Warren Zevon’s Bad Luck Streak

by Marshall Bowden

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is supposed to represent Warren Zevon’s relationships with women, or maybe just with life in general. But it’s clear that the album is more closely aligned with his life, more autobiographical than Excitable Boy or even his album before that. 

Ross McDonald is the pen name of American-Canadian mystery writer Ken Millar. The literary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, McDonald created hard-boiled gumshoe Lew Archer. Archer and his supporting cast are no strangers to violence, but there are worse things out there. Because no matter what heinous act someone commits, there is always a reason, or a red flag buried deeply in the past, covered over with family secrets, enforced with psychological blackmail. For Archer, and by extension McDonald, justice is only properly discovered and served by looking deeply into the situation and discovering its roots.

Warren Zevon dedicated his album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School to Millar, who passed away in 1983. Zevon’s background reveals a lot about the attraction to Ross’ books. His father, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States was a bookie who handled bets and dice games for notorious L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen. William Zevon worked for the Cohen family for years. Zevon’s mother was from a Mormon family. They divorced and by the time Zevon was 16 he was in San Francisco, then Los Angeles working as a songwriter and performer. He recorded one album that was poorly executed and received; it’s like a piece of juvenalia that hints only vaguely at the genius behind it.

The next few years were spent developing a jaundiced eye towards the music business and developing a full-fledged case of alcoholism. Warren Zevon was like any writer who came to L.A. with ideas of creating great art and ended up drinking his way to the bottom of the barrel.

Like William Faulkner. Or Barton Fink.

The hard-living, the violence he committed against women, particularly his ex-wife Crystal who documented their relationship unflinchingly in a biography that Warren himself wanted her to write, all of this adds up to a portrait of what today would be called toxic masculinity. It has made Zevon an unsympathetic character in spite of the rosier glow put over his final recording, The Wind, and his death from pleural mesothelioma. Those who admire Warren Zevon often do so because of the perceived toughness, the refusal to give up, the fighting against a destiny that is hard-wired, at least in part, by genetics and upbringing and then molded by life experiences that underline a sense of tragic destiny.  

When Zevon recorded his self-titled Asylum Records album produced by Jackson Browne, a friend and early champion of his work who convinced David Geffen to sign the talented songwriter, he held nothing back. The songs were fresh and honest. It had rockers like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” but it also had gentler songs that looked at some of the downtrodden and marginal characters who appear, at best, as blips on our collective peripheral vision and are easily dismissed as mirages. “Carmelita,” “Mohammad’s Radio,” and “Hasten Down the Wind” were all recorded by Linda Rondstadt at or near the height of her career, exposing Zevon to a much bigger audience than he would ever have managed on his own. “Desperados Under the Eaves” and “The French Inhaler” are still widely seen as the best songs he ever wrote. 

In 1978 he released the album Excitable Boy, which stands as his best-known record and definitely his greatest in terms of sales. Zevon hit the zeitgeist at the right moment, like his generation’s Randy Newman. He’s just the cranky humorist the critics are looking for, and they make Warren Zevon their latest lost cause. He plays shows at top-level venues with a rocking group of L.A. guns for hire. He’s on all the shows, and he hits it off with David Letterman, who would be a supporter for life, throwing Zevon the lifeline of a TV appearance whenever he had a new record. 

But his alcoholism continued unabated, growing ever more dramatic, worrisome, and violent. His friends and wife Crystal grew intensely worried about him. This period is well covered by Paul Nelson’s 1981 Rolling Stone article. Nelson, who befriended Zevon at the time of his first Asylum album, recounts the singer’s first rehab in Santa Barbara and an intervention that was attended by many of his friends, collaborators like Jorge Calderon, co-writer of ‘Night Time in the Switching Yard’ and ‘Jungle Work’ and Jimmy Wachtel, the photographer who shot the cover of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School

Wachtel’s photograph is of a dance studio. Young, lithe California-type women in leotards, ballet slippers, and leg warmers recline on the floor or strike a pose or stretch. A tableau of dancers is posed with the barre against a mirrored wall. The second-floor studio has a French door that opens onto a flat balcony. The door is thrown open and there, in the doorway, wearing a trademark suit and tie and flooded with the light of an illumination painting blazing all around him, is Warren Zevon.

Leaning on the door frame, opposite hip thrust out in counterbalance—is he looking at the women or merely off into space? On the back cover: ballet shoes, a machine gun with some bullets on the hardwood floor. 

At the time, Warren Zevon was taking dancing lessons as well as martial arts lessons, so the title and the conceit seem plausible. But Zevon is getting at more than a clever title here. Dancing school is supposed to represent his relationships with women, or maybe just with life in general. But it’s clear that the album is more closely aligned with his life, more autobiographical than Excitable Boy or even his album before that. 

The record opens with a brief string interlude, presumably something from the Symphony No. 1 that Zevon worked on periodically for a long period of his life. There are two other string interludes, one before the final track on Side One, the other on Side Two. The strings soon give way to a muscular rock groove paved by Zevon’s guitar crunch and the solid rhythm team of Leland Sklar and Rick Marotta. David Lindley offers up some queasy lap steel guitar and the song lurches off.

Lyrically the song is a simple plea–“I’ve been breaking all the rules” admits Zevon before telling the woman he is addressing “I swear to God I’ll change.” And in the final act of Nelson’s article, Zevon had changed, having come through a second round of rehab in better physical and mental shape than he had been in for a long time. His performances on the Bad Luck Streak tour were animated and celebratory. But we know that it didn’t stick, not this time. By 1986 Zevon would be in trouble and in rehab again, this time taking control of his addiction until his cancer diagnosis threw him off the wagon at the end. 

Zevon wouldn’t write another hit like “Werewolves of London” and probably didn’t want to, but of course, the record needed a hit, and so Zevon does a heavy rock and roll adaption of Allen Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl,” recorded by Ernie K Doe in 1961 and covered by the Yardbirds. He brought in Waddy Wachtel on lead guitar, and the record’s single was achieved, reaching 57 on the Billboard Charts in the U.S. 

Two songs on Side One are classic Warren Zevon–“Jungle Work,” an adventure story about mercenaries in the wilds of Nicaragua or other South American hotspots, full of Hemingway macho swagger, and “Play It All Night Long,” a favorite of many Zevon fans.

“Play It All Night Long” is ostensibly a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthem “Sweet Home Alabama”, a song that feels like the closest thing to a Confederate national anthem as there has ever been. But the song doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the lives of many in the rural south who live in poverty. There’s the senile patriarch, the crazy Vietnam vet brother, incest, and diseased cattle. It might seem like a scenario drawn from stereotypes, which is is to some extent. But it isn’t far off from the authentic southern voice of writers like Harry Crews. “Play It All Night Long” sounds like the song that some characters from Crews’ spectacularly horrifying novel Feast of Snakes might have sung. 

The chorus, though, is unexpectedly celebratory, grim yet determined:

“Sweet home Alabama”
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

There’s defiance there as well as a certain gallows humor, the same emotional payload that leads Floridians to have hurricane parties on the beach as the eye of the storm passes through. 

But the centerpiece of Side One, indeed of the album itself, is the ballad “Empty Handed Heart.” It’s just the type of unflinching look at one’s actions that any listener might expect from someone recently out of rehab. The song is clearly written with ex-wife Crystal in mind. Zevon remembers the good times while acknowledging his role in losing her love. He is hopeful about a new relationship (actress Kim Lankford, who at the time was starring in Knots Landing) and he wonders if he’ll make it without his prior love of many years. “I’m determined to,” he says, “I”ll make my stand.” But there is doubt:

And if after all is said and done
You only find one special one
Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand
Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand
Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand
Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand

Linda Ronstadt sings a descant against these repeated lines, overlapping Zevon’s mantra of failure:

Remember when we used to watch the sun set in the sea
You said you’d always be in love with me
All through the night, we danced and sang
Made love in the morning while the church bells rang

Side Two opens with “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” a song written in collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on which Zevon brings to bear a solid string arrangement and a near-perfect Joe Walsh guitar solo. Then comes another string interlude and the brief, inscrutable “Bill Lee’ written about the left-handed major league pitcher who caused controversy by admitting he smoked marijuana, ending up on the cover of High Times

Nelson’s article tells a story about Zevon being excited to meet Lee, a meeting that led to him falling off the wagon and going on a three-day drinking binge. It’s a poem, really, more than a song but of course Zevon’s talent allowed him to turn it into a real song after all.

“Gorilla You’re a Desperado” is the album’s weakest song with its ersatz reggae beat and story about changing places with a gorilla in the zoo. Of course, the gorilla finds Zevon’s life to be much more complicated than his cushy life at the zoo. It was probably meant to be the kind of funny song “Werewolves of London” had been, but it really is pretty lame by comparison.

But Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School goes out strong thanks to two great songs. “Bed of Nails,” co-written with T-Bone Burnett is a real country song, something that wouldn’t seem out of place for Kris Kristofferson or even Hank Williams to have written. The closing song, “The Wild Age” has the exact feel of Jackson Browne’s ‘The Pretender’ or ‘For Everyman,’ and it could be one of Zevon’s most self-aware songs, about the way that rebels end up remaining stuck in time, never growing old.

Or growing up.

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