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Warren Zevon: Play It All Night Long
As “Play It All Night Long” begins, the music is all gloom and dread. An image of Robert Mitchum chasing down those kids in Night of the Hunter comes to mind. The scenes described in this song are not comforting either. A surly grandfather who cannot control his bladder; a violent brother crazed by his experiences in Vietnam. There’s the grandmother with cancer, cases of incest, diseased cows, drunkenness and a general disregard for life. The down-home family Warren Zevon has created makes the Joads seem like the Waltons. But as Zevon begins to sing of the sad, chaotic lives, the beat picks up. The music is tailor-made for a square dance, Southern Gothic style.
The song has a rousing chorus: “Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band’s song. Turn those speakers up full blast. Play it all night long.” It’s easy to visualize Zevon leading several rounds of the chorus with the guys at the Dew Drop Inn. It sounds like fun. However, one may not wish to linger too late at that watering hole.
According to a Rolling Stone review, “Play It All Night Long” was intended in part as a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Included on 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Zevon’s fourth album, “Play It All Night Long” was not your typical tribute. The song’s description of country living, “sweat, piss, jizz and blood” was different from the living in Alabama where the skies are so blue. But Zevon’s logic and sense of humor were delightfully twisted. That much was clear on his two previous albums, Warren Zevon, released in early ’76 and Excitable Boy, released two years later.
Warren Zevon proved a critics’ favorite but peaked at only number 189 on the Billboard album charts. Excitable Boy also pleased the critics but, thankfully, the record-buying public discovered this one. The inclusion of the hit single, “Werewolves of London,” took the album to number 8. While “Werewolves … ” was not a personal favorite of Zevon’s, it did introduce millions to his wide ranging world view.
Zevon’s songs on those two albums featured stories of Woodrow Wilson’s invasion of Mexico, Frank and Jesse James, a heroin addict who has to pawn his Smith Corona, a warrior in Biafra and a desperate man hiding in Honduras. There were some disturbing and unhappy images, but Zevon, a lover of classical music, paired his words with great melodies.
A driving melody charged by Zevon’s piano adds quite a shine to “Excitable Boy,” a song about a young man guilty of violent behavior. The song begins with Zevon relating how the young man rubbed a pot roast all over his chest. Zevon did not conjure up that incident. After all, he did dress up for dinner and rub a pot roast all over his chest.
Sadly, Zevon, like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s observant Ronnie Van Zant, is no longer with us. He died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 56. Considering Zevon’s battles with alcoholism and episodic behavior, some marveled he made it that long. But like Van Zant, he also exhibited a thoughtful and perceptive demeanor. Many of his songs were gentle and delivered with a tender spirit. Perhaps it would be a fine idea to visit the Dew Drop Inn and have one, maybe two, in honor of both Van Zant and Zevon. The excitable boys would surely approve.
At The Dew Drop Inn, Above The Clouds …. Round after round, the guys at the bar, no matter what, never get loaded. They simply stay pleasantly high. Ronnie Van Zant and Warren Zevon, a couple of regulars, walk in. Just the usual for them both. And keep ’em coming. Zevon mentions a campaign down on earth to get him inducted, posthumously, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “That’s nice,” he says, “but those first two albums of mine on Asylum should’ve sealed the deal for me a long time ago, even when I was able to visit Cleveland.”
Van Zant just nods as Zevon goes on. “Ronnie, think of the people going in this year. Rush. Heart. Give me a break,” he said. Already there are Metallica, Abba, and you guys! Lynyrd Skynyrd!!! Waving an empty PBR at the bartender, a laughing Van Zant exclaimed, “Oh, we deserve to be there! We had lots of good songs and the guys behind me could flat-out play! And I wouldn’t give you one ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ for a dozen ‘Werewolves of London’ either. Everybody loves ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ including Neil Young, although we jabbed him in the song. Even the Red Army Choir did a version of it.” Zevon smirks and then says, “You know, Bob Dylan has performed my songs, ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’ and ‘Mutineer,’ on stage. Case closed.”
“Mr. Zevon,” Van Zant finally replied, “we’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you’re not. That’s what closes the case.” The veteran wordsmith wouldn’t let Van Zant get in the last word, however. He said, “You know, there’s the old Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member. There are great people in that hall, but look – you guys went in with Black Sabbath. I can think of nothing worse than being in the Northeast in the dead of winter with Black Sabbath.” Van Zant knew that was true and remembered being glad he didn’t have to mix it up with Ozzy Osbourne that night in 2006, but he thought of another place. “I know somewhere that’s worse,” Van Zant said, “anywhere that the guys now parading as Lynyrd Skynyrd appear with Sean Hannity. That guy’s to the right of George Wallace.”
Zevon let that sink in, then answered, “By the way, I’ve not seen Wallace anywhere around up here.” Van Zant savored the moment and replied, “This ain’t Alabama. In Heaven, they don’t love the Governor.”
Note: This article continues the Southern Song of the Day series.