Warren Zevon – Mr. Bad Example (1991): On Second Thought
Warren Zevon didn’t know it, but he was at the end of the second act of his career when he reached Mr. Bad Example.
Zevon, who would have celebrated a birthday on January 24, found himself on a creative roll beginning in the late ’80s. This album followed 1989’s overlooked Tranverse City and the 1987 cult classic Sentimental Hygiene. Both featured big-label budgets courtesy of Virgin, and familiar names like Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley and Jerry Garcia. Unfortunately, while critically successful, they both were sales flops – along with the Hindu Love Gods, Zevon’s off-shoot album with R.E.M. Suddenly, Warren Zevon was without a recording contract.
After shopping around and finding little interest elsewhere, Zevon landed at Giant Records under Irving Azoff’s leadership. Mr. Bad Example certainly represents a more stripped-down approach than its two predecessors, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling.
Produced by Warren Zevon devotee and longtime pal Waddy Wachtel, the album sounds modern and edgy. Indeed Wachtel, who was responsible for Zevon’s biggest albums, knew what light to best cast his friend in. The core band was Wachtel on guitar along with Bob Glaub on bass and Jeff Porcaro on drums. Zevon provided piano and synthesizers, as well as the occasional guitar solo.
“Finishing Touches,” the opening track, pulls no punches: Glaub and Porcaro smoke as Wachtel’s guitar is Rolling Stone-level raunchy. Warren Zevon’s lyrics are up to the challenge, too. He sings about romantic failure better than anyone. It’s fascinating, today, that this song became the first single. Could you say “my cock is sore…” on the radio back in 1991?
After that, “Suzie Lightning” is a bit of a letdown. It’s a tentative and tender ballad, but pales next to “Model Citizen” This song teams Zevon with his “Werewolves of London” writing partners, LeRoy Marinelli and Wachtel. Again the Porcaro/Glaub tandem provides a fire which is matched by Wachtel’s melodic guitar, Dan Dugmore’s rhythm guitar and Zevon’s solo. Zevon’s Wurlitzer piano and touches of acoustic guitar fill out the sound. When he sings “It’s a white man’s burden, and it weighs a ton,” it’s more telling than most Springsteen lyrics.
“Angel Dressed in Black” keeps the fire on high. Sure, the analogy of drugs being like the entrapment of a lovely woman has been done before but, given Warren Zevon’s substance abuse history, it hits home on a song with a jaunty yet appropriate feel. The title track on Mr. Bad Example has a live and loose feel. Part of the reason is the presence of Jim Keltner on drums. Keltner, in combination with cowriter Jorge Calderon, makes this mean little song swing with authority. Sure, Zevon’s protagonist is a bad person, but you can’t help but he charmed by his swagger.
“Renegade,” Zevon’s tale of yet another Southern loser, is a gem. The story telling is tight yet vivid. An explosive drummer, Jeff Porcaro’s well-placed buzz rolls leave no doubt he was a master. He always played the part. Meanwhile, Warren Zevon is at his best vocally here, tying in pride and regret in one song and mixing with guest David Lindley’s fiddle seamlessly. This isn’t Tom Petty’s Southern Accents; it’s brilliant in a different way.
“Heartache Spoken Here” is the perfect country song. Dan Dugmore returns, this time on pedal steel, to provide and authentic down-home sheen, while Dwight Yoakam’s harmony vocals make you wonder why this great little crying-in-your-beer song wasn’t released to country stations.
“Quite Ugly One Morning” follows the theme of a morning after impact on the chemically dependent person. Despite the lap steel, saz and cumbus playing of David Lindley, and harmonies of Jorge Calderon, the song seems to lumber along with a mean guitar theme and powerful back beat. Drink, drugs and losers are common Warren Zevon themes, and while the song is musically strong, there are better examples of the form out there.
“Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead” however, is good dirty fun. Co-writers Marinelli and Wachtel return with a song that explores what happens after you’re had that quite ugly morning. No one does a death song better than Warren Zevon did. Sure his buddy Jackson Browne could write an ode to death, but unlike Zevon’s tunes, Browne’s are just downers. Keltner’s looping back beat, Calderon’s harmony vocals and Wachtel’s guitars all combine to make this almost as good as “Werewolves of London.” Too bad Zevon had a falling out with Marinelli over royalties. This may well be the last song they wrote together.
A straightforward musical theme over a 4/4 beat, the album closing “Searching for a Heart” originally appeared in the movie Grand Canyon – and it seems like an afterthought. Waddy Wachtel provides a tasty-but-brief slide guitar while Zevon handles synthesizer duties. The production is big and includes backing vocals from Kipp, Mark and Michael Lennon of the group Venice (and sometime Roger Waters backing band).
“Searching for a Heart” became the second single from the album, as Giant Records kept hoping for a hit. Unfortunately, it didn’t get one from Mr. Bad Example. This remains a strong, too-often overlooked Warren Zevon album, but without more chart action, Zevon’s major-label career – and the second act of his career – came to an end.