My first real introduction to Warren Zevon didn’t come through his eponymous 1978 mega-hit, “Werewolves of London,” even though I heard that song endlessly growing up. It remained a go-to staple of the rock radio station I cut my teeth listening to in Chattanooga, Tennessee, WSKZ-106 FM. The notion that a real person named Warren Zevon sang it was almost an afterthought to its crazy, catchy novelty.
No, my real connection to the man named Zevon came in January of 2000 when Jeff Fisher, the mustachioed, sunglasses sporting, California-bred coach of my one and only Tennessee Titans NFL football team gave a press conference just prior to flying down to Florida for a playoff showdown with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the AFC Conference Championship. “We’re going down there,” he said, “And we’re bringing lawyers, guns and money.” The Titans backed it up, kicking the living shit out of the Jags at home and advancing to their first and only (sigh) Super Bowl appearance. After that I knew that Fisher was one of the coolest customers on earth. And so, it seemed, was Warren Zevon.
Even though it’s self-titled, 1976’s Warren Zevon was hardly a debut. By that time he’d been a top L.A. session piano player and songwriter for nearly a decade (playing with the Everly Brothers before their breakup and for Phil after he went solo), had crashed and burned as a New York folk singer, and was seven years removed from a first album, 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive, no one seems to think was any good. The man was certainly tested, at one point leaving Los Angeles altogether to spend a year in Spain. But like a bottle of good drink, that decade of struggles only served to refine, concentrate, and deepen his potential as songwriter, arranger and iconic tone-setter.
The first thing that strikes you about Warren Zevon, is how many friends Zevon had accrued during his session years in L.A. The record was produced by Jackson Browne, who also sings and plays slide guitar and piano on a handful of tracks. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (credited as Stephanie Nicks) make significant contributions, as do the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Henley. Bonnie Raitt sings background on “Join Me in L.A.” (one of the album’s standouts) and Phil Everly harmonizes on the leadoff “Frank and Jesse James.” Even jazz organist and keyboardist Jai Winding shows up unexpectedly a couple of times. But undoubtedly the greatest guest contribution is by guitartist Waddy Wachtel, who plays lead on every track, anchoring the enterprise in a solid, understated rock groove with the supplest of light touches, much as he would on Stevie Nick’s solo effort, Bella Donna, four years later.
Warren Zevon is an album impossible not to like, if encountered in the right circumstances. For instance, don’t listen to it in the daylight hours, with afternoon sunshine streaming in your windows. Don’t listen to it in the background, on hold with the DMV or cable company. It’s not that kind of record. It’s an organic thing, elegant and dissolute, raw and refined, that’s made for the nighttime hours. It should be listened to loud, its volume not assaulting you, but mellowing out through the speakers, highlighting all the musicians’ contributions, filling the languid contours of your evening. It isn’t full of itself and it isn’t sorry. It just tells stories, mythic and real, about sad sacks, bad dudes, and worse women. It’s full of references to actual L.A. locales—Echo Park, Pioneer Chicken, the Rainbow (Room) Bar, the Tropicana, the (Sunset) Hyatt, Topanga, Gower Avenue, etc—that give it an honest, lived-in feel. It’s all about the anti-image of Los Angeles, the stuff of noir novels, B-movies, and tabloid confessions--the dark places we’ve haunted in that wrong kind of Hollywood romance. But romance it is, nonetheless. And how we burn for the killing kiss.
Warren Zevon died of cancer in 2003. I recall hearing an interview with him on NPR at the time, and he remarked that he was just hoping he’d live long enough ‘til the next James Bond movie came out. I didn’t know him or his music well enough while he lived. My bad. I guess I’ll never be as cool as Jeff Fisher.
Thankfully, however, the creators of the series Californication have been keeping his flame alive, featuring a couple of memorable late-Zevon songs in several key episodes last season. David Duchovny’s Hank Moody even namechecked the man, stating his routine post-writing ritual was to pour a hefty Scotch, light a joint and listen to a Warren Zevon record.
Substitute the Scotch for a fine Reposado tequila or Mezcal and that’s a ritual I’d recommend to anyone. Though it may require lawyers, guns and money to extricate you from the results.
WARREN ZEVON WARREN ZEVON, 1976, Asylum Records