Mixed at Sunset Sound Recorders.
Thanks to David Geffen and Joe Smith.
Phil Everly appears through the courtesy of Pye Records.
Lindsey Buckingham, Stephanie Nicks, Jorge Calderon, and Bonnie Raitt courtesy of Warner Bros. Records.
Carl Wilson and Billy Hinsche courtesy of Brother Records.
(P) 1976 Asylum Records
2008 Rhino CD Reissue Notes:
Remastering at Lussen Mastering
Special Thanks: Crystal Zevon, Jordan Zevon, Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, Warren Salyer & Dan Hersch
This story begins like one of Warren Zevon's own songs - with a few pleading lines scribbled on a postcard sent to some far-off locale.
Too soon to give up. Come home. I'll get you a recording contract.
When Jackson Browne mailed that message in the summer of 1975, Zevon had all but given up his rock 'n' roll dreams. After nearly a decade of toil in Los Angeles, he'd headed off to Spain to start over with his new wife. Playing nightly in a local pub, Zevon had attained a certain bliss in exile. He was even considering swallowing his pride and signing a record deal with a small Spanish label. Maybe life as an ex-pat troubadour wouldn't be such a bad fate, after all.
But the unexpected missive from Browne changed all that, setting in motion the events that would lead to Zevon's return to the States and the recording of his self-titled 1976 album. Though technically not his first LP release, Warren Zevon ranks as one of the great "debuts" in rock history. It marked the auspicious start of a career that was by turns magnificent and troubled - and which ended memorably with a Grammy-winning farewell album, The Wind, and Zevon's death from cancer in 2003.
Often incorrectly lumped in with a clique of peaceful, easy singer-songwriters like Browne and the Eagles, Zevon always stood out, as hardboiled author Raymond Chandler might've put it, like a tarantula on a slice of angel food. At its best his work combined a macabre comic sense with a penchant for tender sentimentality, his lurid intelligence often bulldozing the distinctions between the two.
A classically trained pianist with a rock 'n' roll heart, a voracious reader whose tastes ran the gamut from Graham Greene to Mickey Spillane, Zevon's music was an utterly unique mix of brains and brawn, high art and low culture. "Once, he opened a show for me," recalls Browne, Zevon's producer, champion, and longtime friend, "and I introduced him to the audience as the Ernest Hemingway of the 12-string guitar. Later he corrected me and said, 'No, no - Charles Bronson of the 12-string guitar.'"
That kind of dichotomy was ever present in Zevon's life, which began in Chicago, Illinois, on January 24, 1947. He was effectively born into a contradiction: His mother was the closely guarded daughter of strict Mormons; his father a Ukrainian Jew from New York City, a gambler, and gangster nearly twice her age. Needless to say, the family was against the marriage.
His birth had not been a happy proposition either. Zevon's mother had a congenital heart condition; she wasn't even supposed to bear children. "Her family urged her to abort the baby, and she wouldn't do it and she nearly died in childbirth," says Warren's ex-wife and biographer Crystal Zevon. "As a kid, whenever he would misbehave his grandmother would say, 'You're killing your mother. She almost died having you.' It was a guilt trip that was laid on him throughout his whole life."
A preoccupation with death and deep feelings of guilt became pervasive themes in Zevon's work and life. His decidedly bizarre childhood impacted a nimble mind and fragile psyche, embroiling him in never-ending battles against alcoholism and self-destructive behavior.
Though a fairly precocious and gifted pianist as a child - he even managed to win the notice of composer Igor Stravinsky - Zevon was kicked out of his mother's Fresno home as a teen, and moved in with his father in Los Angeles. Immersing himself in blues and folk, particularly the work of his great hero Bob Dylan, Zevon spent the latter half of the '60s scuffling around the L.A. music biz. He worked as a session player and songwriter, selling the occasional tune, including one to The Turtles that wound up as the B-side of their hit "Happy Together." He signed to the band's White Whale label, playing as half of a boy/girl duo called Lyme & Cybelle, and later made ends meet doing commercial work, penning jingles for Gallo Wine and Chevrolet.
In 1969 he fathered a son, Jordan, with actress/girlfriend Marilyn "Tule" Livingston. It was also during this period that Zevon first crossed paths with Jackson Browne (then an up-and-coming singer-songwriter) and notorious Sunset Strip Svengali Kim Fowley, who produced Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Zevon's little-heard debut for Imperial. The album, an odd, psych-flecked affair, flopped, but several of its standout narratives signaled Zevon's initial development as a songwriter - something he would continue to refine until the making of his next album some six years later.
In the meantime Zevon landed a job as pianist/bandleader for the Everly Brothers. It was there that he met and hired guitarist Robert "Waddy" Wachtel, who would become one of his key collaborators over the next three decades. The Everlys' tours provided a hothouse atmosphere, with post-show jams raging in hotel rooms and Zevon breaking out new songs he'd written. "The thing that struck me about Warren was that he was writing these complete beautiful songs," says Wachtel. "A lot of people don't get their music and lyrics to come across so completely, and he did, even back then. I mean, the first time he played me 'Carmelita,' I just went, 'Jesus fucking Christ, you wrote that?'"
Zevon soon broke up with Livingston and began living with Crystal Brelsford, Wachtel's old flame. After the Everlys gig ended with the brothers' acrimonious breakup in 1973, Zevon cut the odd demo session (some of which are included here), but by early '75 his career prospects looked dim. With no record deal and only speculative interest in his songs, Zevon and Crystal, now married, left for Spain. They led a quixotic existence in the city of Sitges for a summer, where he became a fixture performing at a bar run by an American ex-pat and soldier of fortune. After a few months there was even an offer from a tiny label to record. Zevon found himself at a crossroads.
"Warren had this sort of prophetic sense, I think he knew he might be able to be a really big fish in Spain, whereas he might not achieve that level in the States," says Crystal. "But I was pretty sure if we'd stayed, he'd have been beating his head against the wall - literally - wondering if he might have done something more with his career."
Then Browne's postcard arrived, saying a record deal was in the works - or at least that's how Zevon interpreted the missive, "I know Jackson didn't actually expect us to come rushing back, and he didn't really have anything concrete lined up," says Crystal. "But Warren's tendency was to take things very literally. Plus, Warren trusted Jackson; he knew he'd always championed his music."
Browne had been privately pitching Zevon's songs all over L.A. Earlier in the '70s he'd tried to get the Eagles to record a pair for their Desperado album, and urged the reunited Byrds to cut some for their 1973 LP, with no success. Ultimately, Browne saw the need for Zevon to do Zevon.
"I always bore allegiance to hearing the writer sing his songs," says Browne. "It's great when somebody interprets it, but I just think it's important that there be that record of the person who wrote these songs. It's important that you see what he felt and what he thinks and how it comes from him before other people popularize it or do it."
Browne, who was to produce the project, eventually secured cautious interest from his longtime label benefactor, David Geffen. He signed Zevon to a solo deal with Asylum (he'd already inked him to a publishing pact years prior) but offered only a limited recording budget and nothing up front.
The financial conditions hardly mattered. By the time Zevon entered Elektra Sound Recorders in the fall of 1975, his songs had been sharpened to a fine point. Enriched by a decade of struggle and infused with bits of deeply felt personal biography, Warren Zevon emerged as an uncommonly powerful song cycle, an opening statement that also felt like a life's masterwork.
"Warren was obsessive, so he worked on the order of the songs, how it would sound, how it would come off, for a long time," says Crystal, "The ideas of what it needed to be were almost part of the writing. He was classically trained, so he always thought of things more in terms of finished work."
The piano notes that herald opening track "Frank And Jesse James" also set the stage for a travelogue that takes the listener from the Wild West of the 1870s into the neon west of 1970s Hollywood.
Ostensibly about the rebel outlaws the James Brothers, it was actually written for and in homage to another pair of siblings, Phil and Don Everly, who'd often showcase the song, with Zevon on lead vocals, during their live sets, "Warren loved history and finding his own twist on it; those were his favorite songs. He was obsessed with outlaws and cowboys at the time, and he had a real strong affection for the Everlys." says Crystal. The tune also highlighted Zevon's devotion to composer Aaron Copland, whose 1941 cowboy ballet score Rodeo would be the song's chief musical influence and a recurring source of inspiration throughout his career.
"Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" is a historical song of another kind, a dramatic rendering of Zevon's combustible family life ("Stuck in the middle/I was the kid"). Though Zevon never gambled himself (a reaction to his father's habit), he did spend a night in Las Vegas watching Don Everly at a craps table, which stirred up old memories, "We got back to the hotel room afterward, and he just sort of gushed a lot of his past - about his father and his family - and he sat down and started writing that song," recalls Crystal. "He was at a point of coming to terms with those things in his life."
"Backs Turned Looking Down The Path" is another personal number, capturing Zevon's feelings as he decided to abandon his California dreams and head to Spain. Musically informed by Zevon's late-in-life exposure to country music (courtesy of Wachtel), it remained one of his favorite songs. "He liked it because he felt it was so simple," says Crystal. "He'd always say, 'That's the best song I've written and nobody knows it.' It's funny, I don't even remember it ever being mentioned in any reviews."
The song's production, like much of the album, is spare, elegant, and affecting - though perhaps different than Zevon himseif envisioned. "Warren always wanted to be produced like The Rolling Stones," says Crystal. "To capture that rawness and grit he was capable of."
But Browne's instincts were spot on, as he fashioned a warm, simple sonic atmosphere, keeping the focus on the material. "I just thought they were great songs and I was making them the way I would make my own records," says Browne, "We were just in there having fun, and, you know, a producer should bring something to it that their artist isn't going to bring to it."
Though Zevon has been deeply ingrained in the popular imagination as a two-fisted tough, "Hasten Down The Wind" would highlight another rich seam of his songwriting: the existentialist love ballad. "I think while he was forming his identity, what he ended up doing was almost like a scab forming on a cut," says his son, Jordan. "The scab was the 'crazy, gun-toting Warren Zevon' persona, and then underneath, the healed side, was a loving human being. Actually, he was kind of a mushy guy, very sensitive. He didn't have any problem getting in touch with that part of himself as a writer either."
The twisted side of that sensibility is on display in "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." A cheeky recounting of the hedonistic Sunset Strip scene, replete with references to the notorious Hyatt ("Riot") House hotel and Rainbow Bar, a couplet rhyming "gender" and "Waring Blendor," and some casual S&M sex. It finds Zevon taking the excesses of '70s rock and turning them into black comedy. Although Linda Ronstadt would enjoy a Top 40 hit with the song a couple years later, Zevon's wild, wooly reading remains the definitive version. "He had a limited instrument as a singer," says Browne. "It was always hard to record his voice. But, if you love those songs, they're inseparable from the guy who wrote them."
Zevon's most devastating qualities as a lyricist are evidenced in the album's centerpiece, "The French Inhaler." Intended as a kiss-off to Tule Livingston, it's a barroom indictment of those scuffling around the margins of Hollywood - including himself. Zevon's lyrics also incorporate the furor surrounding Norman Mailer's exploitive 1973 Marilyn Monroe biography, drawing a parallel between himself and the author.
The bitterly stinging tone of the song was shaped after Zevon found out about Livingston's post-breakup tryst with a fellow musician. "'French Inhaler' is basically his way of saying 'fuck you' to my mom after she slept with another guy," reveals Jordan, "She ended up confessing that to me, before she died." "I know," chuckles Jordan. "And as much as it pains me that it's about my mother, it is the greatest ex-girlfriend 'fuck you' song of all time. The line, 'And when the lights came up at two/I caught a glimpse of you/And your face looked like something/Death brought with him in his suitcase' - I mean, c'mon now, that's too good."
Zevon's songs, though generally written over long periods, often found their genesis in single brilliant bursts of inspiration. Such is the case with one of his most enduring anthems, "Mohammed's Radio." During a trip to Aspen on Halloween night 1973, Zevon sat in a bar watching a parade of costumed extroverts passing by, when he glimpsed a developmentally challenged man dressed as an Arab sheik holding a radio to his ear. "In walks the village idiot and his face is all aglow," wrote Zevon, capturing this singular scene, "He's been up all night listening to Mohammed's radio." The balance of the song's surrealist lyrics bear a heavy Dylan influence as well, something confirmed by an alternate studio take, included here, which features Zevon's best Zimmy impersonation.
Likewise, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" was born from a single flashpoint. One night, in the midst of a fight with Crystal, who was trying to get him to bed after an evening of revelry. Zevon snapped: "I'll sleep when I'm dead" - and the couple laughingly proceeded to create a laundry list of bizarre lyrics around the hook line, which were complemented in the studio by Jorge Calderon's Spanish-language call-and-response.
The deranged beat that opens the song was another spur-of-the-moment Zevon creation, which Browne later had session player Gary Mallaber re-create. "Those things were just always the pulse, the life, of what Warren did," says Browne. "It was an of-the-moment panache, there was nothing preplanned. He was capable of planning things, but he was also really given to creating moments, giving himself to the moment."
Zevon's capacity for craft reaches its apotheosis in the pleading junkie tale "Carmelita." Written and rewritten numerous times, the song boasts a truly remarkable level of detail and despair: the glowing radio tubes, the spent welfare check, the dealer hanging out at the infamous "Pioneer Chicken stand." Much of that came from Zevon's informal study of users and addicts while deep in his own cups, frequenting some of Hollywood's rougher drinking dens. "Carmelita" had also become his personal calling card over the years, the first song he played to Crystal, Wachtel, and many others. "He always knew when he had something that would just knock you out," laughs Crystal.
A funky holdover from the Wanted: Dead Or Alive period, "Join Me In L.A." is most memorable for the soulful harmonies of Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler. As with the album's many cameos - which also included turns from Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, J.D. Souther, and Phii Everly - Browne cleverly cast each of the guest stars in a way that was unobtrusive, utilizing their talents solely in the service of the songs. So, too, the contributions of the session players, a mix of old Zevon chums (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, multi-instrumenralist David Lindley) and hired hands (Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys, bassist Bob Glaub). Zevon himself handled the complex orchestral arrangements, charming inspired performances out of jaded veterans of The Sid Sharp Strings with some "off-the-cuff jokes" he'd written in advance.
The album's closing track, "Desperados Under The Eaves" - bolstered by a vocal arrangement from Beach Boy Carl Wilson - is arguably Zevon's crowning achievement. An album that had started in the wilds of the frontier west now ends with us at the mouth of the Pacific, sitting inside the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, the embodiment of Nathanael West's "dream dump," and waiting for the cataclysmic quake. As Zevon frets about his shaking hands and growing hotel bill, a haunting coda - the sound of an air-conditioner hum recast as a religious hymn - carries us off down Gower Avenue.
Again, the details of the song come directly from Zevon's life - specifically, a rough patch a few years earlier, where he'd been forced to skip out on his bill at the Hawaiian, "Warren had this super-honest streak where he felt like he had to confess and tell the truth," says Crystal. "The fact that he snuck out of the hotel was like a huge big deal to him. He eventually went back and tried to pay the bill. But by then he'd had some success, and they settled for some autographed album covers."
Released in June 1976, Warren Zevon sold only 80,000 copies during its initial run, yet it caused quite a stir. Reviews in major publications - Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New York Times - were ecstatic. Moreover, the critical response uniformly heralded the arrival of a major songwriting talent, a fact confirmed when Linda Ronstadt eventually covered four Warren Zevon cuts and made "Hasten Down The Wind" the title track to her #3 1976 album.
Zevon's finely etched portraits of the Hollywood demimonde - the gamblers, rogues, hustlers, and bit players - had critics hailing him as the bard of L.A.'s underbelly, a role he steadfastly refused during his life. "The truth is, I don't think he even minded being stamped with that, but he felt like proper decorum would be to deny it or be demure," says Crystal. "I think a lot of it was even intentional. It is who he was: he was a writer and an Angeleno, and he was observing what was around him." With this song cycle, Zevon - documenting the community and culture that was the city's '70s rock scene - should rank among Southern California's greatest chroniclers, placing him in a continuum somewhere between early L.A. historians like Carey McWilliams and contemporary sociologists like Mike Davis.
Some 30 years after its release, Warren Zevon lives on, both as a document of a time and a place as well as something more universally encompassing. It's a testament to the uncommonly complete vision of Zevon and his many gifts: as a humorist, historian, romantic, poet, and literary pugilist.
"I have such affection for that record, because it does have so much of Dad in it," says Jordan Zevon. "If none of his other records had done anything or if it was the only record he made and he pulled a Nick Drake and kicked off early, I think it would be hailed as genius. But he had the success of 'Werewolves Of London' hanging over his head with his next album, and I think that overshadowed how great this record really was."
If Zevon never matched the mainstream popularity of his peers during his lifetime, his ultimate place among the pantheon of America's great songwriters seems more and more like a sure bet. "Warren believed that he would only come into his own after he was dead," notes Crystal. "He always believed that sincerely. And, in many ways, that's turned out to be true."
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