In the liner notes for Warren Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (An Anthology), the anthologee recalls ”my richly deserved if long forgotten reputation as the foremost chronicler of Hollywood life in the ’70s.” Indeed, while the Beach Boys and the Eagles can claim roundabout responsibility for a lot of California migration, there were those of us who, upon first arrival on the Left Coast, were most eager to find the landmarks made infamous by Zevon — the Echo Park chicken stand where heroin transactions went down in ”Carmelita,” say, or the Sunset Hyatt where a spanking was administered in ”Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” Our tour guide was funny, but harsher still: Ornery early verses like ”Don’t the sun look angry through the trees/Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves” still make Nathanael West sound like a sissy.
Significant chunks lifted from his first two classic albums remain the best reason to pick up this two-CD, 44-track retrospective. Obviously he’s not the first great to peak early; in later years, after Zevon abandoned his role as SoCal cynic laureate, the demarcations between his supermacho, Hemingwayesque rockers and his sad-sack ballads became too clear-cut for him to keep rivaling Randy Newman as the mainstream’s most subversive singer-songwriter. But, if spotty, this set does rescue a number of recent gems from obscurity — like ”Splendid Isolation,” which makes Michael Jackson’s agoraphobia into a poignant metaphor for the creepy mass loneliness of the ’80s and ’90s.
”Accidentally Like a Martyr,” or purposely like Marty Scorsese? Zevon’s later oeuvre, like his hair, may not be perfect, but even in unevenness, there’s a special place in gonzo rock history due this mercy-craving mercenary. B+