Warren Zevon could never have been a standard, mainstream rock star. His life started out with too many extraordinary elements to allow him to be mainstream. He was fated to be exceptional, and he certainly fulfilled that destiny.
Son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who became a bookie for the mob in Los Angeles, Zevon (born in 1947) took music lessons with the great Igor Stravinsky himself. When his parents divorced, the 16-year-old Zevon dropped out of high school and headed east to become a folkie in New York City.
To make ends meet, Zevon wrote songs for other people, including a few for The Turtles and one for the soundtrack of the film Midnight Cowboy, which was sung by Leslie Miller. He also recorded a couple of singles as part of the duo lyme and cebelle with Violet Santangelo. One of their songs, “Follow Me,” had decent sales, but that was it.
Zevon’s solo recording career started with appropriate strangeness: he was discovered in 1969 by Kim Fowley, an esoteric producer determined to maintain cult status in the music industry by recording cutting-edge acts that no one else was paying attention to. Sadly for Zevon, no one paid attention to his debut, Wanted Dead or Alive, either.
So, he turned his efforts back to practical endeavors, selling more songs and touring as the music director and keyboardist for the Everly Brothers. By the mid-1970s he had befriended and was rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. He also became close with Jackson Browne, who offered to produce Zevon’s first major-label album.
His growing circle of important music friends were also conscripted to play on Warren Zevon, which was released on Asylum Records in 1976 and reached the low end of the Billboard 200. Among the guests, besides the Fleetwood Mac gang and Bonnie Raitt, was a singer who turned out to be one of Zevon’s biggest fans. Linda Ronstadt eventually made her own recordings of many of Zevon’s songs.
“Desperados Under the Eaves” is a good introduction to Zevon’s musical and poetic style, as well as his signature delivery. First, there’s the sophisticated harmony of the string arrangement. Then there’s the subtle sarcasm of the lyrics, camouflaged in lush chord progressions usually associated with more sentimental songs. And then there’s the joyous weirdness of it all: note the 16 bars of Zevon humming like an air conditioner.
Browne stayed on as producer, assisted by guitarist Waddy Wachtel, for Zevon’s second Asylum album, Excitable Boy, in 1978. On these tracks, Zevon doubles down on his dark quirkiness on songs like the album’s big hit, “Werewolves of London.” But even more interesting are the ingenious ramblings of a man who sees madness everywhere he looks. Often these have political backdrops, like “Veracruz” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
The album opens with. “When Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” It is lyrically simple and vague, but Zevon’s impassioned delivery, plus the contributions of session greats Russ Kunkel on drums and Danny Kortchmar on percussion, and a couple of terrific guitar riffs by Wachtel, make this a little-known 1970s rock gem.
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School came out in 1980, boasting a quartet of singles that included Zevon’s cover of the Yardbirds’ “A Certain Girl,” originally written by Allen Toussaint and recorded by Ernie K-Doe. That was the only one of the record’s singles to chart. This fourth studio album also marked a tentative move to Elektra Records.
As usual, the studio was full of big names offering their services, including Browne, Ronstadt, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley. Guitarist Joe Walsh enriches the march-like rhythm and staid melody of “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by playing counterpoint against Zevon’s voice.
Continuing his pattern of releasing albums every other year, Zevon made The Envoy in 1982, giving Asylum another chance. Although one single, “Let Nothing Come Between You,” did well, the album’s sales were poor. Zevon blamed that failure on the label’s lack of commitment to marketing, but it probably also reflected the reality of the American music-buying public: Zevon’s music and lyrics were always too hip for the room and too idiosyncratic for the masses.
On this album Zevon moves into harder rock territory. The Envoy’s title track, a grimly cynical commentary on war in the Middle East, shakes with power chords played by three different guitarists, including Zevon himself, and the rattling drums of Toto’s Jeff Porcaro.
Sadly, the low sales of The Envoy hit Zevon hard, and the next few years found him battling his psychological demons. His previous issues with drugs and alcohol reemerged, and his relationship ended with his fiancée before she could become his second wife. After a round of rehab, Zevon took a break from recording, only playing occasional live shows. His only brief foray into recording was one single for the band Hindu Love God, which included Zevon and three members of R.E.M.: guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry.
In 1987, Zevon was ready to record Sentimental Hygiene, this time on Virgin Records. Buck, Mills, and Berry all played on the album. (At the same time, they laid down some tracks as the Hindu Love Gods, which would be released in 1990.) Michael Stipe sang backup on one track, and Bob Dylan dropped in to play harmonica. A Zevon recording session continued to be an A-list magnet. But this album and the next, Transverse City, did not sell well, so Virgin ended Zevon’s contract.
The rhythm and melody of “Splendid Isolation” are reminiscent of Tom Petty, even if the lyrics are more urban-focused and philosophical than Petty’s usual output. This should be the official anthem of introverts everywhere. (That’s Zevon on harmonica, by the way.)
After leaving Virgin, Zevon landed at the newly-founded label Giant Records. From his first album there, Mr. Bad Example (1991), the track “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” inspired a film by Gary Fleder.
The next decade saw Zevon soldier on despite largely poor sales and having to tour in the humblest of circumstances, often unable to afford a band. But he seemed to revel in the social side of music-making: besides his impressive list of musician friends, he also enjoyed the company of some of America’s most interesting writers who also happened to play music. Several of them – Hunter S. Thompson, Amy Tan, and Carl Hiassen among others – played with Zevon at book fairs in a pickup band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. They even contributed lyrics to some of his songs.
Zevon’s final album was The Wind, recorded in 2002 while his body was being ravaged by mesothelioma. He very publicly made the decision not to pursue treatments that would weaken him so that he could have the strength to write and play for as much of his remaining time as possible. Knowing he was at the end, all his usual buddies showed up to sing on that last record, and longtime fan David Letterman devoted an entire hour of The Late Show to Zevon, who chatted with him and performed.
Zevon died in 2003 at the age of 56. It’s fitting to close with this wistful song from that last album, “Keep Me in Your Heart”: