Derailed, Sooner or Later: Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon (1976)

Never thought I’d have to pay so dearly for what was already mine.
— WZ

This is the material world and if one vice doesn’t do you in, another one surely will.  If nothing else, there is the obvious and ongoing erosion of each present self, the sly voice within us that lurks beneath the most laudatory of our triumphs.  Mortality renders the measurability of our accomplishments to be largely at our own discretion.  Sometimes this reaches us during the overwhelming silence of 3AM insomnia, sometimes during the most blissed-out of moments, when we’re trying our hardest to keep this knowledge at bay.

Awareness is delicate – used well, it is a priceless asset that provides the individual with clarity of perception and thus fantastic possibility for self-control.  Used poorly, it can drive the individual to an unbearable inability to relax or feel at ease.  High levels of awareness and intelligence typically go hand in hand; attention to the balancing act required here is needed. 

I truly believe that feeling at ease during moments of inactivity is a basic human right.  We don’t have to continually defend or explain ourselves.  I have found however that the majority of individuals are plagued by the misconception that at some point in their past, they’ve made an error or were wronged by the error of another, from which they can never come back from.  They blame this one instance or issue for everything that has not gone right for them since then; meanwhile, this is total ridiculum.  Though cause-and-effect exists, each moment is independent of each other moment in its capacity to be made anew.

Despite this capacity, it is terribly difficult to cast the baggage that we have accumulated aside. We can’t help it – it is a byproduct of our fascination with stories and the drive to write stories out of our lives.  Sometimes to run away from baggage, we take up a crutch – like a harmful addiction – which in turn creates more baggage.  There must be a dark and haunted past, there must be a fatal flaw.  If there isn’t, we will write one in ourselves.

Warren Zevon’s 1976 self-titled debut record – a second debut, really, for he released Wanted Dead or Alive in 1969, but the 1976 record truly marks the start of his discography in the eyes of history – is a classic piece of art.  Produced by his friend and early supporter Jackson Browne, it is more than just an album.  Its tracks showcase a musical and literary genius – perhaps the most literary of songwriters the twentieth century bore witness to.  Zevon had a novelist’s mind and it is not surprising that he befriended Hunter Thompson, Paul Muldoon, and Ross MacDonald, among others. 

 Warren Zevon struggled with alcoholism for years.  He was insanely intelligent and grew up in a family that couldn’t keep up with him, a family in which he felt out of place.  He was insecure and alcohol made him confident.  This hellish dependency on an outside source, this addiction, seems macabrely suited to Zevon’s musical place d’origin: Los Angeles.  “Desperados Under the Eaves” and “Join Me in L.A.” are two tracks featured on the WZ record that touch upon this connection.

“Desperados,” purportedly one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songs, articulates brilliantly the unspoken efforts of a person attempting to rid himself of an addiction, a person attempting to just be.  Heavenly surroundings have turned on him; he has perhaps turned on himself.  He didn’t need anything but he found alcohol and now he needs it and now he needs to try and not need it.  Don’t the sun look angry through the trees / Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves.  The lyrics in this song capture the regular-ness of everyday existence and the intensification of a person’s awareness of this regular-ness, once experience-enhancers (like alcohol) are taken away.  I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel / I was staring in my empty coffee cup (the cup is empty but he wishes it were filled with Stoli, WZ’s favorite) and I was listening to the air conditioner hum / It went mmm… / Look away.  The “look away” bit is repeated endlessly in the song’s refrain, which hangs over a Civil War-era hymnish melody, lending triumph and maybe a dose of unavoidable defeat to the song.  Zevon was a brilliant pianist who intensely disliked “rock ‘n’ roll piano.”  He was classically literate, classically trained.  The most haunting bit of “Desperados” is its narrator’s lack of answers.  He looks to his coffee cup for some kind of salvation but finds it empty.  He listens to the air conditioner hum but finds it inarticulate.  There’s no help for anyone here, no wisdom, no advice; yet, payment must come due: …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.

“Join Me in L.A.” is a track well-accented by the back-up vocals of Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler.  Zevon’s narrator is devilish, tempting those around him to accompany him on his road to demise.  Well they say this place is evil / that ain’t why I stay / ‘cause I found something that’ll never be nothing / and I found it in L.A.  Butler’s and Raitt’s echoing whispery refrains of Wake up lend an additional air of sinisteria.  In both this track and “Desperados,” Zevon paints the portrait of Los Angeles in a spectral green hue that is at once devastating and benign.  The city beckons all toward itself, to come hither, to come and try to manifest one’s dreams earnestly – but once in L.A. all are left alone and on their own.  Deserted, stranded, neutralized in the face of undeniable glitter.  Horror ensues.

“The French Inhaler” has a strong classical lilt in Zevon’s piano work; its intro is timed almost to a metronome, measured out.  WZ seems determined to keep himself together and get the right and uncomplicated notes out correctly.  The intro is deceiving.  Restrained emotion, and the desire to properly articulate the history behind it, seep through every inch of the piece.  Zevon’s narrator warns this woman of being used by those who do not know or understand her.  He is hurt and semi-sarcastically asks How're you going to make your way in the world / when you weren't cut out for working?  He is trying to make sense of what has happened to them, of who she really is: You said you were an actress… yes, I believe you are.  This song reeks of Hollywood and its heaven-and-hell dichotomy too, and Zevon’s narrator has drunk up all the money / with these phonies in this Hollywood bar who one lyric-line and several drinks later become these friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.  Los Angeles has swindled the narrator and his woman out of their practical know-how, their morals-and-standards, and their exchange of honesty and truth.  Each now is on his or her own separate and isolated path toward abomination, which may or may not lead to careerical success along the way.  Other tracks on Warren Zevon – “Frank and Jesse James,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Carmelita” – all tell too of characters who tried their best within their given situations but somewhere along the line, via the law, crazy chicks, or heroin, became derailed. 

 Despite Zevon’s literary leanings and the plethora of material that he left behind when he was granted his deathwish in 2003, there lacks a plethora of subsequent academic study to match.  His main girl Crystal Zevon’s biography is perhaps the best source on Warren’s life.  I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: the Dirty Life and Times is a well-compiled, intelligent and accurate telling of Zevon’s persona, life, and career.  The book incorporates interview material taken from reminiscences of numerous individuals who worked with and loved him.  A fantastic companion book for Zevon addicts and novices alike was released this year by Auburn U professor George Plasketes.  Warren Zevon: Desperado of Los Angeles is a full-on academic analysis of Zevon’s discography by a straight-up uber fan of his who happens to be an uber intelligent writer too.  Plasketes’ unique perspective makes for a wonderful book, a serious study happily colored by the writer’s genuine love for Zevon and his work.  One wonders why there are not more books like this when it comes to Zevon’s canon, which offers much to take apart and delve into.

I am in love with Warren Zevon; I suspect many have been and are and will be, and so they should.  His candor, wit, and emotional honesty – as well as the desire to have a good time in the material world – were all qualities to be inspired by.  Zevon was one of the great articulators of the American experience; he was a keeper-projector of a raw and defiant masculinity too.  His bad-and-brilliant persona was irresistible and still seems to live on, to morph around through each replaying of his records - even though Zevon has transcended this plane and entered the next. 

I’m insane. I’m fucked up. I have problems. But I don’t get depressed and I don’t get bored.
— wz