Dramatic forms require that pathos be earned. If you're an artist delving into sadness, grief and hopelessness, you'll get a leg up by touching on humor and joy along the way. The complex music of Warren Zevon fulfilled this obligation beautifully. Zevon wrote heart-wrenching songs, just as many that were funny as hell, and quite a few that were both at once. He also wrote a fair number of turkeys, but it's easy to forget about those now that he's passed away. This two-CD set, which collects demos and alternate versions and adds a second disc with an interview from 2000, is a surprisingly entertaining reminder of what Zevon did best.
Preludes came to be when son Jordan Zevon was cleaning out one of his father's storage spaces several months after the singer's death. He came across a large number of reel-to-reel tapes with unreleased music. Skimming the best of the lot, these 16 tracks offer an interesting look at how Zevon worked as well as a presenting a handful of previously unheard gems. So we get a demo of "Werewolves of London" cut with a gaggle of clowning friends trying to crack each other up. Zevon's best-known song was allegedly written in a minutes-long goof session, and here it sounds like it, with many of the familiar lyrics not yet there but the placeholders sounding just as hilarious. "Accidentally Like a Martyr" is also heard in embryonic form, and in this early version it was a jauntier and wordier, a hair less effective than the understated classic it would become. A piano-only demo of "Hasten Down the Wind," like a number of other tracks here, works because Zevon sings with passion even when not recording for an album; he's immersed in the song's bittersweet story even though he's singing for himself.
Six songs haven't appeared on Zevon records in any form. The brilliant "Empty Hearted Town," written in the early '70s, finds Zevon alone at the piano making a tale of aching loneliness funny: "Cigarettes make the sun come up/Whiskey makes the sun go down/And in between, you do a lot of standing around." "Steady Rain" is warmly sentimental, with tinkling piano mirroring the line "silvery teardrops trickling down my windshield" between bursts of organ and acoustic guitar. Another meditation on precipitation, "Stop Rainin' Lord," is less substantial, as Zevon plays guitar and sings in bellowing blues mode, telling the story of a hobo looking for the next bottle of Boone's Farm wine. The interview disc is entertaining and intersperses music between the banter, but, typical of the form, it's of dubious replay value.
With vocal personality to burn, Zevon never needed much production for his songs to come off, so these occasionally crude recordings will have some appeal beyond his sizable cult. One way to think of this record is as an "another side" look in the vein of his friend Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, or perhaps a ghost version of Zevon's best-of A Quiet, Normal Life. More than just a vault clearing, Preludes offers insight into the man's creative process as well as a good number of songs that stand tall on their own. If it turns out to be the end (and given the number of unreleased recordings found, that seems unlikely) it is a fitting one.
Mark Richardson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.