by Brian Smith
Tucson’s own human siren song was already an itchy-palmed dream for boys (and girls) by this ’78 single—a household name really, no doubt helped by a fetching Time Magazine cover story that featured a shot of a scantly-clothed Ronstadt sipping steaming sauce over a stove, sexualized for the American mass consciousness.
This version of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” didn’t top songwriter Warren Zevon’s godhead version, but damn if it ain’t peerless in a ’70s radio-rock, sterile production, hit-single sorta way. Golden-eared producer (and Ronstadt manager) Peter Asher kept the spirits alive in a way that transcended said sterility because the man understood songs. Hear that.
A sweet acoustic drone and cowbell opens to Ronstadt’s hip-swinging sexuality and Waddy Wachtel's anthemic four-on-floor riff, and you can visualize coke-gacked grins on faces of the post-Laurel Canyon mellow mafia all over this—a weirdly beautiful thing in hindsight. And god love fright-haired Wachtel and his bong-smoke-clearing power chords that bestow the tune with indelible weight and oomph.
Zevon’s version, with all the suicide and domination in the lyrics etc., was ironic self-mockery passed off jokingly as narcissism yet still narcissistic as hell, on purpose. But Zevon knew that—that’s how fucking smart he was, and his had the requisite weatherbeaten vocal tone to match the literate and deceptively simple sentiment. But Ronstadt’s slightly cleaned up version had real sexual verve, and her unstoppable voice, which gave the song staying power.
Still, it’s really too bad Ronstadt switched the song’s gender here because that changes the male/female power dynamic in the worst way (a woman-pummeling dude ain’t no “credit to his gender”). Had she kept the gender as written, the tune would’ve been wickedly subversive in its time, but no Top 40 hit. Also dropped “West” from “West Hollywood.” Another meaning-changer. Shame.