Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon (Asylum, 1976, Rhino Reissue, 2008)
What a shame the long-promised Warren Zevon catalogue reissues have been so variable, haphazard and under-promoted. Last year’s reissues at least made ‘The Envoy’ and ‘Stand In The Fire’ readily available on CD, but there were few extras and little effort was made with the presentation. Similarly, a reissue of ‘Mr. Bad Example’ snuck out earlier this year with little fanfare and no bonus tracks. Scant respect is being paid to chronology.
This eponymous album from 1976 is the first to get more reverential treatment on its reissue. It’s often erroneously referred to as one of rock’s great debuts. Zevon himself essentially disowned his true debut, 1969’s eccentric and sketchy ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ (will Rhino manage to make that one available again?), so it’s best to see ‘Warren Zevon’ as the perfect introduction to his sardonic, irony-laden songwriting.
The Zevon story has been repeated so many times that it’s now been elevated to a legend. There’s his fraught childhood as the son of a reckless Russian-Jewish gambling man and a Mormon from Utah, his dysfunctional relationship with Tule Livingston (which went as far as producing his son Jordan), his status as a classical musician of some ability, having had some lessons with Igor Stravinsky, his work as Musical Director for the Everly Brothers and his temporary emigration to Spain when it looked like his musical career in LA had failed.
I often wonder why I’m such a vocal admirer of Zevon’s work when I’m so unconvinced by a large portion of the LA rock canon. I’ve never had much time for The Eagles and Jackson Browne, who produced this album and brought Zevon to wider attention, has always seemed a bit too tasteful by comparison. This record, with its unashamedly autobiographical songs, makes the differences between Zevon and his associates very plain. The Zevon story, whether it’s part-fabricated or the whole truth, makes for something much more snarly and sophisticated than the rest of this scene had to offer.
Having said that, the album starts far from Zevon’s own life with ‘Frank and Jesse James’, one of a number of classic songs to eulogise the American outlaws. The introductory phrasing and rolling rhythms betray Zevon’s classical influence whilst the story itself rings true with Zevon’s preoccupation with wild, radical, untamed individuals (a lifestyle he would succumb to himself). Melodically, it’s very close to another Zevon song, ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’, essentially a slowed-down, quirkier rewrite of this song that would appear on the ‘Excitable Boy’ album.
The album contains many of Zevon’s best-loved songs – drug ballad ‘Carmelita’, the break-up ballad ‘Hasted Down The Wind’, the hilarious helpless victim rocker ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’, the grandiose ‘The French Inhaler’, the defiant ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ and the somewhat bizarre ‘Mohammed’s Radio’. It is, to my knowledge, the only Zevon album where he has the sole writing credit for every song, with no covers or collaborative efforts (perhaps excepting ‘Wanted…’?). Whilst the lavish arrangements and glorious vocal harmonies are characteristic features of Zevon’s sound at this time, the demos and alternate takes collated on the bonus disc demonstrate just how fully formed the songs were before the band even entered the studio.
This is the album that most effectively and concisely demonstrates Zevon’s lacerating wit as a lyricist and his mastery of the popular song form. ‘The French Inhaler’, so over the top it borders on camp, is, quite literally, an outrageous kiss-off to Tule Livingston. It’s difficult to beat a lyric like ‘Loneliness and desperation – we both came down with an acute case/But when the lights came up at two/I caught a glimpse of you/And your face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase.’ Ouch! In the sleevenotes, Jordan Zevon admits he has to accept the brilliance of those lines, even though they were apparently directed at his mother.
The riotously entertaining ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me’, which puts its protagonist in the terrifying clutches of numerous predatory young women, has one of Zevon’s most ridiculous rhymes: ‘She really worked me over good, she was a credit to her gender/ She put me through some changes, lord, sort of like a Waring blender’. Towards the end of the song, it gets even better. Zevon’s next encounter takes him to a hotel room at the‘Hyatt House, but it’s too terrible to put into words (‘I don’t want to talk about it’, Zevon shrugs). The superb ‘Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded’ tells the story of Zevon’s parents, his mother ignoring all advice and marrying the gambler Bill. He sums up his own predicament succinctly – ‘stuck in the middle, I was the kid’. It’s opening lyric also demonstrates his great talent for kicking off with a gem (‘Gambler ambled down memory lane, looking for a game of chance…’). He’d write a few more pithy opening gambits in his career. You could never be eased gently into Zevon’s wild world – he would always throw you straight into the action.
The album exhibits Zevon’s broad range by showing his tender side too. ‘Hasten Down The Wind’, one of those great songs about conflicting desires for freedom and attachment is wistful and beautiful and one of the singer’s many superb ballads. The heroin song ‘Carmelita’, both candid and audacious, is also notable for its tenderness, although the fascinating 1974 demo version on the bonus disc turns it into something unexpectedly ragged, bawdy and celebratory.
Musically, the album is something of a triumph, with superb playing from a well-rehearsed and proficient band. Zevon scored his own string arrangements and there are some superb vocal contributions from a stellar array of guests including Linda Ronstadt (who would herself cover several of Zevon’s songs, memorably role reversing ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’) and Stevie Nicks. The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson provided the memorable vocal arrangement that elevates the wonderful coda of ‘Desperadoes Under The Eaves’ and concludes the album. Perhaps these grandiose ballads are a little unfashionable now – it’s certainly a very fine line between them and something like Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’. Some might argue that only their brevity keeps them in check but with such literary lyrics and elaborate musicality, they somehow surpass mere heart-wrenching indulgence.
The stomping blues march of ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ might provide the least musically adventurous moment on the album, but it’s also the perfect context for this tribute to carefree hedonism. Even the half-heartedly funky ‘Join Me In LA’ provides entertainment and is a reminder that Zevon’s musical influences went well beyond the country rock of most of his more conservative colleagues.
Throughout his career, Zevon would make other excellent records and equal many of these songs but he didn’t release another album of such consistent quality. Whilst this may therefore be the Zevon album most deserving of a 2-disc reassessment, it’s perhaps a shame that the bonus disc doesn’t introduce any unheard songs. Six previously unheard songs from 1974-76 did admittedly appear on the ‘Preludes’ odds-and-sods compilation that emerged last year, so perhaps that seam has already been mined. The demos are intriguing nonetheless, in that some of them show changes in vocal phrasing and, particularly in the case of ‘Carmelita’, show how the entire approach to a song could change between demo and full realisation. It is, however, the original finished article – meticulously arranged and delivered with a devastating combination of venom and charm – that best proves what a superb contribution Zevon made to modern songwriting. Let's have reissues of 'Mutineer', 'Transverse City' and 'Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School' now, please...