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Zevon Back On The Satire Trail

June 11, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

It wouldn't be a Warren Zevon album if it wasn't likely to stir up trouble with someone somewhere down the line.

The new "Sentimental Hygiene" is the acclaimed singer/songwriter's first album in five years, and one of the incendiary record's most prominent satires is a sizzling ditty called "Detox Mansion," which pokes sharp-pointed fun at the celebrity withdrawal syndrome and those who would check into the well-appointed Betty Ford Center before rushing to tell their victory stories on "Entertainment Tonight."

Wait a minute. Wasn't it Zevon who was publicly detailing his battles with alcoholism years ago? And didn't he have a few problems before he finally climbed on the wagon not all that long ago? Where does he get off giving those who are "rakin' leaves with Liza" and "cleanin' up the yard with Liz" a hard time?

"Well, I figured I was giving myself a hard time first and foremost," said Zevon during a recent interview at his new record company's headquarters. "And as far as anybody else who might be in the song or might not, they're public figures. It wouldn't be the first time I've written something where I've thought, 'Geez, this may make someone mad. I probably shouldn't be writing this.' "

But, he added, "I don't think I would ever make someone else a target. I don't think my songs are really too judgmental. Everybody's a judge nowadays and there are no jurors left. So I figure it's OK for me to just tell a story.

"I don't really write overt messages. That's the part that's just not my nature. I've always had a certain tendency to see both sides of an argument--which takes a lot of the fun out of life."

Zevon's problems with alcohol and ambiguity weren't the only toils impeding his career. He half-jokingly speaks of having been in a state of "semi-retirement" until recently.

He first made his name in the mid-'70s as a songwriter who was a frequent source of Linda Ronstadt's best material. His own career as a performer took off in 1978 with the raucous Top 40 hit "Werewolves of London," which added commercial support to strong critical plaudits for his skills with melodies, wit and pathos.

But chart positions regressed with each succeeding album. Zevon's record label at the time, Asylum, dropped him after his last album, "The Envoy" (1982), sold abysmally.

"And I had spent a long time, like a year and a half, on 'The Envoy,' and probably a lot of money," Zevon recalls with a chuckle. "I was afraid to look. But they let me know."

Though it may have appeared that Zevon dropped out of sight entirely between 1982 and 1987, he was actually touring extensively as a solo performer during that time, both internationally and on the East Coast (his last hometown appearance here was at the Roxy in early '83). A post-mortem retrospective of his Asylum hits and semi-hits--with its famous butchered version of "Lawyers, Guns and Money"--came out last year to scant attention.

But Virgin Records, a high-profile English company just beginning to flex its muscle in the U.S., was interested enough to sign Zevon as the label's first American act. So far it seems to have paid off; with a heavy promotional campaign, the spanking new "Sentimental Hygiene" album and single are both off to fast starts in radio and sales circles.

His manager and co-producer, Andrew Slater, had put him in touch with his old college buddies in R.E.M. a few years ago, and three members of that band ended up being the backup group on most of the new album. Also showing up are such guests as Neil Young (who plays a highly recognizable guitar solo on the title track), Bob Dylan (blowing a mean harmonica on "The Factory"), Brian Setzer, Don Henley, George Clinton and others.

Those looking for Zevon to release a highly personal, confessional saga of his struggles after five years' absence may be disappointed by the lack of overt autobiography in "Sentimental Hygiene."

Characteristically, seemingly more personal lost-love ballads "Reconsider Me" and "The Heartache" compete with the narrative flair of topical fare like "Boom Boom Mancini" (a boxing fable that's the one venture into the outlaw/ machismo territory Zevon's been known for) and "Leave My Monkey Alone" (a dance number that touches on the violent conflict between the colonialists and the Mau Mau in 1950s Africa).

"It took some research to find the Swahili part of that song," says Zevon. "And as far back as 'Frank and Jesse James,' I've tried to make sure that the facts that are presented as facts in a song are actually historically accurate. Which takes some of the burden of being poetic off me, too, when I'm getting things out of history books."

Still, there are a couple of numbers alluding to Zevon's career woes and beefs with the music business--most amusingly, "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands," which he co-wrote in the studio with the three members of R.E.M. who play on the track. "I guess it's sort of my version of 'So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star,' " Zevon says.

The song describes a wheeling-dealing music business type "trying to survive up on Mulholland Drive" whose worst fear is to "end up dead or living in the Valley someday." By the last verse, the dread has subtly shifted, to where one might "end up dead and be living in the Valley someday."

"They won't get that in New York," notes Zevon. But they will in Sherman Oaks, and they may not like it there any better than the celebs drying out in Rancho Mirage.

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