New, Upbeat Antabuse Boy!
The whole singer/songwriter deal is not among my favorite genres, as recent studies from the Seigal Institute for the Elimination of Insufferably Boring Music revealed that roughly 93.8 percent of the stuff tends to be self-important, whiny, affected and pompous (with a plus- or minus-five-point margin of error). There, I said it. Send James Taylor out to kick my ass. Send Paula Cole out to slice off my insensitive man glands.
There are exceptions, of course. The wholly wonderful Randy Newman, for instance. Also Dave Alvin. And Chris Gaffney. And Lyle Lovett. And WARREN ZEVON, who plays the Coach House on Thursday, March 30. Zevon's new album, Life'll Kill Ya, is another captivating collection of really fucking depressing songs, all stamped with Antabuse Boy's trademark obsessive cynicism, bitterness and potty mouth. The title tune is a magnum opus of morbidity, cheerfully outlining the many ways one might kick the bucket and celebrating the inevitability of death itself. "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" is a loser's manifesto: "I can saw a woman in two/But you won't want to look in the box when I do," intones Zevon in a voice that sounds like grandpa passing a gallstone. "My Shit's Fucked Up" (the title really says all you need to know about the song) should be adopted as the official anthem of the Prozac Nation. "Porcelain Monkey" is without question the best song ever written about Elvis: "Left behind by the latest trends/ Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends/That's how the story ends." Lovely!
Even better, Zevon actually describes the album as upbeat, without the barest trace of irony. "Yeah, I feel that it's uplifting and optimistic," he told me. "I mean, if you feel that enough Echinacea is gonna prevent you from expiring at some point, then that would be a very special kind of optimism. But it's likely that we're all here temporarily, and that's all the more reason to enjoy every moment. There was a time when I was asked why I wrote violent songs. Well, it seems like it's a violent world. I'm trying to sort out life or at least ask some questions about it. It also seems like a world we're all gonna die in, and we haven't been provided with the explanations why."
For more than 20 years, Zevon has been one of America's great voices in pop music. He's had his share of minor hits such as "Werewolves of London," "Excitable Boy," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "Lawyers, Guns & Money." But overall, he's been far too nasty and intelligent to ever really connect with a nation of consumers who would rather accept blindness than a look at life's harsh realities. And through all those years, his style and vision have remained amazingly consistent. "I don't think it's changed at all," says Zevon. "I think it's like a tuning fork. I think you just vibrate the same way all your life. You respond to the same sounds. It's pretty much the same ideas. It evolved through my interests, which started with classical music and then went through folk music but mainly involved writers like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson and movie makers like Antonioni and Scorcese, who are not more violent and depressing than real life—they're just more violent and depressing than Cole Porter. Or whoever his contemporary equivalent is—I'm sure I wouldn't know.
"Obviously, I haven't had a lot of commercial success, but I've never really gone away, either. The same things that prevent you from being universally embraced are the things that keep you from being cast entirely aside. The trouble is that the guys that end up getting tossed aside have at least managed to get a stockpile, they've at least lined their bathrooms with tusk and marble by the time pop culture is tired of them. But what can I say? I sleep well."
You ought to, Warren. But quitcher typical singer/ songwriterly whining because I'm sure you're not exactly crappin' in a communal commode down the hallway, even if your can ain't adorned in ivory.
I've railed in this column before about the relative popularity of WESLEY WILLIS, a giant, tormented schizophrenic and former homeless person whose lunatic non-sequitur ravings are all the rage among alt.-rock trendies. Seemed to me his vogue was due more than anything to junior high school-level "let's laugh at the retard" type cruelty; much of his "music" was numbingly repetitive, monotonous and unfunny on any other level than as freak-show fodder. Yet I've got to give the man credit where it's due now, having unearthed a little MP3 treasure called "Cut the Mullet," a seriously amusing and long overdue diatribe against Satan's favorite hair-don't (you know, that short-on-the-top-and-sides-with-long-ridiculous-plumage-trailing-down-the-back little number favored by porn stars, Canadian hockey players, Camaro owners and John Mellencamp fans, also known as "The Ape Drape" and "The Billy Ray"). Herein, Willis manages to rise to the level of Wild Man Fischer-like inspiration, as he advises: "Do something about your long, filthy hair. It looks like a rat's nest. Do something about your mullet. Get out the hair clippers, jerk. Take your ass to the barber shop. Tell the barber that you're sick of looking like an asshole. The mullet is the reason why people hate you. Nobody wants to look at you with that mullet on your head." Lovely! I hereby retract past criticism and state that Willis, who plays Wednesday night at the KB Club, has a new fan.
Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers' guitarist RICK HOLMSTROM has a new CD out, appropriately titled Gonna Get Wild, and even more appropriately released by Tone-Cool Records, as Holmstrom has the wildest, coolest guitar tone you ever heard come out of a California white boy. The template seems to be Howlin' Wolf sideman Willie Johnson, who recorded the great early '50s sides with Wolf for Sun Records. Holmstrom's tone sounds like . . . well, it sounds like grandpa passing a gallstone, amplified through a cop car's public-address speaker. Lovely! More important, Holmstrom can, by turns, swing like a Charlie Christian, get introspective like a T-Bone Walker, or rip it up like a Johnny "Guitar" Watson. His fluid, playful phrasing and impeccable sense of rhythm transcend West Coast blues clichs and make him one of the most inventive musicians on the circuit. If there's a downside, it's that Holmstrom's vocals fail to keep pace with his guitar talents. Well, actually that's euphemistic: Holmstrom's singing basically sucks, coming strictly from the Bob Margolin Shut Up and Play Your Guitar school. Don't let that stop you from checking out his CD-release party Friday night at the Blue Cafe, where Piazza and company will be on hand and hopefully handle most of the vocal chores.
Warren Zevon plays at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano (949) 496-8930. Thurs., March 30, 8 p.m. $22.50; Wesley Willis performs at KB Club, 710 W. Willow Ave., Long Beach, (562) 427-0078. Wed., 9 p.m. $6; Rick Holmstrom plays at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Fri., 10 p.m. $10.
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