CK Retro Review: Wanted Dead Or Alive by Warren Zevon

It would get much, much better. Warren Zevon’s 1969 debut album Wanted Dead Or Alive is largely forgotten within his catalog. Casual fans assume his career began with his mid to late 70’s heyday, mainly because nothing on his disc has ever received any kind of airplay or notoriety. Sadly, that’s mostly understandable, because Zevon sabotaged even the best songwriting here with overbearing arrangements and claustrophobic production. A few glimmers of hope aside, you can understand why even the artist himself criticized this one. Here is a song-by-song review:


10. “Gorilla”- A nearly unlistenable blues noise workout.


9. “Fiery Emblems”- It’s funny to think of Zevon as anything other than a pianist, but on this first album, he was also giving guitar gunslinging a try. This instrumental is played OK but lacks inspiration.

8. “Traveling In The Lightning”- Some of Zevon’s trademark storytelling details are in there, not that you can hear them amidst the cacophonous mix. Proof that Zevon’s attempts to become a kind of one-man Jimi Hendrix Experience were misguided.

7. “Calcutta”- Maybe the biggest problem with the album is that Zevon wasn’t quite sure of what kind of artist he wanted to be. In the era of psychedelic blues, songs like this were a dime a dozen. And the performer’s unique identity only briefly surfaces in the left-field piano solos.

6. “Hitchhikin’ Woman”- It might as well be an instrumental, because it’s mixed in such a way that Zevon’s vocals are unintelligible. Too bad, because it works up a decent ruckus.

5. “She Quit Me”- Zevon’s vocal here is way overwrought, the vibrato and emoting laid on so thick that it almost seems like a parody of something. It made it onto the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, and the harmonica work ain’t bad, so it has that going for it.


4. “Wanted Dead Or Alive”- Upon hearing this title, you half-expect one of Zevon’s wistful piano ballads, but instead you get a kind of driving, insistent, acoustic-guitar-flavored rocker. Written by Kim Fowley, with whom Zevon clashed about the album’s production, and Martin Cerf, there’s not much to the song, but it’s not bad as a mood-setter.

3. “Iko Iko”- The classic N’awlins pop smash gets an energetic workout for Zevon, aided by some playful backing vocals. Again, the production gets away from him a bit and turns it into a bleary mess in the instrumental section, but the fun vibes push it along.


2. “Tule’s Blues”- You can hear a solo piano version of this song about the same woman who would later inspire “The French Inhaler” on the Preludes release, and it’s a stunner. This countrified arrangement doesn’t quite do the song justice, but the sentiments, partly tart, partly tender, are classic Zevon, an early indication of his songwriting genius even on this misfire of an album.

1. “A Bullet For Ramona”- Zevon still didn’t quite forge his own identity on this song, approximating drunken Basement Tapes balladry. But at least on this one he comes close enough to the material he’s honoring to earn major points, mainly because he’s one of the few who can pull off a Dylanesque combination of romantic and acerbic.

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)




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