rockabilly itself than into Elvis. Johnny becoming a successful (and effective) teen-idol crooner later on doesn’t prove a thing. Rage doesn’t become less genuine because you grown up and it burns out. Believe me, I was the quietest kid on the block and I speak from experience.

When Johnny Burnette let loose in the studio–in Owen Bradley’s studio in Nashville no less, the anti-Memphis if there ever was one–he was inventing and inviting every Rage Moment, real or faux, that would ever come. Compared to “Train Kept a Rollin’,” punk was a pale ghost, passing by, leaving no mark.

Memphis Rage was real. In the early 70’s, my oldest nephew (five years older than me) ran the Memphis streets with a kid named Kenny Black who was Bill Black’s nephew. My sister owned a bar with Kenny’s mom, who was Bill’s sister-in-law. Nobody thought much about it. That was just Memphis. Most of my nephew’s more colorful stories, which might include anything from dodging Bowie knives to egging hookers on Beale Street and being chased through the more polite neighborhoods by their pistol-wielding pimps, involved Kenny some way or other. My nephew got out and learned what the tourists learn–that the Memphis Streets are a lot more romantic the further away you get even if you never stop loving them like a mother. He was a long way grown up twenty years later when Kenny Black, who never grew up, was found beaten to death on those same streets.

He had learned what  his uncle and Elvis, and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, and Al Jackson, Jr. and oh-so-many others had learned long since. The Streets of Memphis are real and you can run but you can’t hide.

The Rock and Roll Trio were the only band who caught that feeling all the way down to the cracks in the asphalt. That sound is here and nowhere else. It’s in Johnny’s voice, Dorsey’s background yowls, Paul’s howling guitar. It’s in the way Johnny could take on “Honey Hush” once property of Big Joe Turner, the meanest, toughest, slyest blues shouter alive, and make it sound like the “authentic” voice of a man who really was about to take out his woman with a baseball bat.

Come to think of it, one can understand why so many nice people stayed away…in the 50’s and now.

Next up: Warren Zevon