WARREN ZEVON – ” Warren Zevon ” Classic Album Released May 18th 1976

Posted: June 10, 2018 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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warren zevon album

Warren Zevon was already a decade into a recording career when he released his breakthrough self-titled album in May 1976. But for every purpose the second LP under his name could have been Zevon’s debut. It was certainly laid out that way. Though only a modest commercial success, the Jackson Browne-produced Warren Zevon album(1976) would later be termed a masterpiece in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and is cited in the book’s most recently revised edition as Zevon’s most realized work. Representative tracks include the junkie’s lament “Carmelita”; the Copland-esque outlaw ballad “Frank and Jesse James”; “The French Inhaler”, a scathing insider’s look at life and lust in the L.A. music business (which was, in fact, about his long-time girlfriend and mother to his son Jordan); and “Desperados Under the Eaves”, a chronicle of Zevon’s increasing alcoholism.

Warren Zevon was an industry veteran by the time he made his major label debut in 1976. He had toured with the Everly Brothers as their band leader, and was rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975. Jackson Browne had championed Zevon, and produced his first major solo album (his 1969 debut was unsuccessful).

When he moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and began work on the album that would become his first for a major label, Zevon stayed with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who were just starting to experience fame for the first time themselves as new Fleetwood Mac recruits after years of performing and recording. They joined Zevon in the studio, as did Phil Everly, Eagles Glenn Frey, Don Henley and blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt  and the Beach Boy Carl Wilson. Browne produced, played piano and contributed slide guitar to the album.

And ‘The French Inhaler’ is an extraordinary song for an artist launching their career. It’s not ambitious stylistically, following the same laid back west coast template as Browne and the Eagles. But it’s a complex song, dispensing with verse/chorus structures and winding its way through a series of jabs at his ex-girlfriend Tule Livingston. Jordan Zevon, Zevon and Livingston’s son, recalled “despite the subject matter, my mom would play that song to me after a couple of glasses of wine and laugh and say: ‘Isn’t that brilliant?’ She knew he was a genius”.

Musically, it’s centred on Zevon’s proficient piano playing, but the magic comes from the backing vocals from Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey. They appear halfway through the word “night” about a minute into the song, and come and go throughout. As much as I’m sometimes ambivalent about their band’s work, the two head Eagles are magnificent here.

Zevon’s music was full of blood, bile, and mean-spirited irony, and the glossy surfaces of Jackson Browne’s production failed to disguise the bitter heart of the songs on Warren Zevon. The album opened with a jaunty celebration of a pair of Old West thieves and gunfighters (“Frank and Jesse James”), and went on to tell remarkable, slightly unnerving tales of ambitious pimps (“The French Inhaler”), lonesome junkies (“Carmelita”), wired, hard-living lunatics (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), and truly dastardly womanizers (“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”), and even Zevon’s celebrations of life in Los Angeles, long a staple of the soft rock genre, had both a menace and an epic sweep his contemporaries could never match (“Join Me in L.A.” and “Desperados Under the Eaves”). But for all their darkness, Zevon’s songs also possessed a steely intelligence, a winning wit, and an unusually sophisticated melodic sense, and he certainly made the most of the high-priced help who backed him on the album.”

Warren Zevon served as announcement of a new singer-songwriter whose voice and songs were worth hearing. Some of music’s biggest names were already behind Zevon, and the album’s track listing now reads like a classic line up of some of his greatest songs.

His characters were drug addicts, alcoholics, prone to violence and gambling with their lives in ways that just happen to also affect those around them. In the album-closing “Desperados Under the Eaves” he sings, “Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands … / Don’t the sun look angry at me?” That about sums it up. But like the protagonists of the opening track, “Frank and Jesse James,” Zevon was the eternal outlaw, “ridin’, ridin’, ridin’.”

And that’s the overriding spirit of Warren Zevon that more or less shaped the rest of his career. His next album “Excitable Boy “again produced by Browne and featuring an all-star roster of friends, climbed to the Top 10 – thanks in part to the fluke hit “Werewolves of London.”

Linda Ronstadt’s celebrated covers of several Zevon songs – “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” all from this LP,  among them – wouldn’t arrive until after Warren Zevon’s release.

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