Depending on whose account of music history you prefer, 1976 was the year punk rock broke through with an amphetamine rush or the year disco began exerting its glitterball glow. For me, it was the year of Warren Zevon.
Zevon’s eponymous debut album (discounting the false start of 1969’s Wanted Dead Or Alive) came out in May. It was effectively a concept album about Los Angeles, on which the late Chicago hustler-gambler’s son, then 29, wrote, sang and played piano on each of the 11 tracks. It was also a masterpiece.
The album was produced by Jackson Browne, featured an array of LA ‘mellow mafia’ luminaries from the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and was on the Asylum label. Zevon was predictably branded a Californian singer-songwriter. That was a tag which had connotations of sensitive troubadours beloved of the baby-boomer generation. Their time, in the era of CBGBs and Studio 54, was deemed to have gone.
Zevon didn’t fit the category into which many reviewers and record buyers sought to slot him. His lyrics were witty and intelligent rather than introspective and confessional. They were also funny, sardonic and highly literate, reflecting a passion for reading which led him into friendships with novelists and journalists such as Stephen King and Hunter S Thompson.
His musicality stemmed from unusual influences, too. He was classically trained and as an adolescent knew Igor Stravinsky. Later he led the band which backed the Everly Brothers when they took their ethereal harmonies and fractious relationship on the road.
What was astonishing about the first Asylum outing was that Zevon arrived fully formed. Browne’s glossy production was replete with lavish orchestration and choral splendour. Yet what is most striking, 41 years on, is the majesty, melodic and lyrical, and the quality and sheer variety of the songs. Starting with Frank and Jesse James – ostensibly a paean to the Wild West but according to the writer, ‘about and for Don and Phil Everly’ – it’s one classic after another.
The finest track, and the only time the narrative becomes truly personal, is its closer, Desperados Under The Eaves. The instrumental preamble is exquisite, a violin reprising Zevon’s piano intro to Frank and Jesse James, followed by a subtly bowed upright bass, slide guitar and the piano.
‘I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel,’ sings Zevon, instantly painting a picture like the great storyteller he was. Sitting in my south London flat I pictured a glamorous place, all beautiful people, palm trees and poolside cocktails – until the next line came: ‘I was staring in my empty coffee cup.’ The verse proceeded in this reflective tone before ending with the delayed rhyme: ‘All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles, I’m gonna drink ’em up.’
Only when I read the brilliant biography I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon (published in 2007) did I realise the lyric was autobiographical; a reference to Warren’s chronic alcoholism. The disease dogged him for decades, ruining his marriage, scarring his relationships (including those with his two children) and undermining his career. He finally got clean in 1984.
Zevon’s addictive personality, which led him to a parallel drug habit, had drawn him to drink while touring with the Everlys. When he wrote Desperados Under The Eaves, in the early 1970s, he was seemingly bent on living out the supposedly romantic role of the drunken wordsmith personified by Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, F Scott Fitzgerald et al. It took him years to realise that he created great songs despite being drink-addled, not because of it.
Lest anyone thought the ‘salty margaritas’ line was merely colourful swagger, the middle eight finds Zevon lamenting that he is ‘still waking up in the morning with shaking hands’. He goes on to observe, with stunning imagery which reflects an improbable, long-standing pull to Catholicism, that the ‘trees look like crucified thieves’.
Then comes the tour de verse, as good as any Zevon would ever write…
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
Finally, the tale finds Zevon back where he started. ‘I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel,’ he reprises wearily. Then – a lyrical surprise. ‘I was listening to air-conditioner hum. It went mmm…’ He promptly hums the track towards its conclusion, an epic coda of cinematic strings and heavenly harmonies by Browne, Beach Boy Carl Wilson and others. It’s one of the great fade-outs. A friend calls it ‘the air-conditioner symphony’.
If the album was his most realised work – and Mojo readers recently voted it No1 among his 11 studio long-players – it was hardly downhill all the way until cancer took him in 2003. Frustratingly he is still best known among the wider listening public for the US hit single Werewolves Of London. Some who find that song (‘written on a sea of vodka’ in the words of one Zevon acolyte) an irritating novelty number may have decided he’s not for them.
That’s like dismissing Randy Newman because of Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear. All Zevon’s albums chronicle the darker side of life, death and geopolitics, yet he also composed achingly lovely and lovelorn ballads. Newman, Dylan and Springsteen considered him one of the greatest American lyricists. Browne championed him to the end, despite the pre-sobriety Zevon’s mistreatment and violence towards those closest to him.
A final word on this intense, intelligent, timeless song. Crystal Zevon tells how her husband actually was holed up without a cent in the seedy, junkie-littered Hawaiian Hotel (after running out of credit at the Tropicana). He called David Marks, of the original Beach Boys, who drove his mum’s station-wagon downtown, parked it in an alley beneath Zevon’s bathroom and helped him do a runner.
Years later, flushed with his advance from Asylum, Zevon offered to settle his account. The manager, plainly a man of taste, settled instead for a copy of the LP.