Listening Booth: “Warren Zevon” (Collector’s Edition)

Written by Listening Booth, Music

October 30, 2002 – It was close to the end when Warren Zevon made what everyone knew would be his final appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. The cancer had already taken a tremendous toll on him, and every small movement was an effort. Letterman loved Warren’s music, and had supported his career for years. I like to think that it was because Dave recognized that Warren was willing to cross a line that Dave could only approach before retreating. During the Q & A that night, Dave asked Warren what the one thing was that he wanted people to know. The dying songwriter famously replied, “enjoy every sandwich.” Less than a year later, he was gone.

Warren left us with a beautiful farewell album that he called The Wind, and he laid out his final wishes on the emotional closing track:

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for awhile
If I leave you that doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for awhile

And so we have kept him in our hearts over these last five years. For many of us, hardly a day goes by that Warren doesn’t remain a presence. When his sandwich metaphor is applied to his music, Warren made sure that we would enjoy every sandwich. It’s not just about his music though, any more than our memories of Hunter S. Thompson, surely a kindred spirit to Warren, are just about his writing. In their too-short lives, both men managed to find a freedom that few of us will ever know.

Rhino has chosen to remember Warren by reissuing his self-titled debut album for Asylum Records, originally released in 1976. It isn’t his proper debut; that was on a little-noticed album called Wanted Dead or Alive that was released in 1969, but it’s certainly the album that brought Warren to wider public attention.

Warren was living in Spain with his wife Crystal in the summer of 1975. He was on the verge of giving up on his rock n’ roll dreams, playing in local cafes, and about to sign with a small Spanish record label. Then a postcard arrived from his old friend Jackson Browne. It said simply:

Warren,
Too soon to give up. Come home. I’ll get you a recording contract.

Love,
Jackson

Little did Browne know that Warren would take his message to heart and return to LA immediately, for the truth was that Browne really didn’t have anything concrete lined up, according to Crystal. But it wasn’t long before Browne convinced David Geffen, his label president at Asylum, to take a chance on Warren. Browne himself was set to produce the album, and they entered Elektra Sound Recorders in the fall of 1975 to begin work.

The years of struggle paid off, as Warren’s songs had become finely honed and full of his life experiences. Browne reigned in Warren’s impulse to make a record that sounded like the Rolling Stones, and kept him true to himself, and his songs. He enlisted a number of LA’s finest for the effort, including Don Henley, Glen Frey, JD Souther, Bonnie Raitt, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Phil Everly, and Carl Wilson, to augment the powerful backing band which included guitarist Waddy Wachtel, multi-instrumental David Lindley, bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Larry Zack, and Browne himself.

The result was a powerful song cycle that began in the old west (“Frank and Jesse James”), and ended in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel in the present day (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”), where we find our protagonist waiting for the earthquake that will send California sliding into the ocean. That finale, with vocal harmonies arranged by Carl Wilson, may have been the high water mark of Warren’s career.

On the journey west through time, Warren wrote about abandoning his dreams and heading to Spain (“Backs Turned Looking Down the Path”), belied his reputation as a tough guy (“Hasten Down the Wind”), and then proved that the reputation was hard-earned and well-deserved (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”). There was a junkie’s lament (“Carmelita”), and a surrealist vision worthy of Dylan (“Mohammed’s Radio”).

But the centerpiece of the album is clearly “The French Inhaler.” One of the wickedest kiss-off songs ever written, it is Warren’s reaction to learning that his former girlfriend, “Tule” Livingston, had slept with a fellow musician.

“French Inhaler” is basically his way of saying ‘fuck you’ to my mom after she slept with another guy,” reveals Warren and Tule’s son Jordan. “She ended up confessing that to me just before she died. 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.”

Disc one of this of this collection is a nicely remastered version of the original album. The bonus disc contains 15 previously unreleased tracks, among them a different version of every album track. There are solo demos, alternate takes, and one live radio performance. This enables the listener to follow along as the songs developed from the demo stage to the final recording. For example, here is a solo piano version of “The French Inhaler.” Compare it to the finished version above. There’s also an early take of the song on the bonus disc.

Whatever you do, resist any temptation you may have to think of this as another soft-rock southern California record because of the musicians involved. Warren Zevon rocks, and it bites. And though there was never any question of it being otherwise, this album will make sure that we continue to keep Warren in our hearts, just the way he wanted it.