NEW YORK -- Warren Zevon prepped for the sudden ups and the inevitable downs and outs of the music business. His father was, and still is, a professional gambler, so early on the family got used to moving between the mansion on the hill and the dark end of the street.
"Whether it was healthy or not, it was helpful," says Zevon, who performs at Constitution Hall tonight in support of "Sentimental Hygiene," his first album in five years. "Of course, the only way to reduce the gamble is by being realistic about what you really need and what you can do to sustain that."
Which is exactly what he's been doing. With his eponymous 1976 debut album, Zevon established himself as a major singer-songwriter whose tart lyrics were shaped by a dark humor in songs like "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and "The Envoy." Four subsequent albums for Asylum garnered critical raves and an ever-decreasing sales curve -- radio shied away from his unsettling songs about mad mercenaries and rapists -- and Zevon was eventually cut loose. It probably didn't help that he'd spent most of the '70s in a fog of alcoholism lowlighted by acts of violent and often self-destructive behavior. A hammer-handed pianist and two-fisted drinker, he earned the sobriquet F. Scott Fitzevon.
By the end of the decade Zevon had twice gone through rehabilitation and taken to public expiation long before it was common among "roxelebrities," a process he writes about in a song from his new album, in which the singer is holed up at "Detox Mansion," raking leaves with Liz and Liza while cynically waiting for a shot at the talk show circuit. But there's another sentiment in the song: "It's tough to be somebody and it's hard not to fall apart."
These days the Excitable Boy has simmered down, even if the wear is evident in his face. Forty now and twice divorced, he doesn't dwell on his recovery, though a stack of empty Diet Coke cans in his hotel suite here attests to its continuance. Yet the tousled-haired Zevon doesn't dissociate himself from songs created in, and sometimes in celebration of, the way it was.
"It's a day-to-day issue, not a day-to-day battle anymore," he says. "The particulars are something I've decided to keep in my personal life ...
"The fact that some songs were about that experience doesn't mean I should divorce myself from them. I'm not sure it's ever the central issue in a song that a guy's having a margarita, though there was a time when I did change it to a Perrier. And that's just stupid, even if you can find something with the same amount of syllables."
In the time between recovery and resurrecting the recording career, Zevon "reconsidered" himself as a solo performer on what he calls "map and hot-dog tours."
"Playing solo made me feel more connected to what I was doing," he explains. "It gave me an idea whether a song could stand on its own and not just buoy up a brilliant guitar solo. And it gave me an opportunity I probably won't have outside of my solo tours to improvise and jam away for as long as the audience could bear it with my little Keith Jarrett-esque interludes.
"When I started doing these solo tours, it was primarily out of financial necessity that I played alone," Zevon says. "But I could also identify with my roots, which was going to see Bob Dylan before he went electric. I started out kind of apprehensive -- of course, I'm basically apprehensive about everything. How am I going to do this, how am I going to sing continuously? And I ended up making the most of it for myself, doing whatever I wanted."
Growing up on the move (but mostly in California) in a complex familial situation -- his father was an immigrant Russian Jew with a vagabond streak, his mother a Scottish Mormon with deep conservative roots -- Zevon found his first musical solace in classical music, particularly serialism. As a 13-year-old he was befriended by the musicologist Robert Craft, who introduced him to Igor Stravinsky and helped him in writing scores. "I still know more about Milton Babbitt than I know about basketball or rhythm and blues," Zevon says.
Eventually his interest shifted to folk music, and at 16 he headed for New York, where a folk career was thwarted when he kept losing his picks inside his guitar. Later there was a brief stint as an advertising jingle writer ("I'd tell them, 'If you didn't make me say the name of the product so many times it would be a better country rock song' "); a folkish duo, lyme and cybelle, lower-cased in the style of e.e. cummings and named after his favorite after-shave lotion and his distaff partner's favorite character in a French film; writing songs for the Turtles; a 1969 "debut" album, "Wanted Dead or Alive," that was so bad Zevon doesn't include it in his discography (though it surfaced as a reissue after his initial success); and eventually a job as keyboard player and bandleader with the Everly Brothers in the years before their breakup.
All the while, Zevon was making connections without making much headway. Frustrated, he moved with his wife and son to Sitges, Spain, where the weather was fine, the prices right (a room for $1.50 a day) and the life style romantic. Zevon got a job in a rowdy Barcelona bar called the Dublineer, run by an ex-soldier of fortune, David Lindell. "I sang mostly Irish ballads and IRA songs, usually with the clientele singing along," Zevon recalls. "True, we were having a wild time, but I began to get a little disillusioned."
Just then, Jackson Browne called to relay an offer from Asylum Records. "Spain was very idyllic, and it was hard to come back," Zevon says. "But my wife and I both said, 'If we stay, we'll never know what would have happened.' " A little piece of Lindell would come back, too. According to Zevon, it was Lindell who wrote most of the lyrics to one of his signature songs, "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner."
"Warren Zevon," produced by Browne, was released to great critical acclaim, and four of the songs would soon be covered by Linda Ronstadt, including "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." On his next album, "Excitable Boy," Zevon came up with the only certified hit of his career, "Werewolves of London." While many of his songs reflected long days' work, "Werewolves" was written by Zevon and Roy Marinell in about 10 minutes. It has since taken on a life of its own, used by such disparate individuals as Bob Dylan in his Rolling Thunder Revue and Martin Scorsese in "The Color of Money."
"Although I once said, 'Why can't I be remembered as the guy who wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water"?' I'm also fond of reminding myself that it's one more song than the none most people associate me with," Zevon says. "We had lot of fun writing it. We weren't trying to save the world or making any cultural contribution. Since it became a hit, maybe I'm flattering myself that it was liberating lyrically.
"But mostly it's fun for people, so I should be the last to object. When you're writing a song, you're just trying to write a song as good as 'Not Fade Away' or as poetic as 'Bo Diddley.' A hopeless ambition," he concedes.
With subsequent albums, Zevon's songs showed an increasingly mean streak of machismo, evidenced in his seeming obsessions with outcasts and outlaws, internal and external violence. Call it hard-boiled pop -- Zevon was a fan of and eventually a friend to Ken Millar, better known as mystery writer Ross Macdonald -- but his work soon earned him another nickname: "the Sam Peckinpah of pop."
"I just write about those conflicts everybody writes about -- man in the wilderness, man against man, man against the record company ..." Zevon says. "There were several happy, optimistic, romantic songs on 'The Envoy' that I was taken to task for never performing, but I didn't feel comfortable playing light comedy romantic leads -- I wasn't that kind of guy. There were some people who thought those were the healthiest songs I ever wrote and the fact that I'm not comfortable with them is a real sorry state."
Zevon is also quick to point out that many of his songs have been collaborations. "When I write it's usually because an idea or a phrase just pops into my mind, and there are people I know that sometimes the kind of phrase I like to sing just pops out of their mouths.
"Give me a funny little slogan and I'll be off to the races," he says, pointing to such new songs as "Detox Mansion," "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands," "Trouble Waiting to Happen" and "Leave My Monkey Alone." "I've always had an instinct for self-parody, and I've always had great friends who join in that process. Like 'Jungle War' with Jorge Calderon -- 'Roland' struck him as so funny that we took it a little farther in that direction, did even broader satire.
"When pressed, I have sometimes provided myself with self-justification in blues music, which I love so much. It's the music of an incredibly oppressed people but it's pretty much devoid of self-pity, which I pride myself on trying to be. Like 'Bad Karma' is the guy in 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me' back whining again, and of course it's me. It's violent blues music, but it's not self-pitying, and I do think that's admirable."
Admirable enough for Zevon to become the first American artist signed to the expanding British label Virgin. He had help on "Sentimental Hygiene" from the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, George Clinton, Don Henley and, most importantly, from the members of R.E.M, whose guitarist Peter Buck was an Emory U-mate of Zevon's manager. Now Zevon is touring behind the album, happy once again to be playing with a band (which includes Little Feat alumni Kenny Gradney and Ritchie Hayward). And he's moved past one of his own provocative lyrics: "I'm too old to die young and too young to die now."
"Somebody asked me if I had to give 110 percent of myself on stage now," he says. "No, 100 percent is just fine. There is no 110 percent, that's an illusion.