Classic Americana Albums: Warren Zevon “Warren Zevon” (Asylum, 1976)

With his third album release, ‘Excitable Boy’ Warren Zevon hit the charts with the single ‘Werewolves of London’. It is still his best-selling album overall. But the self-titled album that preceded it set the seal on his reputation as a songwriter and performer. With the support of his producer Jackson Browne, he had a cast of the L.A. scene’s great and good to draw on and some fine songs of which Linda Ronstadt alone covered four.

It’s a little strange that the albums starts with three songs that have been largely overlooked. In fairness there are far too many songs about ‘Frank and Jesse James’ and it is quite safe to pass over Zevon’s entry on the list. ‘Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded’ is a straightforward country-rock song where Mama begs her daughter “don’t marry that gamblin’ man.” According to Jackson Browne who often covers the song live it is about Zevon’s parents. The heart of the album starts with ‘Hasten Down the Wind’, covered by Ronstadt, like ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me‘ which follows it. Waddy Wachtel’s guitar solo raises this version above Ronstadt’s more saccharine take on the song, which included editing out a verse about sadomasochism.

The French Inhaler’ compares Zevon’s own failed relationships to Norman Mailer’s controversial biography of Marilyn Monroe. ‘Mohammed’s Radio’ is as close to optimistic as Zevon gets on this album. He praises the benefits of the “sweet and soulful” rock and roll played all night on a pirate radio station. It could of course just be a downbeat portrayal of the hardships of L.A. life where: “Everybody’s desperate trying to make ends meet. Work all day, still can’t pay the price of gasoline and meat”. With Zevon there are usually at least two levels to his words. When he toured with Jackson Browne, he sang a much simpler arrangement that highlighted the more upbeat interpretation of the words.  ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ is often quotes as representing Zevon’s personal approach to life. Linda Ronstadt’s version of ‘Carmelita’ alters the words once again, having the outlaw character pawning her “Smith & Wesson” as opposed to Zevon’s writer selling his “Smith Corona” typewriter. Ronstadt’s version blunts the Mexican feel of the song as featured here. It would have been interesting to hear her take on it in her Mariachi phase of the late 80s. ‘Join me in L.A.’ features an all-star backing chorus of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler. Other than that, it is probably the weakest song on the album. ‘Desperados Under the Eaves’ closes the album with the epic that was almost required on singer-songwriter albums of the mid-70s. Swelling strings and a harmony arrangement by Beach Boy Carl Wilson support a tale of alcoholism and bill dodging. The song fades to the repeated line “Look away down Gower Avenue”, almost as if Zevon is riding off into the sunset down the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Warren Zevon’ cemented his standing as a songwriter, with Ronstadt and may others achieving hits with the songs it contained. Jackson Browne’s patronage certainly helped him get a major label deal and the press at the time saw him as the “next big thing”. The self-destructive tendencies that his words speak of ultimately squashed that, but he left us with a catalogue of great songs of which this album is one of the best.

Author: Tim Martin

I spend some of my time in Clevedon (Somerset) and some in Crianlarich (Scotland), but most of it on the road in between listening to Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Over The Rhine, or anything else that makes the miles go by quicker.

4 thoughts on “Classic Americana Albums: Warren Zevon “Warren Zevon” (Asylum, 1976)”

  1. Amazing singer-songwriter. I was blown away with I first played it on vinyl so many years ago. One of my favorite Americana albums, too. Big influence on my songwriting.

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