Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Like most, probably, I became familiar with Warren Zevon through his biggest hits:  “Werewolves of London,” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” And unlike most (sadly), I dug deeper. And man, what I found. Zevon had a morbid streak the likes of which I had never encountered; but he was gleefully dark, which is what I loved. It’s one thing to sing about being asked by a lover to beat her; building a cage out of the bones of a high school date rape and murder victim; and the vengeful ghost of a betrayed mercenary – to name just three out of many examples – and it is another to be funny, but it takes altogether a special kind of talent to sing about those things and be funny at the same time, and not leave the audience behind in a miasma of disgust. In addition to being a singular songwriter, Zevon was also an accomplished musician, playing the piano expertly and the guitar very well, and serving as band leader and musical coordinator for the Everly Brothers in the early ‘70s. He also spent some time as a child learning from Igor Stravinsky. He is an artist whose work never ceases to amaze me. Of course, he was also a horrendous husband and absent father – violent, alcoholic, and abusive.

What I Think of This Album

This was Zevon’s second album (his 1969 debut is renowned for being awful), and has a competing number of great songs and impressive guests. Making an appearance are Carl Wilson; Phil Everly; Jackson Browne (who also produced); Lindsey Buckingham; Stevie Nicks; Bonnie Raitt; and two Eagles, among others, including David Lindley (who played with Leonard Cohen). Also critical to the album is the unmistakable influence and setting of Los Angeles, referenced many times in the songs.

Things start out with the celebratory “Frank and Jesse James,” a piano-based hagiography of the outlaws. Zevon swerves to the personal on the autobiographical “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded,” which in broad strokes tells the story of the marriage between his mother, who came from a Mormon family, and his father, who was a bookie for gangster Mickey Cohen. Notably, Zevon both acknowledges that his parents won’t like the song and that they probably wouldn’t even listen to it anyway (“They’d all be offended at the mention, still / If they heard this song, which I doubt they will”). There is an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability when Zevon notes “Stuck in the middle / I was the kid.” Also autobiographical is the easily-overlooked “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path,” which is the most hopeful and gracious song here, and reportedly inspired by Zevon’s temporary decampment in Spain.

I’m not sure what “Hasten Down the Wind” means but it’s a well-crafted, expertly played tale of romantic failure, later covered by Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt also covered “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which I still have trouble believing – there’s no way she sang these lyrics. This track details a ladies’ man’s poorly planned suicide attempt; his use as a sexual plaything by a particularly enthusiastic lover; and the psychological cost of being asked by another lover to hurt her (“I don’t want to talk about it,” he deadpans). In between, he sardonically boasts “poor, poor pitiful me,” complete with whoops and hollers, and a joyful backing of fiddle, saxophone, and piano, along with a great guitar solo. This is the most perverse thing I’ve ever heard, unless you count other Zevon songs.

“The French Inhaler” is a nasty breakup song (with attempts at tenderness), set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles hills, that hints at Zevon’s alcoholism, and which contains the impressively mean lyric:  “And when the lights came up at 2:00 / I caught a glimpse of you / And your face looked like something / Death brought with him in his suitcase.” Ronstadt also covered “Mohammed’s Radio,” a country-rock tinged song about the redemptive, restorative power of music. Zevon returns to more familiar themes in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” with additional references to drinking and suicide.

“Carmelita” is a sad, Latin-tinged number about a suicidal junkie, with some excellent guitar work, and is the fourth song from this album that Ronstadt chose to cover. “Join Me in L.A.” is too bluesy for my tastes (Raitt’s backup vocals are so distinctive).

Closer “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” is a close cousin to “Carmelita,” the debilitating vice this time being alcohol (again), though L.A. itself also seems to be part of the problem (“And if California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing / Until I pay my bill”), with a fantastic string section arranged by Zevon and oddly-life affirming harmonies in the outro, arranged by Wilson. I am pretty sure the string intro here is the same as the piano intro to “Frank and Jesse James,” creating some thematic consistency.

The Best Thing About This Album

The “I don’t want to talk about it” in “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is equal parts chilling and hilarious; I don’t know how he accomplished that.

Release Date

May, 1976

The Cover Art

No, this is a bad cover. I like the use of light and shadow, and the blue tones (a bit reminiscent in its palette and nighttime setting of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure). But honestly, Zevon looks ridiculous with his louche dress, tinted glasses, and long hair.

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