That Time Warren Zevon Followed Up His Big Hit With ‘Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School’
Warren Zevon had only one Top 10 album in his career, 1978’s Excitable Boy. And that was mostly because of the success of his only Top 40 song, “Werewolves of London.” But he was loved, covered and respected by his peers, many of whom recorded his songs long before his celebrated 1976 self-titled album came out.
Understandably and unsurprisingly, Zevon — never one to do much in moderation — was in celebration mode after Excitable Boy put some money in his pockets and snagged him some well-deserved attention outside of the insider circle of fans he had slowly picked up going back to 1969’s DOA debut Wanted Dead or Alive. And it wasn’t long before his alcoholism got the best of him.
In a way, 1980’s follow-up LP, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, is about Zevon’s attempts to get sober. It’s also about newfound fame and the pitfalls that come with getting what you’ve wished for. It’s also a tough, angry, bitter and ugly album at times, political where Excitable Boy was funny, troubling where the earlier record was sharp.
Not that Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School isn’t funny and sharp at times. But there’s an air of desperation in its songs, in its characters, in its music and in Zevon himself, who often sounds like he’s at the end of the line, futilely pulling at the last shreds of hope. On the assertive title track, he sings over and over, “I swear to God I’ll change,” as if repeating the lines will make them true.
It’s not as easy to get into Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School as it is Warren Zevon or Excitable Boy, where the melodies often masked the junkies, whores and serial rapists Zevon sang about. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School‘s swiftest entry points — a cover of Ernie K-Doe’s 1961 song “A Certain Girl” (featuring Jackson Browne on backing vocals), “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” (cowritten by Bruce Springsteen), “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado” (which is about the Eagles and includes Don Henley on harmony) — come via Zevon’s famous friends.
It also comes in the form of “Play It All Night Long,” a tribute of sorts to Lynyrd Skynyrd, among other things. “Grandpa pissed his pants again / He don’t give a damn / Brother Billy has both guns drawn / He ain’t been right since Vietnam,” Zevon sings over one of his most raging riffs.
Together these songs shape the album’s central truth: Zevon was unwinding, and his pals were there to add support and pick him up when he fell (and sometimes they were there to add fuel to his addictions). It’s a messy work, sidestepping the relative accessibility of Excitable Boy. But it’s almost as if Zevon wanted it this way, a conscious decision to steer away the fans who entered around the time “Werewolves of London” peaked at No. 21 two years earlier. (The live album, Stand in the Fire, released later in 1980, is an often harsh portrait of an artist barely holding it together onstage, despite his recent sobriety.)
When he released Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School‘s follow-up, The Envoy, two years later, the songs were even more inaccessible. Zevon’s label dropped him, his drinking almost killed him and he wouldn’t make another record until 1987, when he returned sharpened and focused, and with help from R.E.M., made Sentimental Hygiene, featuring some of his best work of the decade.
Zevon would reach the commercial height of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School — a relative success, making it to No. 20 mostly because of the curiosity “Excitable Boy” ushered in — only once more. Over the next two decades, until his death from cancer at the age of 56 on Sept. 7, 2003, he’d release eight more albums. Four of them didn’t even crack the Top 200. His final record, The Wind, came out two weeks before he died. It debuted at No. 12. Somewhere Zevon was probably laughing at this career upswing, 23 years after the aggressively dismissive and dismissed Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.
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