Warren Zevon: Warren Zevon

May 18, 1976 – Warren Zevon: Warren Zevon is released.
# allmusic 4.5/5
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Warren Zevon is the eponymous debut album from Warren Zevon, released on this date in May, 1976.
This album was recorded in 1975 and includes a “Who’s Who” of guests – Jackson Browne, Lindsey Buckingham, Rosemary Butler, Phil Everly, Glenn Frey, Bob Glaub, Don Henley, David Lindley, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Waddy Wachtel and Carl Wilson among others.
Zevon actually released a record “Wanted Dead or Alive” prior to his celebrated self-titled “debut,” a record so bad that he took to touring with the Everly Brothers. Whatever he did on the road with them paid off. He returned to recording with bone-rattling West Coast tales of prostitutes, heroin addicts, outlaws and suicidal bar hoppers. Thus, Zevon went, with one record, from playing piano on “Bye Bye Love” to becoming supreme chronicler of L.A.’s underbelly.
Easily his richest and most consistent album, this is arguably the best place for the uninitiated to start. The deranged romp of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and the tongue in cheek masochism of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” introduced the world at large to the darkly sardonic edge of the singer’s muse. From the romanticized “Frank and Jesse James” to the starkly beautiful “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” the album rolls with an insightful (albeit sometimes crazed) sense of purpose.
Warren Zevon’s first Asylum album is a contemporary comedy-western about Los Angeles. In images that are often mordantly funny and detailed right down to specific place names, Zevon compiles a surrealistic vision of Hollywood that is one part Howard Hawks to three parts Nathaniel West. Albums with a Hollywood-western theme aren’t new. But all the others have been made by die-hard romantics — the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. In refreshing contrast, Zevon works almost exclusively with irony and satire. The appearance of an L.A. singer/songwriter who dares to puncture the seriousness of the romantics but who is also musically sophisticated enough to work in their idiom is long overdue. A competent pianist and guitarist and a fine composer, Zevon’s songs run the gamut from acoustic folk to hard rock. His best tunes even manage to use the romantic harmonies of Browne’s and the Eagles’ ballads to evoke pathos and humor simultaneously.
The album’s first song, “Frank and Jesse James,” portrays those outlaws as alienated political exiles who fought on the wrong side in the Civil War and were forever “misunderstood.” In “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded,” a young man tells the story of his mother, who defied her own good sense, as well asher parents’ wishes, to marry a compulsive gambler. Zevon views these reckless characters as ancestral archetypes for the self-destructive, self-deluded fantasists and vagrants who determine the ethos of modern L.A. Appropriately, both songs are quasi-traditional folk ballads, unlike anything else on the album.
Zevon’s imitation American is provocative and well made and his contemporary social probes combine Shampoo’s knowing hipness with an aesthetic view of the grotesque that’s closer to Fellini than Warren Beatty. A rocker called “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” while humorously spoofing suicidal despair, likens sex-for-sport to brutal fights for survival (“She really worked me over good/She was just like Jesse James”). At the end, it introduces sadomasochism in a gleefully casual manner. In contrast, “The French Inhaler” is less ironic. The story of the sexual exploitation of a dumb starlet, the song ends with a jab at Norman Mailer for his literary exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.
“Mohammed’s Radio,” which sounds a lot like Jackson Browne’s “The Late Show,” has magnificent lyrics reminiscent of middle-period Dylan. Here, the image of “Mohammed’s Radio” is an apt and ultimately mysterious metaphor for spiritual release in a city where “everybody’s restless and they’ve got no place to go.”
“Carmelita,” the album’s cosmic gem, tells of two losers (“the county won’t give me no more methadone/And they cut off your welfare check”) strung out on L.A.’s fringes. With its tacky semiflamenco guitar and sweet-sad hoot copped from Commander Cody’s “Seeds and Stems (Again),” the song makes tragedy from farce and vice versa.
“Join Me in L.A.,” a sleazy rock dirge, and “Desperados under the Eaves,” deal ironically with L.A.’s apocalyptic self-image. The music of “Desperados” is so elegantly cinematic that at first it sounds like a totally serious end-of-the-world song. At least, that is, until the second verse when Zevon observes:
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
Later, when Zevon cuts short the last verse with “I was listening to the air conditioner hum…,” a chorus enters imitating air conditioning, a refrain that becomes quite similar to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” The chorus, arranged by the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson to sound like an elegy for Western civilization emanating from an air conditioner, is the last and grandest surrealistic joke of the album.
The album has some minor problems. Jackson Browne’s elaborate, star-studded production is conceptually right for Zevon, but the overall sound has the same somewhat flat, dull finish that is the chief flaw of Browne’s own solo albums. More seriously, Zevon is a barely competent singer with an old cowpokey voice, like Browne with laryngitis. Zevon’s style, however, is distinct. He delivers his material with just the right amount of yarn spinner’s tongue-in-cheek.
Despite its imperfections, Warren Zevon is a very auspicious accomplishment. If it does not have the obvious commercial appeal of an Eagles album, on its own artistic terms it is almost a complete success. Who could have imagined a concept album about Los Angeles that is funny, enlightening, musical, at moments terrifying and above all funny?
~ Stephen Holden (July 15, 1976)
All songs written by Warren Zevon
“Frank and Jesse James” – 4:33
“Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” – 2:53
“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” – 2:27
“Hasten Down the Wind” – 2:58
“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” – 3:04
“The French Inhaler” – 3:44
“Mohammed’s Radio” – 3:40
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” – 2:56
“Carmelita” – 3:32
“Join Me in L.A.” – 3:13
“Desperados Under the Eaves” – 4:45
Collector’s Edition bonus CD
“Frank and Jesse James” (Solo Piano Demo) – 4:39
“The French Inhaler” (Solo Piano Demo) – 3:23
“Hasten Down the Wind” (Band Demo) – 2:50
“Carmelita” (1974 Demo) – 3:58
“Mohammed’s Radio” (Solo Piano Demo) – 2:52
“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” (Take 1 – 1/28/76) – 2:33
“Join Me in L.A.” (Take 2 – 11/20/75) – 4:22
“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (Alternate Version) – 3:24
“Frank and Jesse James” (Alternate Version) – 4:41
“Mohammed’s Radio” (Take 2 – 11/6/75) – 4:02
“The French Inhaler” (Take 1 – 1/13/76) – 3:48
“Carmelita” (Alternate Version) – 3:38
“Desperados Under the Eaves” (Take 2 – 1/13/76) – 4:14
“Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” (Live 10/13/76) – 2:01
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” (Alternate Version) – 3:06

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