THE ALBUM -- Warren Zevon, "Stand in the Fire" (Asylum 5E-519).
A frenziedly imaginative music teacher once attempted to explain the wonder of sound by telling me that if you shook any object at the rate of 440 vibrations per second, the thing in question would respond by humming a perfect A. This convoluted concept, whereby every mundane doojigger on the landscape is veritably aquiver with musical life, has lost a bit of its shine over the years, but listening to Warren Zevon always seems to endow it with fresh luster.
It's as though someone or something grabs Zevon by the collar and jostles that stuff right out of him -- not just the music, either, but all that crushing optimism and Pollyanna pessimism, all that life-affirming blood and gore, all that alliteration and onomatopoeia, too. And never has Zevon been all shook up like he is on "Stand in the Fire," his latest, live album.
Lest one get a picture of poor Zevon being jerked up and down against his will by this invisible force, growling "Your mother eats lima beans" and other epithets and having a generally bad time, songs like "Werewolves of London," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" are strong evidence that he enjoys his ongoing public exorcism.
The title track starts up the album and a rattling in the china cabinet simultaneously. Next comes the deliberate pounding of "Jeannie Needs a Shooter," a stronger, less self-conscious version than the original. By the time Zevon gets to his trademark song, "Excitable Boy," the audience in L.A.'s Roxy (where the LP was recorded) is shimmying audibly.
Zevon's absolute willingness to "stand in the fire" extends to an engaging self-parody that shows up on several songs. To wit: The alliterative orgy of a verse from "Werewolves of London" has been altered thusly: Little old lady got mutilated late last night . . . Brian DePalma again Likewise, Lon Chaney's hair is supplanted with Jackson Browne's heart in the same song: Saw Jackson Browne walking down The Avenuez And his heart was perfect
Not that the entire album is a Hollywood in-joke; it's just that Zevon has rediscovered the art of turning his scathing wit on himself, a quality conspicuously absent from "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School." But he hasn't lost the knack for spewing out a little introspective pea soup in the process, as one discovers on "The Sin": I'm not talking about Giving a sucker an even break I'm talking about the time You were cruel for cruelty's sake. . . How are you gonna pay for the sin?
The same thing that makes Zevon a great performer makes this album so enjoyable. Discontent with being shaken up all by himself, he has to get the rest of the world vibrating, too, and he does it with an energy that is alarming. What results may not always constitute a perfect A, but it's pretty good shake, rattle and roll.
On the inner sleeve, Zevon quotes Thomas McGuane's apology, "The dog ate the part we didn't like." Judging from what remains, that dog must have the singingest tail in town.