Recorded at the Sound Factory, Los Angeles
Mixed with The Aphex
The Gentlemen Boys are: Jackson Browne, Jorge Calderon, Kenny Edwards, John David Souther & Waddy Wachtel
A special thank you to Burt Stein
Jungle Pilot: D.E. Lindell Von Starich
Thanks to Joe Smith
Jennifer Warnes appears courtesy of Arista Records
Karla Bonoff appears courtesy of Columbia Records
John McVie and Mick Fleetwood appear courtesy of Warner Bros. Records Inc.
Leland Sklar, Russell Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar appear courtesy of The Section and Capitol Records
Danny Kortchmar also appears courtesy of Dark Horse Records
Rhino Reissue Notes:
One night in September 1975, during a show at the Main Point, a small, legendary club on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Jackson Browne stopped singing his original songs for a while to talk about someone he called "a real good friend of mine" - Warren Zevon.
"He's pretty much unknown - you never heard of him," Browne said, spelling out Zevon's surname and noting that they had been pals and mutual fans since 1968. "Most people who write a great body of work have critics and admirers to break those works up into little periods...Picasso, right? His blue period. Because Zevon is so unknown, he's got nobody to do it for him. He does it himself."
Zevon's early songs, Browne went on, "were pretty sensitive. These belong to what he refers to as his 'poetico-shmetico' period." The crowd laughed, puzzled but charmed and curious. "Recently, he's been writing a lot of stuff that belongs to his 'berzerko' period. This one we're gonna do for you right now belongs to the body in between - his' '60s apocalyptico-meaningless' period." Browne, at a piano, and his sidekick, guitarist David Lindley, then played "Mohammed's Radio," Zevon's gospel-charged ballad about heavy worry, the price of gas, and the heaven-on-earth of rock 'n' roll radio.
After doing a few more of his own songs, Browne turned again to the subject of Zevon. "Remember the name - Z-e-v-o-n," Browne said, before he and Lindley rolled into one of Zevon's newer, "berzerko" numbers: "Werewolves Of London,". a hilarious mix of high fashion, non sequitur, and nonstop bloodlust. "What do you think?" Browne asked, between wolf howls in the chorus. "Do you think we got a hit?"
We all cheered in the affirmative. And we were right.
Three years later, "Werewolves Of London" - included on Zevon's second Asylum album, 1978's Excitable Boy - was a Top 30 single. And Excitable Boy itself, coproduced by Browne with guitarist Waddy Wachtel, was a Top 10 album. Everything that Browne, the rest of his Los Angeles songwriting crowd, and music critics nationwide loved about Zevon - his taut wit and emotional honesty; the rock 'n' roll believer's vigor in his voice - had knocked 'em dead in the mainstream too.
"I didn't expect everyone to get Warren," Browne said when I asked him about that Main Point night, almost 30 years later. "I remember thinking he was too hip for the room.
"But that probably says more about me and my estimation of a rock audience," confessed Browne, who also produced Zevon's 1976 Asylum debut, Warren Zevon. "It was his intelligence and his way of taking the listener into his confidence that communicated. It's the opposite of talking down to the audience. Warren talked up to them."
I asked Zevon as well about that Main Point show, during what would be one of his last interviews, a year before his death from lung cancer, at age 56, on September 7, 2003. "More people say they were at that show than were at the Munich Olympics," he cracked. Ironically, when Zevon was a sideman for The Everly Brothers in the early '70s, he recalled with a grin, "I tried to get them to record Jackson's songs. I said, 'You oughta hear this kid.' They were like, 'Yeah, sure.' Then a couple of years later, one of them came up to me, whacked me on the back, and said, 'Guess you weren't wrong about that guy, huh?'"
Zevon said he did not look back at his eventual year-and-change as a rock star, thanks to "Werewolves Of London," "with any longing. It was a brief opportunity to be rude: 'Fire that opening act. I don't like the way he looked at me.' My success was a fluke. I was a folk singer who accidentally had a big hit."
He was no folk singer by the time of Excitable Boy. Zevon had plenty of Little Richard in his fingers when he hit the piano, and the album's first song, "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," is just one of many he wrote about rock 'n' roll and why it's good for whatever ails you. Zevon had also studied classical music as a teenager - that is his score for strings in the Excitable outtake "Frozen Notes" and even met the composer Igor Stravinsky.
He had a decade of hard labor in the music business behind him too. Born in Chicago on January 24, 1947, Zevon was the son of a professional gambler and a Mormon mother, which at least partly explains two of his favorite lyric subjects: risk and faith. By the end of the '60s, he had written songs for The Turtles, cut singles as half of a folk-rock duo, Lyme And Cybelle, and made a flop solo album for Imperial Records, Wanted Dead Or Alive. Although Zevon mocked that record repeatedly in later interviews, he revisited one of its promising ballads during the Excitable Boy sessions: "Tule's Blues," named after his first wife. That solo piano version, left on the outtakes shelf, is issued here for the first time.
Zevon was nowhere near Philadelphia the night Jackson Browne plugged his songs at the Main Point. Unemployed after the breakup of The Everly Brothers and dispirited by L.A. session work, he was in self-imposed exile, singing in a bar in Barcelona, Spain, run by David Lindell, an Irish expatriate (and, according to his business card, a former guerilla for hire) with whom Zevon wrote the Excitable Boy mercenary-ghost story "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner." In fact most of the 20 songs on Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy were written and ready for recording when Browne finally coaxed his label, Asylum, to sign Zevon. As producer, Browne's toughest job, he admitted later, was deciding what to leave off the first album and save for the next.
"We held 'Werewolves Of London' and 'Excitable Boy' from the first record," Browne said, "because I thought people needed to catch up with him, to see where he's coming from. I wanted to make sure he sang 'Frank And Jesse James' and 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' first. Also, if 'Werewolves,' 'Excitable Boy,' and 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' had all been on the same record, it would have made Warren seem like this berserk guy, as opposed to someone who had a great deal to say."
Zevon, in turn, had fun with the dichotomy. In a 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Dave Marsh, Zevon described Excitable Boy as "more wholesome than my last album" - a funny way to characterize the quantum leap in garage-band snarl, body count, and general mayhem in songs like "Roland," "Werewolves," and Zevon's second most-famous song, the on-the-run classic "Lawyers, Guns And Money." Some of that comic madness was autobiographical, like the Sunday-dinner scene in "Excitable Boy." "My wife's such an amazing cook," Zevon explained to Marsh. "And it happened, it really happened. She made an amazing pot roast, and I just opened my shirt and smeared it on my chest."
At the time, Zevon was at a dangerous peak in his drinking. Yet even amid that self-inflicted chaos, Zevon wrote with a clarity of wisdom and regret closer to the documentary realism of crime fiction than the anguished posturing of L.A. cosmic-cowboy culture. "The hurt gets worse, and the heart gets harder," he sang in "Accidentally Like A Martyr," a frank look back at a love bruised beyond repair. Then there is the gentle optimism of "Tenderness On The Block," a father's worried, adoring wish for his daughter's happiness - cowritten by Zevon and Browne after the former literally started tearing his home apart.
"I went over to his house because a bannister had been ripped off the wall," Browne remembered. "It was late when I got there, one or two in the morning, and he had no memory of doing this. We sat down and started this song. I might have written the first two lines ['Mama, where's your pretty little girl tonight/Trying to run before she can walk - that's right']. Then I went down.
"When I woke up," Browne said, laughing, "it was a song. I don't know what the arc of his waking and sleeping was, but when I came up, it was done."
"He was not a saint," Jorge Calderon told me in a 2002 interview. A native of Puerto Rico, Calderon first met Zevon in L.A. in 1972. The two were soon fast friends and, beginning with Warren Zevon, lifelong collaborators. "But he was very sensitive," Calderon insisted. "He would get hurt by very small things, and he was constantly worrying about other people. You have to have a huge heart to be able to dig so deep, to write the kind of love songs he did." A perfect Excitable example: "Veracruz," a heartbreaking ballad about American imperialism and a refugee's despair, written by Zevon with Calderon, who contributed the Spanish language verse.
And Zevon "wouldn't compromise," Calderon added firmly. "He was very particular about his lines. He said more with less than anything else."
When I asked Browne about that gift for pith, he went right to the third verse of "Werewolves Of London" for Zevon's immortal out-of-nowhere gem: "I'd like tc meet his tailor." The song is "about a really well-dressed ladies' man," Browne said, "a werewolf preying on little old ladies. In a way, it's the Victorian nightmare, the gigolo thing. Behind all of those references is the idea of the ne'er-do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman in gambling clubs, consorting with prostitutes; the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All of that is secreted away in that one line: 'I'd like to meet his tailor.'"
"It's those surprise turns," Browne said fondly, that made Zevon special. "He was operating from that kind of irony all the time."
Excitable Boy was the last time Zevon saw the inside of the Top 10. But it was a success that nearly killed him. Drinking to perilous excess as he toured behind the album, Zevon lost his footing during a show in Chicago and fell offstage. He had to finish the tour with a wheelchair, crutches, and additional medication. Zevon would eventually beat his alcoholism - a difficult victory chronicled in a famous 1981 Rolling Stone cover story by Paul Nelson, Zevon's most devoted and perceptive champion in the rock press - and be an even more incisive and thrilling songwriter and performer right up to his death, shortly after the release of his sublime goodbye record, The Wind.
In our 2002 interview, I asked Zevon if, with only months left to him, he spent much time on reflection. "Of course I do," he replied. "But I also think of my father's last words, at 86: 'Never look back.'" Then Zevon recalled another of his father's mottos: "'Fuck everybody' - that was a good one to pass along," Zevon said, grinning.
An excitable boy, to the finish.
Remastering at DigiPrep
Special Thanks: Audrey Bilger & Jordan Zevon
Look for I'll Sleep When I'm Dead The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon Forward by Carl Hiaasen. Available wherever books are sold.
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