In his twilight, late Los Angeles singer/songwriter Warren Zevon had come to grips with many of the demons which had plagued him throughout much of his nearly 40-year career. A very public battle with addiction, a notorious reputation for being difficult and unpredictable, and frequent commercial failure in the aftermath of his 1978-released breakthrough album Excitable Boy ultimately reduced the artist to a cult act, performing in the shadows of his better-known friends and advocates Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and Eagles. After a rocky ’80s decade of perplexing releases of varying merits, Zevon was eventually able to craft a lucrative niche for himself in the final years of his life, trading his reputation as a brutal Sunset Strip hellraiser for that of an esteemed, literary-minded rock elder statesmen, hitting his stride once more in the ’90s with such creative accomplishments as Mutineer and Life’ll Kill Ya. While failing to return him to the mainstream prominence he enjoyed in the late-’70s as the charactered voice behind “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” such releases proved to critics that Zevon was still capable of crafting the signature brand of darkly humorous California pop rock for which he was once held in such esteem.
Though released several months prior to his diagnosis with terminal mesothelioma, Zevon’s 11th studio album, My Ride’s Here, serves as a self-proclaimed “meditation on death.” Per the musician’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies, the theme of mortality frequently wracked his mind in those years, having been explored at length on some of his earlier releases, though the fixation was distilled on Life’ll Kill Ya. My Ride’s Here, however, sowed the seeds of acceptance which would eventually blossom into Zevon’s final release, The Wind. Something of a rehearsal for departure, the album finds Zevon incorporating grandiose self-mythology, insightful introspection, and devious subversiveness, its tastes remaining as eclectic as any late-career Zevon release, production value polished, with contributing musicians boldly accompanying the artist as he walks his listeners to the end of the road.
On opening rocker “Sacrificial Lambs,” Zevon comes out swinging at his target of preference: organized religion. “We’re having a party, we’re burning it down,” he declares. “We’re building an idol, he’s sad, but he don’t frown/He’s the cream of the crop, so we’re making him god.” The artist’s skepticism toward mass faith and those scheming leaders harnessing it into a theocratic political apparatus is apparent in many of his lyrics, although “Sacrificial Lambs” rides a tearing apocalyptic high, with no one—not the Coptics, Rosicrucians, Theosophists, or even Russell Crowe—escaping Zevon’s wrath, as he declares, “Eat my dust/And I’ll be your man/You can be my sacrificial lamb.” Some of Zevon’s greatest literary collaborations are found on My Ride’s Here, which features lyrical input from bestselling mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen on the trippy “Basket Case,” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon on satirical love song “Macgillycuddy’s Reeks,” influential gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson on the menacing “You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared” (on which Thompson alludes to his book Kingdom of Fear, published the following year), and journalist/novelist Mitch Albom on album standout “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song),” which also features contributions from Zevon’s old friends Paul Shaffer and David Letterman. Such luminous company only helped to emphasize Zevon’s creative intellect, his humor and inimitable abilities as a lyrical narrator showcased especially well on “Hit Somebody!,” which has since become one of his signature songs.
The deceitfully tender “Lord Byron’s Luggage” finds Zevon in top form, his penchant for dirty word play (“I had a little friend named Mister Johnson/Who always tried to be like me/He rose to the heights of his profession/And he was hard on his friends and family”) is paired with grizzled middle-aged assurances of perseverance (“Still out here in the wind and rain/I look a little older, but I feel no pain/And it stands to reason I’m still looking for love”) with affecting results. The baroque bitterness of orchestral breakup number “Genius” sees Zevon once more baring his fangs, exploring the presence of brilliance in such figures as Mata Hari and Albert Einstein, comparing their intellectual prowesses to that of his former flame in wounding him, culminating in Zevon’s acknowledgement, “You broke my heart into smithereens/And that took genius.” The album boasts two covers, which are also of merit. Zevon’s reinterpretation of Serge Gainsbourg’s 1960-released “Laissez-Moi Tranquille” pays tribute through an electric rock lens, while his rendition of former high school classmate and Sinch member Dan McFarland’s “I Have to Leave” stands among the album’s finest cuts.
My Ride’s Here’s ultimate triumph, however, is its title track. Zevon’s second collaboration with Muldoon, this sweeping tale of romance and intrigue set against an anachronistic frontier finds its protagonist “staying at the Marriott with Jesus and John Wayne” as he awaits his chariot. With John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlton Heston, John Keats, Lord Byron, and various outlaw soldiers populating its cast, the track sees Zevon at his lyrical best, lines such as, “The Houston sky was changeless/We galloped through bluebonnets/I was wrestling with an angel/You were working on a sonnet/You said, ‘I believe the seraphim will/ Gather up my Pinto/And carry me away, Jim/Across the San Jacinto,’” standing among his greatest. The vast tapestry woven here forms a popular culture mural fit for a Western chapel, the promise of eternity never more confident. Zevon’s longtime friend and collaborator Bruce Springsteen performed this track live upon Zevon’s death the following year, the Boss’ intimate acoustic rendition serving as an ideal companion piece to the bombastic studio recording.
My Ride’s Here remains one of Warren Zevon’s key releases, livelier (no pun intended) than Grammy-winning The Wind and more cohesive than Life’ll Kill Ya. What the world lost in Zevon was not the drunken brute or rock and roll cult myth, but the artist, whose classical sensibilities and fearless experimentalism set him leagues ahead of (and sometimes behind) the pack, his career neither iconic nor miniscule. A vastly underrated artist (he is yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), Zevon left as indelible a mark upon the Laurel Canyon music scene as his higher-profile peers, alongside whom he rode across the decades, sound perpetually shifting, his vision ever expanding. My Ride’s Here is a phenomenal prelude to Zevon’s big goodbye, which somehow managed to speak the many volumes its successor could not.
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Dec 21, 2021 Issue #69 – 20th Anniversary Issue