Essential Music #13

Live albums have always been a way for rock artists and record companies to put out product (a) at Christmastime, (b) after the artist has died, or (c) during creative dry spells. Learning to Flinch, the 1993 live album by the late Warren Zevon, qualifies on one count: (a) was released closer to Memorial Day than the yuletide, (b) predated his death by ten years, but (c) indeed was issued to bridge the four-year span between Mr. Bad Example in 1991 and Mutineer in 1995.

This live effort by a singer/songwriter who was never that prolific is well worth remembering for his arresting performances of songs both odd and personal. The album title came from what Zevon liked to call “the vicissitudes of life on the road” (it was recorded the previous summer and fall in concerts around the world); he said it also accurately described his attitude toward the then approaching millennium.

Zevon plays solo on the album, employing only guitars, electronic keyboards, and piano all with extreme prejudice. Going at his guitar with the lonely passion of a flagellant, when he’s done it’s surprising there’s anything left of the instrument. But it’s his work at the piano that reveals his early training. As a boy, Zevon’s musical interests tended toward the classical, and by the time he was thirteen he was visiting with his Hollywood Hills neighbor Igor Stravinsky in the great composer’s home. At the same time, Learning to Flinch demonstrates that Zevon’s ivory-banging could be every bit as brutal as Jerry Lee’s.

The album’s centerpiece is a complex rethinking of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Utilizing a Bartok-influenced piano arrangement, for more than thirteen minutes Zevon sings “of arms and the men” and lays waste to his original 1978 version of the song. The album also introduced three new Zevon songs, the best of which was “The Indifference of Heaven,” a quietly intense tale of raging existentialism that begins:

Time stands still
Time on my hands
Time to kill
Blood on my hands
And my hands in the till
Down at the 7-11

The song’s protagonist finds himself waking to the “same old sun, same old moon” and, like Paul Schrader’s Travis Bickle, moving each day closer to violence.

Learning to Flinch was Zevon’s twelfth album (counting his stint as lead singer for the one-shot Hindu Love Gods, a blues unit he formed a few years earlier with R.E.M. sans Michael Stipe) and it still sounds sharp as a knife. It serves as a fine compendium of, or introduction to, the work of an immensely gifted artist whose own dark sense of humor finally caught up with him when he died from mesothelioma in 2003.

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