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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

30. Warren Zevon: Learning To Flinch

I saw Warren Zevon at a Portland club sometime in the 1990s. I can't remember exactly when. It was a very memorable moment for me, but I just don't know when it happened (that seems odd). Learning To Flinch (1993) had already been released. I know this because Zevon related this story to us that night. He said, "A reporter asked me if the live show would be similar to the disc Learning To Flinch. I said, 'Yeah my live show might be somewhat similar to my live disc.'" Zevon was a funny man. He used his dark sense of humor throughout his decades of entertaining us. Learning To Flinch takes his listeners beyond the cynical humor and deeper into the singer/songwriter/musician himself.

Armed with a guitar, a harmonica, and a piano, Zevon took to the road in 1992 playing small clubs all over the world. The album features recordings from venues in Germany, England, New Zealand, Norway, Australia, and throughout America. Many of his greatest songs are included (there are 17 tracks in all), and every one is stripped down and acoustic. It's wonderful to hear his husky voice when it's not fighting for center-stage with the sounds of a full band. This tour came as a result of Warren's back being against the wall. His albums had not done well and he'd been dropped by both Asylum Records and Virgin Records in the last few years. Being a singer/songwriter in the early 90s was not very fashionable either (unless you wore flannel). Thankfully, Giant Records picked up the somewhat struggling artist and the reduced circumstances that followed led to this "unplugged" solo masterpiece.

Opening the album with "Splendid Isolation", perhaps as a way of telling us he's alright on his own, we hear the terms "Georgia O'Keeffe", "Michael Jackson", and "Goofy" within the first minute. I don't really have much to follow that...I just think it's funny. Learning To Flinch contains outstanding versions of "Lawyers, Guns, And Money", the psychopathic story of "Excitable Boy", "Mr. Bad Example" (waaay better than the original studio version), "Boom Boom Mancini", "Werewolves Of London", over twenty minutes worth of cult faves "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", and the closing anti-anthem "Play It All Night Long". There are certainly some great songs missing (no "Desperados Under The Eaves", "Ain't That Pretty At All", "Mohammed's Radio", "Johnny Strikes Up The Band", or "Accidentally Like A Martyr"), and three new songs are included that don't seem to measure up to his best...making me miss the exclusions that much more. However, overall, the collection should satisfy any Zevon fan. The intimacy of these versions is what makes this album great. It's not necessarily the selections. The songs chosen to represent this tour are played differently and heard differently.

I've included a video from a BBC TV show of "Lawyers, Guns And Money" from the Learning To Flinch time period. Also included is the final public appearance for Zevon... October 30, 2002 on Letterman. He performs Dave's favorite, "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner". Today marks the eighth anniversary of Warren Zevon's death. His dark humor continued to amaze right up to the end. To Letterman he quipped, "I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for twenty years." And when asked if he knew more about life and death, Warren Zevon responded, "Enjoy every sandwich."

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