Above: Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne and an all-star backup band in 1976.
His first big-label album was not Warren Zevon’s best, but as much as any that followed, it exhibited the traits, techniques and impulses that made him a cult star and anti-pop hero.
“Warren Zevon,” produced by Jackson Browne and released in 1976, preceded by two years his “Excitable Boy” album, which delivered the song that first made him well-known if not exactly famous, “Werewolves of London.”
It may be lesser-known than “Boy,” but “Zevon” showcases some of his best-known songs, including a few covered famously by Linda Ronstadt: “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” It also stands up as one of his best –produced albums, which was no accident.
In the studio, Zevon and Browne were assisted by a small army of stalwarts and famous guests that included David Lindley, Waddy Wachtel, Bob Glaub, Larry Zack, Bonnie Raitt, Lindsey Buckingham,, Stevie Nicks, Phil Everly and saxman Bobby Keys. You could argue that the orchestration gets a little too epic on a cut or two, but otherwise Browne delivers nothing but favors.
The 11 tracks on the original studio version release reveal the facets of his genius: His morbid sense of humor (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”); his tender side (“Carmelita”); and his sense of the folk narrative (“Frank and Jesse James,” “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded.”).
They also reveal his grand ambitions as a lyricist, which could get the best of him when he stretched too far. Zevon was never the poet laureate that Dylan was; nor did he develop the rapier wit and sense of humor and sarcasm that Randy Newman had. Still, he could coin phrases and compose verses that were memorably funny, poignant, disturbing or wry, like this passage from “Desperados Under the Leaves”: “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.”
Warner Bros. and Rhino Records have remastered “Warren Zevon” (due in stores today) and given it the bonus/deluxe treatment. Disc 1 is for anyone who doesn’t know its music or hasn’t made the conversion from vinyl. Disc 2 and its 15 tracks are for the devotees. Several of those are piano/solo renditions – rough sketches of final versions. Much more satisfying and essential are the band demos, alternative versions and “Take 2” recordings.
A few don’t work completely, like the stripped-down, harmonica-free rendering of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Others, you may decide, are more effective than the versions that made the record. Among those: the soulful rendition of “Hasten Down the Wind”; the alt-country/Tex-Mex demo of “Carmelita,” cut in 1974; and the alternative version of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” in which Lindley and his fiddle stir up a subtle Cajun flavor.
Zevon has been dead for more than five years now. In his lifetime, he released nearly 15 studio albums, and each revealed different parts of his very sensitive and complicated psyche. In his absence, all we fans can do is revisit them and remember. This reissue of “Zevon” takes us all the way back to the first and oldest chapter in his story, but it remains rewarding and revealing.
| Timothy Finn, The Star