A cult artist dies, after experiencing a burst of increased celebrity as a direct result of calculatedly marketing his own impending demise. Old fans are reminded of how much they always dug his work, and a few new ones arrive to explore the back catalog. Then comes the book, an oral history compiled by a long-suffering, long-forgiving former wife, the result of a promise to the dying man. And for Warren Zevon’s fans, be they diehard or more casual, everything changes forever. For in addition to his undeniable gifts as a wordsmith and piano fighter, the delicate character studies and the self-mythologies, the werewolves and the pot roasts and the neo-noir visions of Los Angeles, it turns out Warren Zevon was something of a monster. And his shenanigansâ€”born of cruelty, drug abuse, family skeletons, egomania and OCDâ€”are revealed here through the words of those who loved and suffered alongside him, coloring the music with broad strokes of memorable misbehavior and strangeness. The result is a big, messy, sad and rather moving piece of mass biography in which the various players move in and out of Zevon’s orbit and reflect upon their mutual impact. Perhaps inevitably, given the damage done, this is less of a creative biography than a psycho-chemical one, and at times it is relentlessly dark and repetitious. But anyone who finds Zevon of interest as an artist will appreciate the guts and care Crystal Zevon exhibits in assembling these tales, and it’s a must for fans of rock and roll horror stories. (Who could have imagined that this thoughtful, intellectual fellow who hobnobbed with Stravinsky as a teen would personally surpass the excesses of any half dozen cock rock idols? Only everyone, it seems, who ever met the man.)
Richard Thompson has said that “Beeswing,” his plaint of love for an untamable woman, is loosely based on Briggs, the elusive singer-songwriter from the British Midlands who drifted from public view not long after this 1971 release. The album’s a gentle suite of Celtic folk rounds, evoking country folk and stone-walled paths, ancient rites and carnival days. Briggs has an appealing yodel that she uses when trilling over wide-spaced notes, and a husky, longing vocal quality that suits her spare and haunting tunes. Despite being largely lovely, there are couple of clunkers that keep the album from reaching its full potential, but the good stuff is so good you can forgive ’em, and wish she’d stuck around and collaborated with some of the British folk-rock royals who adored her. Her version of “Beeswing,” for instance, would be astonishing.
Self-exiled to NYC in 1967, the surf/pop chameleon sunk into the Village folk scene and built a relationship with Atlantic Records that he hoped would eclipse his professionally successful, personally painful, history with Dunhill. Unfortunately, after five years of nonstop songwriting for hire, the muse fell silent, so the week Sloan flew down to Mussel Shoals to record with the house rhythm section and producer Tom Dowd, he had to force ten songs. Sweet but slight and largely absent the usual Sloan hooks—though "New Design" is a low key knockout—the album works a loose and soulful Hardinesque groove, with Sloan sounding alternately hopeful and exhausted. High points include "And the Boundaries Inbetween" with its subtle psychedelic tinge, and the abstract kiss off of "(What Did She Mean When She Said) Good Luck," but this is definitely one for die-hard fans. Maybe with the renewed interest in Sloan and his terrific new Sailover CD, someone will reissue 1972’s Raised On Records next.
"Chevrolet Sings" is a Lost in the Grooves exclusive. Click to sample the music or purchase.
The First Team
Chevrolet Sings of Safe Driving and You
(Columbia Special Products, n.d., likely c. 1965)
Avoiding the Red Asphalt approach to driver’s ed., our corporate friends at Chevrolet decided folk-rock was the perfect medium to sell the learner’s permit crowd on appropriate automotive behavior. The result was a sort of Schoolhouse Rock for timid auto-jocks, a catchy set of rules and prohibitions meant to instill a sense of cautious confidence in young drivers. It’s delightfully catchy, and achieves all its aims. “Grown-up Baby” (Driving Psychology) addresses those with a deadly weapon at their disposal who lack the emotional maturity to behave sensibly. Frenetic banjos build to a nervous climax as the hip parental narrators fuss about hotheads, wheel-squealers and other car-creeps. “Cities and Towns” (Driving in City and Heavy Traffic) skimps on the lyrical edumacation, but jangles like a lost Byrds track. “Nowhere Fast” (Observance and Enforcement) with its spooky, insinuating New England garage sound scans more like free verse than pop song: “there are many other THINGS THAT you will have to know/ like when a sign says STOP that’s what it means and not just slow.” Flip the disk for the shouldabeen hit, “Gentle Things” (Adverse Driving Conditions), a Simon and Garfunkel-style beauty with aggressively mournful harmonica. Dad guilt-trips us with the message that expert drivers let the weather be their guide, but this listener is too blissed-out on the melody to think of rain (“a gentle thing, except when you’re driving”) as a threat. “The Natural Laws” (Laws of Motion) is a cool little soul shouter about what a groove it is to be subject to centrifugal force, getting raunchy when the singer pants, “they are all, UH HUH, natural laws.” And “Man-Made Laws” (Common Sense Driving) is full of suggestions about rights of way, passing and distance. It’s all very useful stuff, and I often find myself humming snippets while maneuvering around afternoon gridlock in L.A. There are no performer credits, but the label states that Lou Adessa and Vince Benay composed the songs. This same talented pair wrote Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “SS 396,” also released on Columbia Special Products and given away by Chevrolet dealers around 1965. (Kim Cooper, from the book Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed)