Fifteen years ago Warren Zevon was the most daring and brilliant of a crop of talented west coast singer-songwriters that included Jackson Browne and the Eagles, among others. The Zevon of those years combined a macabre, surreal comic sense (“Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy”) with a penchant for tender sentimentality (“Hasten Down the Wind,” “Accidentally Like a Martyr”). Borne along by the rising tide of easy rockers, and specifically by the gracious patronage of Browne and Linda Ronstadt, the Chicago-born Zevon was a rising young star, a critic’s darling, and a miserable alcoholic. True to his Russian roots, Zevon picked vodka as his poison–screwdrivers with breakfast, Stoli and coffee as a pick-me-up, straight fuel in the afternoons.

By the time he released his second LP in 1978, “F. Scott Fitzevon,” as friends had dubbed the sinking ship, was openly admitting his alcohol abuse to interviewers. “I used to get a lot of drunk-driving tickets,” he joked in People, of all places. “I knew it would come down to drinking or driving. I picked drinking. I don’t drive anymore.” Zevon’s undeniable talent as a songwriter and musician, his ability to toe the line between his classical piano training and his country-rock leanings, was quickly overshadowed by the alarming pace of his self-destruction. That’s what happens when you pack a .44 Magnum and run around your house wearing a full-face duck mask. In a process that was widely reported in excruciating detail, Zevon sought help, and if he seemed at times to be dragging behind the wagon, he eventually got on and stayed on.

It’s impossible to listen to Zevon without thinking of his troubled past. But it’s also impossible to listen to him without thinking how far he has come. The Envoy, released in 1982, was his first “sober” studio album, an attempt to prove that he could dry up without his talent following suit, and it proved that in spades. The title track’s understanding of the moral relativity of international politics was chilling, the stark headbanger poetry of “Ain’t That Pretty at All” hilarious. After The Envoy, Zevon took a five-year hiatus to reassemble his private life and renegotiate rock stardom. When he reappeared in 1987, it was with a masterpiece–the terse and unrelenting Sentimental Hygiene, recorded with a Stipe-less R.E.M. plus a host of special guests. Since then Zevon has been offering his scarred vocals and sharp insights at a steady every-other-year clip with 1989’s Transverse City and last year’s Mr. Bad Example. In early June he graced Chicago with a one-man show at the Park West, part of a tour from which he will mine a live album. With a stage set rife with instrumental possibilities–an acoustic piano stage right, a synth console stage left, a full assortment of guitars waiting in the wings–Zevon walked on in jeans and a T-shirt, long hair slicked back and pulled tight in a ponytail, and proceeded to guide his grizzled larynx down memory lane.

With the possible exception of fellow foghorn Tom Waits, no contemporary songwriter uses geography as freely as Zevon. His songs have ranged over the remotest corners of the map, from Mombasa to Monte Carlo to Paris to Havana to Damascus–too bad they don’t give frequent-flyer miles for lyrics. The recital featured plenty of globe-trotting picaresques (“Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and “Mr. Bad Example,” any one of which is perfectly suited for a Rand McNally endorsement deal), and a certain restlessness affected his performance as well. Constructed more like a recording session than the traditional concert, the show was compartmentalized rather than cumulative–a few songs on the guitar followed by a piano set, then off to the synthesizer–and it discouraged momentum. At times the potpourri approach ran over rough patches, especially with the needless eclecticism of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Complete with a ponderous introduction (“I sing of arms and the man”), interminable keyboard noodling that wouldn’t have been out of place at a mid-70s Keith Jarrett gig, and an art-house ending that diminuendoed into rolling drums, the extended version muted the proto-Pogues punch of the original. Though Zevon has always embraced new influences–who else can boast of collaborating with both Tom McGuane and George Clinton?–his own self-indulgence can be an unpleasant element. And though shaking out the bag of tricks produced some welcome surprises, such as an energetic “Excitable Boy” spiced with formidable stride piano and a stinging new slide-blues composition, the problem with the jack-of-all-trades approach is succinctly expressed by a lyric from “Hasten Down the Wind”: “She’s so many women / He can’t find the one who was his friend.”

Zevon may have felt the unevenness and compensated consciously, or he may have merely settled into his own rhythm as a matter of course. Whatever the case, the short intermission that followed the endless “Roland” seemed to clear the debris. An extended guitar set found a lovely, fluid “Searching for a Heart” holding the door open for “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which in turn stepped aside for the anthemic roar of “Boom Boom Mancini.” The glove-means-never-having-to-say-you’re-sorry tribute to the great Ohio lightweight may not be the greatest requiem for a palooka, not with Dylan’s “Hurricane” lurking around the ring, but it’s a miraculous creation nonetheless, a hulking riff kept in line by razor-sharp lyrics. The six-string barrage peaked with “Detox Mansion,” Zevon’s wry personal ode to the subtext of hypocrisy in the celebrity cleanup game:

I’m going to Detox Mansion,

Way down on Last-Breath Farm.

I’ve been raking leaves with Liza;

Me and Liz clean up the yard.

Left my home in Music City

In the back of a limousine.

Now I’m doing my own laundry

And I’m getting those clothes clean.

What goes on in Detox Mansion

Outside the rubber room?

We get therapy and lectures;

We play golf in the afternoon.

On the studio version of “Detox Mansion” (it appears on Sentimental Hygiene along with “Boom Boom Mancini”), Zevon belts out his caustic tale over a three-ax attack, his own efforts sentineled by Peter Buck’s electric lead and especially David Lindley’s blistering pedal-steel guitar. But great songs transcend context, and the mansion hardly suffered from the redecoration.

Zevon took advantage of the propulsive effect of “Detox Mansion” to premiere “Piano Fighter,” a session-man bildungsroman whose brash chorus (“Hold me tight honey / Hold me tighter / Then let me go / Piano fighter”), awash in tidal chords, recalled early Springsteen. And after a pleasantly ramshackle “Werewolves of London” tailored to local tastes (“Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / Walking down Lake Shore Drive in the rain”), the encore was something of an anticlimax. Zevon covered “Summertime Blues,” and though it certainly harks back to simpler days, Eddie Cochran’s teen-spirit anthem has become so routinely rousing that it’s hard to take it seriously anymore. The demographically safe “Play It All Night Long,” one of Zevon’s weakest songs, followed to little effect. Only the gentle lament of “Mohammed’s Radio” could hold its head high enough to line up behind the evening’s finest moments.

Anticlimax, pseudoclimax, or no climax at all, the audience drenched Zevon with the sound of their appreciation. Concert crowds have a hard time with the finer shades of expression–cheers of adulation (“Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Pop Star!”) sound the same as roars of assent (“Are you ready to rock?”), which also sound like shouts of exhilaration (“Good night, and thank you”)–but it would have been nice to develop a new sort of applause to honor Zevon’s singular talent. Customizing the broad recipe of the folk-rock song with fascinating pinches of regret, apology, bitterness, and hope, Zevon is at once defiant and frangible, afraid of others and hungry for their love. Dozens of performers trade on emotional vulnerability, but none of them can spike their own insecurity with such emotional honesty and crooked humor. Look for the live album when it’s finally released. Miss future Zevon concerts at your own peril. But if you do nothing else, clip and save this quatrain from the night’s opening number, Transverse City’s “Splendid Isolation”:

Michael Jackson in Disneyland.

Don’t have to share it with nobody else.

Close the door, Goofy, take my hand,

And lead me through the World of Self.

Has misanthropy ever been so endearing?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin–Photo Reserve.