Recorded at Record One, Los Angeles
Thanks to Joe Smith & Irving Azoff
Special thanks to:
Aaron Norris for his conceptual contributions and to "Kootch", LeRoy, John David, Kim Lankford, Larry Solters, Howard Kaufman, Burt Stein, Carol Sidlow, Karen Ladanyi, Dale Hood, Johnny Lea Hodges, Don G. & Starllte Limousine, Tim Griffith, Barbara Walker, Randee St. Nicholas, Ron Coro, Elmi Graphics, Guy Salvadore, Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, Jeff Bridges, James Houghton and Tom McGuane of Montana.
Thanks always to Jackson.
Graham Nash appears courtesy of Capitol Rocords.
Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro & J.D. Souther appear courtesy of Columbia Records.
Rhino CD Reissue Notes:
Remastering at DigiPrep
Special Thanks: Audrey Bilger & Jordan Zevon
Nearly a quarter-century ago, the late, great Warren Zevon told Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone that he thought of his latest effort, The Envoy, as Excitable Boy Grows Up - referring back to the 1978 album that brought the world "Werewolves Of London" and made Zevon a fantastically unlikely pop star. All these years since making its own original diplomatic mission, The Envoy has itself grown up quite beautifully - and just in time for its long-delayed and richly deserved CD release. A compelling piece of work that offers some surprising moments of emotional vulnerability and outright unjaded romance, The Envoy still sounds every bit as resonant as it ever did, and not simply because it opens with haunting lines about frightening disorder in the Middle East and our world in general:
Nuclear arms in the Middle East
Israel's attacking the Iraqis
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese
And Baghdad does whatever she please
Looks like another threat to world peace
For the envoy
Those words hold up hellishly well, but ultimately it's not the political particularities of Zevon's musical vision that make The Envoy so relevant three years after the death of its remarkable creator. Rather, its undying power is in the sense of a wildly gifted and intelligent writer searching for some order amid the chaos. Listen closely and you can hear the sound of Zevon in the very adult struggle to actually grow up a little, insomuch as such a thing might be possible in this world. The gorgeous and gripping sound of The Envoy may occasionally reflect its early-'80s origins, but listen beyond those sonics and you'll hear about the eternal need we all have for some sort of envoy to get us out of trouble - often trouble of our own making.
The creation of The Envoy apparently found Zevon more focused than ever before - in no small part because he was then in a period of sobriety after a few years when he seemed bent on self-destruction like one of the many highly unreliable narrators that populate his fantastically edgy songs. So rather than encountering the appealing nihilism of, say, Excitable Boy's "Lawyers, Guns And Money," here we get a title track celebrating a different and more reasonable sort of international fixer, one based on the high-profile shuttle diplomacy of Philip Habib. As Zevon explained to Gilmore in Rolling Stone, his envoy was "just this kind of workmanlike, self-disciplined version of a James Bond-style agent. I like him because he has a will, because he's a problem-solving kind of guy, and because I need his kind of control."
As life would have it, Zevon would continue to struggle with issues of control (and the lack thereof) in the years immediately following The Envoy. Indeed, Zevon would once again fall off the wagon, and fall pretty hard, at that. It may not have helped that The Envoy - one of Zevon's greatest achievements - was a relative commercial disappointment, reaching only #98 on the Billboard Album chart and failing to yield even a significant airplay hit. Ultimately, this would be Zevon's final studio album for Elektra/Asylum. The singer-songwriter would not reemerge with another new release until his notable 1987 comeback, Sentimental Hygiene, when, backed by members of R.E.M., Zevon was sharing tales of his trip to a "Detox Mansion" and movingly asking the world to "Reconsider Me."
The Envoy's commercial fortunes may partly explain why this extraordinary album has been unavailable in CD form. Yet there should be no doubt that it is by any fair standard a tremendous and heartening success in its own right. Here Zevon strikes an altogether excellent balance between his yin and his yang, the part that yearns for love and the part for which lawyers, guns, and money seem far more pressing needs.
After the brooding, intriguing start of "The Envoy," comes the rollicking dark ride of "The Overdraft" - cowritten by Zevon and famed novelist Thomas McGuane - featuring a splendidly crazed backing vocal by Lindsey Buckingham that only adds to the song's winning sense of life on the edge. "The Hula Hula Boys" is a story of a sunny Hawaiian cuckolding that begins with the classic line, "I saw her leave the luau with the one who parked the cars." Zevon goes on to comment on the death of Elvis Presley in his own way on the stately "Jesus Mentioned." Side One of the original album then ended with "Let Nothing Come Between You," a buoyant song of romantic commitment that showcases Zevon's sweeter side to fine effect.
Side Two began with a hard look at bad habits, from the exciting, punkish self-abuse of "Ain't That Pretty At All" (cowritten with LeRoy Marinell) to "Charlie's Medicine," the more sober tale of a fallen dealer. "Looking For The Next Best Thing" - a collaboration between Zevon, Kenny Edwards, and Marinell - is an unlikely, upbeat-sounding salute to "settling for less." Yet Zevon significantly chose to end the song cycle on an altogether different note: "Never Too Late For Love" offers a shockingly inspirational message as Zevon bravely dares to wear his heart way out on his sleeve.
Produced by Zevon, Greg Ladanyi, and Richard "Waddy" Wachtel, The Envoy found the singer-songwriter once again backed by an impressive group of singers and players that included many big names of El Lay rock, such as the aforementioned Buckingham, Don Henley, J.D. Souther, Graham Nash, Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, Steve Lukather, Rick Marotta, Russ Kunkel, Jorge Calderon, Leland Sklar, Jeff Porcaro, and Zevon's own son, Jordan.
Rightly revered by many of his better-known fellow travelers in Southern California rock, Zevon long suffered from the idea that he was just too smart, too cynical, too literary, and just too damned good for his own good. With this release, The Envoy now gets a new musical mission - a new life. Zevon's music is aging quite beautifully, even without his physical presence. Zevon is too damned good to be obscured by even the Big Sleep.
And now that the album is finally out on CD, The Envoy is itself bigger and better than ever with the addition of four bonus tracks: "Word Of Mouth" is an infectious and thoughtful instrumental that sounds like a lost movie soundtrack Zevon should have written. "Let Nothing Come Between You" is an alternate track with some different lyrics. A lost gem, "The Risk" seems vaguely reminiscent of Zevon's friend Bruce Springsteen. Finally, Zevon's take on the rock classic "Wild Thing" is suitably wild.
In his too-short lifetime much was made of the millions of albums Warren Zevon didn't sell, the arenas he didn't pack, the masses he didn't reach despite his clearly singular talent. In the end, though, we do not remember what wasn't, but what was. The Envoy survives as a vivid reminder of what this brilliantly gifted and just plain brilliant man could do. So let us all now become envoys that carry forward this message to all our friends and even enemies far and wide:
The Envoy represents Warren Zevon at his very best. And at his best, Warren Zevon remains one of the best that ever was.
David Wild is a Contributing Editor to Rolling Stone.
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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