Wanted Dead Or Alive
Capitol Records, 1970
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/08/2004
Not even six months after the death of Warren Zevon, it almost seems like it's sacrilege to say anything negative about the late singer-songwriter. To dare call any of his work anything short of a masterpiece is akin to dancing an Irish jig on his grave.
Yet Zevon himself would have probably welcomed criticism of Wanted Dead Or Alive, his 1970 debut release (which was remastered and re-issued in 2003). Yet for all the weaknesses on this disc, there are moments of sheer magic which even Zevon himself would have been hard-pressed to ignore.
Granted, if you go into this disc looking for songs along the lines of "Werewolves Of London" or "Mr. Bad Example," you're gonna walk away shaking your head in displeasure. There's a reason why Zevon took about six years off before the release of his second album -- namely, the need for growth in his songwriting.
So it's not terribly surprising that you find songs such as the title track and "Hitchhikin' Woman" which sound like they're works in progress, but desperately needing another coat of paint or two. The surprisingly sparse instrumentation doesn't really help matters too much, either. And despite its ties to the film Midnight Cowboy, I just can't really get into the song "She Quit Me". Maybe if I had been born in the '50s and was of the age of reason in 1969 (rather than still being a glint in the milkman's eye), I'd be able to connect to this original version more.
But to write off Wanted Dead Or Alive as a period piece or even an album for Zevon fans only is to ignore the successes captured on this disc. And, surprisingly, there are many. Despite the liner notes all but writing off Zevon's version of "Iko Iko," it is somewhat enjoyable, quite possibly because Zevon gets in, delivers the message and gets out. Without the drawn-out faux-party atmosphere to the song, you get its essence -- and it's pretty good.
It is when Zevon's work takes on the slightly bent edge -- albeit in the musical form rather than lyrical - that this disc shows its true magic. "Gorilla" has a primitive sound that is absolutely enchanting, while the closing instrumental "Fiery Emblems" says the most about Zevon's musical and songwriting skills. Likewise, you can't help but enjoy the frantic piano solo on "Calcutta," almost sounding like it belongs on another song… but it works.
Wanted Dead Or Alive is not your typical Zevon album, if only because Zevon himself didn't know how to make a typical Zevon album. At times, this works to his advantage; at other times, it doesn't. But it sure makes for an interesting trip, and one which doesn't fully deserve the bad rap it's gotten over the years.