[8 January 2009]
It is an enduring shame that Warren Zevon remains best known for “Werewolves of London”. The novelty song off of his 1978 album Excitable Boy was the biggest hit Zevon ever had, mostly because of its wolf-howl refrain and absurdly catchy piano riff (which would, 30 years later, form the backbone of Kid Rock’s smash hit “All Summer Long”). But though the song did showcase Zevon’s quirky wit, it was unrepresentative of his true musical and lyrical sensibilities; the world as Zevon saw it was an altogether darker and more interesting place than “Werewolves” let on. And in no place was his vision better realized than on this, his underappreciated, mostly forgotten self-titled album.
Zevon had been bumming around Los Angeles since the early ‘60s, writing songs, playing piano for the Everly Brothers, and drinking tremendous amounts of vodka. Warren Zevon was not his debut album. That honor belongs to 1969’s much maligned Wanted Dead or Alive, which was neither as bad as people say nor as good as anything that followed. It’s likely that Zevon would have kept on toiling in obscurity had he not met and befriended Jackson Browne in the mid-‘70s.
It seems strange now, but in 1976, Browne was a veritable rock star. He was coming off of Late for the Sky (his best album) and The Pretender (his most important), and he was the poster child for the sensitive, folk-tinged rock coming out of Los Angeles. Browne’s personal appeal to David Geffen was what got Warren Zevon recorded at all, and it couldn’t have been an easy sell—Zevon was regarded, if he was regarded at all, as a drunk and a washout, and a mediocre singer to boot. But Browne persisted and Geffen relented, and the album was recorded with Browne as a producer and several of his high-profile friends (Glen Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles; Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac; Carl Wilson; and Bonnie Raitt, among others) making appearances.
Musically, the album is very much Browne’s, in a way that’s a little tough to pinpoint. It just sounds like Browne: piano-based melodies, immaculate production, mostly acoustic guitar. But while Browne’s lyrics were introspective almost to a fault, Zevon was much more interested in singing about the characters and stories he saw around him—about prostitutes, and outlaws, and, ultimately, himself.
“Frank and Jesse James” opens the album quietly, with the piano picking out the melody all by itself. Then the drums and guitars enter and, a few measures later, Zevon himself, singing of two brothers who could never quite do anything right, despite their good intentions. “On a small Missouri farm, back when the West was young / two boys learned to rope and ride and be handy with a gun”, and when the Civil War broke out the boys “joined up with Quantrill”—meaning William Clarke Quantrill, a vigilante general for the South. “After Appomattox, they was on the losing side / so no amnesty was granted, and as outlaws they did ride”. Casting Frank and Jesse in heroic roles is a common but significant revision—the two were almost certainly vicious and cruel men—but the theme is one that crops up again and again on Warren Zevon: that most people at the fringe are well-intentioned but misguided. They want to do the right thing but don’t know how. “No one knows just where they came to be misunderstood,” Zevon sings, in the song’s final lines, “but the poor Missouri farmers knew / that Frank and Jesse do the best they could.”
“Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” is the most country-tinged track on the album, in both content and style. Musically, the fiddle anchors the piece, floating gently above the guitar line until stepping to the fore to take a solo. (The fiddle and banjo throughout are manned by the fantastically talented studio musician David Lindley, whose contributions to Jackson Browne’s success cannot be overstated.) But the story is classic country, too: a gambler who can’t stop himself from gambling; a woman who can’t stop herself from falling for him; and a kid caught in the middle.
“Backs Turned Looking Down The Path” and “Hasten Down the Wind” are the only romantic songs on the album, and between them they neatly summarize the beginning and end of a relationship. The former is quite lovely, an upbeat ode to that first exciting flush of a love affair: “People always ask me what’s the matter with me / nothing matters when I’m with my baby.” “Hasten Down the Wind”, though, is the one place where Warren Zevon crosses the line into maudlin, and it’s the worst song on the album. The problem isn’t in the lyrics, which are powerful on their own (“She’s so many women / but he can’t find the one who was his friend”). The song sags under the weight of its plodding melody and sentimental strings, and just ends up sounding silly. (Ironically, Linda Ronstadt covered the song—and named her seventh album after it—only a few months after Warren Zevon came out, and the ensuing royalties sustained Zevon through most of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In his introduction to the song on the live album Stand In The Fire, Zevon went so far as to say that “this is the song that came along and intervened between me and starvation, thanks to Miss Ronstadt.” Sadly, the weaknesses in Zevon’s version are doubly present in Ronstadt’s.)
Luckily, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” kicks the album back into gear mere seconds after the last chords of “Hasten Down” have faded. “Pitiful Me” and “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” are the two out-and-out rockers on the album, and their subject matter is similar. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is the story of the worst kind of philanderer—the self-pitying kind, who maintains an air of disbelief even as he bangs women left and right. At the beginning of the song he half-heartedly attempts suicide, but he’s soon back at it—and though his words are self-pitying, his tone isn’t. “I met a girl at the Rainbow bar / she asked me if I’d beat her,” he sings in the second verse, before smirking and adding, “I don’t want to talk about it”—as if there were anything left to tell.
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is a stomping, rollicking song built on a two-note piano melody so low it doesn’t seem as though those keys have ever been played before. It’s also an ode to a different sort of extravagance; the narrator of “I’ll Sleep…” finds solace not in women, but in booze. “I’m drinking heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin / I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he brags, but his bravado is tempered somewhat by the menacing quality of the music, and when he threatens suicide it doesn’t sound like a joke. “I got a .38 special up on the shelf / if I start acting stupid, I’ll shoot myself / I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Listening to the song, it’s easy to hear how raw the whole album might have sounded had it been recorded under other circumstances—had Browne not signed on to produce, say, or had Zevon recorded it at a younger age than 30. Given how discomforting “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is, it’s not at all clear that this would have been an improvement.
If “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is the darkest song musically on the album, then “The French Inhaler” is certainly the darkest song lyrically. A young girl comes to Los Angeles to be an actress, and has some initial success, but she gets involved with the wrong guy and he drinks away all her money—and then has the gall to force her to become a prostitute. “How’re you going to make your way in the world, woman / when you weren’t cut out for working?” he asks, his tone reasonable. She takes his advice and, of course, it ruins her, and in the end he’s consumed by what he’s done to her. “When the lights came up at two / I caught a glimpse of you,” he says, “And your face looked like something Death brought with him in his suitcase.” (Incidentally, this is the worst thing you can say to someone. The worst.)
So crowded is the album with characters that the main player—Zevon himself—doesn’t make an appearance until the last song. But that song, “Desperados Under the Eaves”, is the most powerful thing Zevon ever recorded, so intense and beautiful it nearly puts the rest of the album to shame. The song is half drunken rant, half dispatch from the front. It opens with just a violin, reprising the piano melody from “Frank and Jesse James”, and that in and of itself is a powerful statement: Zevon linking himself, musically and thematically, with the souls he’s sung of in the previous ten tracks. An upright bass, gently bowed, joins the violin, and then there’s a little slide guitar bit and the piano enters. Zevon sets the scene for us: he’s sitting in a bar in downtown Hollywood, drunk and morose. “And if California slides into the ocean,” he sings, his voice weary, “like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.” And from his tone its clear he knows there’s no way he’s going to be able to pay up.
There’s a quick drum fill and the instruments drop away, just for a moment—then come roaring back, with a couple extra vocalists atop them for good measure. “Don’t the sun look angry through the trees,” Zevon sings, slipping deeper into alcohol-induced paranoia. “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves / don’t you feel like desperados, under the eaves / heaven help the one who leaves.” He calms down a bit, seeming to realize where he is. “Still waking up in the morning with trembling hands,” he sings, and then he follows the worst line of the song (“And I’m trying to find a girl who understands me”) with the best (“but except in dreams, you’re never really free.”)
This is where the song gets a little weird.
“I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel,” Zevon sings, an echo of the opening line of the song. “I was listening to the air-conditioner hum.” But there he seems to get distracted, and starts actually imitating the hum of the air conditioner. And you can almost see Zevon, the drunk, slumping over on his barstool among the dirty margarita glasses and sloshed-over booze, humming tunelessly to himself. Not a desperado at all, just an alcoholic and a failure.
Then his humming is echoed by the strings, quietly and first and then with gathering volume. He drops out completely and—incredibly, improbably—they lift the song up to a triumphant and glorious place. The background vocalists find their way back into the mix, too, Carl Wilson and the Gentlemen Brothers acting as Zevon’s Greek chorus. “Look away,” they tell the onlookers, “look away / down Gower Avenue.” The disparate elements swirl and mix together, and the result is more lush, more epic, than any song about alcoholism has a right to be.
Of Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald once famously said: “[He] wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.” The same could be said of Zevon, and indeed he was a fan of both authors. He shared their appreciation for the downtrodden and the dispossessed, the outlaw and the ne’er-do-well. And never again did he tell their stories as well as he did on Warren Zevon.
The extras, incidentally, are interesting but mostly unexceptional. There’s nothing new, just demos and alternate takes. The solo piano versions of “Frank and Jesse James” and “The French Inhaler” are of such low sound quality as to be almost unlistenable. “Join Me In L.A.” includes a few verses not in the original (including one that mentions MacDonald), and an alternate take of “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” has a fun new guitar intro. But most of the other tracks are simply less polished takes, and what is good in them is better in the album versions.
The notable exception: an alternate take of “Frank and Jesse James” in which the banjo and fiddle (which had been mixed almost into nonexistence in the studio cut) are brought firmly to the fore. Cliché as it may be, it just fits that a song so firmly about the West and the frontier be accompanied by a good fiddle, and that makes the breakdown and bridge even more powerful. The alternate take is on par with the original version, and it alone is worth the price of the Collectors Edition.