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Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School: Warren Zevon’s Cathartic Trauma
In Depth

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School: Warren Zevon’s Cathartic Trauma

Written in the wake of rehab and a broken marriage, ‘Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School’ reflected Warren Zevon’s guilt and remorse.

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Warren Zevon’s fourth studio album, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, released on 15 February 1980, came after a traumatic spell at the Pinecrest Rehabilitation Centre in Santa Barbara. The album reflects his feelings of guilt and remorse at the alcoholism and drug addiction that had cost him his marriage to Crystal Zevon.

The confessional lyrics of the album’s opening title track have the protagonist “down on my knees in pain”, having admitted to “acting like a fool”. No matter how many times he repeats the promise, “Swear to God I’ll change,” we don’t believe him. To add to the strangeness of an opening track, the song features the sound of a Smith & Wesson .44 being fired into a barrel of sand.

Listen to Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School here.

 

“I find myself writing about violent subjects”

A dancing school, incidentally, was a 17th-century euphemism for a brothel, and the theme dominates the controversial album cover, with a photograph taken by Jimmy Wachtel, older brother of guitarist Waddy, who played on the album. The photograph shows a room full of leotard-wearing ballet dancers who are warming up, without paying any attention to Zevon, dressed in a suit and tie and standing by the window. The dancers included actress Kim Lankford, who starred in the TV hit Knot’s Landing. The back cover photograph shows a ballerina’s pointe shoes, along with an Uzi machine gun and bullet casings. “This woman’s group got up in arms that it was saying that we were going to mow down these ballerinas with a gun, and I had to go to Asylum Records to defend the album cover,” Jimmy Wachtel told Crystal Zevon for her book, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon.

The more straightforward A Certain Girl, written by New Orleans great Allen Toussaint under the pen name Naomi Neville, had been a hit for Ernie K-Doe in 1961 and was later covered by The Yardbirds. Zevon’s zestful version featured Jackson Browne on backing vocals and Jorge Calderón, a musician who always added an intimate quality to his work with Zevon, on guitar. “Jorge is my oldest friend and closest collaborator,” Zevon commented. The track was released as a single and reached No.57 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Bruce Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau casually mentioned a long-forgotten 1972 Springsteen demo called Janey Needs A Shooter to Zevon, and though he misheard the name as “Jeannie”, Zevon loved the title so much that he repeatedly asked Springsteen about the song. “You like it so much, why don’t you write it?” replied the rock star. They eventually co-wrote the version that appears on Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, and a performance of the song, at The Roxy, in Los Angeles, became a highlight of Zevon’s 1980 live album, Stand In The Fire.

“Unifying classical music and popular song”

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, which was dedicated to the mystery-writer Ken Millar, is experimental and ambitious. At the time, Zevon, who had played classical music as a child, was listening to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Interlude No.1 and Interlude No.2 on the album – only about a minute and a half in total – were composed by Zevon and played by The Sid Sharp Strings, the most in-demand string section in Los Angeles. The aim of the two pieces, said Zevon, was “unifying the realms of classical music and popular song”.

Zevon’s fascination with the subject of mercenaries, explored elsewhere in Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, was the inspiration for Jungle Work, while the goofy Gorilla, You’re A Desperado features the stirring backing singing of Eagles legends Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Elsewhere, David Lindley adds his usual class to the guitar work on Play It All Night Long, a biting portrait of Southern squalor, featuring a grandfather who pisses his pants, an incestuous father-daughter relationship and a brother who “ain’t been right since Vietnam”.

Bill Lee was written for the former Red Sox pitcher, who had joined The Montreal Expos in 1978. Zevon invited the outspoken Lee to visit him while he was in rehab and played him a tape of the song, which was about a baseball star whose tendency for “saying things I shouldn’t” made him an outcast with sport bosses. The touching Bed Of Coals, meanwhile, was co-written with T Bone Burnett.

The highlight of Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, recorded at The Sound Factory in Hollywood, is Empty-Handed Heart, anchored by Zevon’s gorgeous piano arrangement. The song is a masterpiece of lament and loss, written for Crystal and featuring Linda Ronstadt on vocals. Zevon said, “I find myself writing about violent subjects more than romantic subjects,” but when he did write about the pain of love, he was always so incisive. Empty-Handed Heart, one of Zevon’s most intimate songs, is an acutely self-aware love ballad about the irreversibility of bad choices. “Time does not stand still/It’s rolling like a rockslide down a hill,” he sings.

Check out our best Warren Zevon songs to find out which Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School tracks got lucky.

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