CK Retro Review: Warren Zevon by Warren Zevon

Who was this guy? Certainly not the same one who wailed his way through the foggy psychedelic mess of 1969’s Wanted Dead Or Alive. But then he couldn’t be a debut artist, because who comes out of the gate so assured, so eloquent, and so distinctive? Warren Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album was, by every possible measure, a revelation. Give some credit to Jackson Browne, who, as producer, cleared out the debris so that Zevon’s words and melodies could make full impact. Give some credit to one of the fullest lineups of guest stars you will ever see; if you even grazed the chart in the 60’s or 70’s and had felt the Santa Ana winds on your face at one point in your life, you were on this album. But really it was all Zevon, his talent rising to the top and leaving one of the most indelible musical statements of the decade


11. “Join Me In L.A.”- Even with the Murderer’s Row backing vocals of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, and Rosemary Butler helping out, this one lumbers. Blame the music, which gets lost somewhere between film noir and disco.


10. “Backs Turned Looking Down The Path”- This is benign almost to a fault, as Zevon has a hard time selling the sanguine stuff like he can the sardonic. Not bad as a change of pace though, and some good harmonies from Browne help sell it.

9. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”- You can trace the origins of the self-destructive Zevon, at least in song anyway, to this ripper. A little one-note perhaps, but catchy catharsis nonetheless.

8. “Frank And Jesse James”- Zevon’s nimble piano work, which echoes themes he would explore later on the album and Dixie-style melodies appropriate to the subject matter, is the highlight here. The glorification of the two legendary outlaws recalls the cliched rocker-as-outlaw stance a bit too much for this to be transformative.

7. “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded”- It’s maybe a more mundane slice of life that we would come to expect from Zevon, but it has some nice grace notes, including David Lindley’s fiddle and the bounciness of the chorus.


6. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”- Zevon’s wicked sense of humor is on full display as he takes the piss out of those who would complain about their myriad romantic entanglements. Browne’s ears must have been burning in the producer’s chair, but he was a good sport about it and got maximum raucousness out of the track.

5. “Mohammed’s Radio”- Another song just jam-packed with incredible guest stars. Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham contribute backing vocals, while legendary Stones sideman Bobby Keys undergirds the arrangement with soulful saxophone bleats. Indeed, if this is the kind of stuff the song’s mystical DJ plays, you can understand how it would alleviate everything from bad advice to inflation.

4. “Carmelita”- Here is Zevon setting us up for one thing with the music and then pulling out the chair with the lyrics. The Latin lilt, romantically conjured by Lindley’s picking on acoustic, is the setting for a heroin addict’s lament. Details come fast and furious, from the brand of the narrator’s hawked typewriter to the chicken joint his connection haunts. And Carmelita is ever off in the distance, the one spark of emotion in his benumbed heart. Funny, sweet, and sad all at once without breaking a sweat.


3. “Hasten Down The Wind”- Browne’s production and Zevon’s arrangement team up to make the music quite irresistible in its languorous heartbreak, with Lindley’s slide as indispensable here as it was for so many Browne tracks. Putting the song in the third person somehow makes it sound even more autobiographical, while the formality of the title phrase seems like the false bravery of someone hurting something awful. This is the side of Zevon that always got overshadowed somewhat by the hellraising, but true believers know that he could even match his buddy Browne in the tenderness department when he put his heart to it.

2. “Desperados Under The Eaves”- So you want to come out to California, kid? That gorgeous coda is the aural equivalent of Laurel Canyon scenery, the siren luring you out there. But it only arrives after Zevon, like a public service announcement, presents a guy drinking himself into a stupor while imagining majestic melodies emanating from air conditioners. And the damn state can’t implode fast enough to get him out of his debt. The perfect song, in terms of thematic relevance and stirring power, to close out the album. P.S. Bringing in Beach Boy Carl Wilson to help out on backing vocals? That’s not even fair.

1. “The French Inhaler”- That classical opening isn’t what you’d expect for the kind of tawdry scene depicted here, but it’s the contradictions that make the song so brilliant. Those soaring, Eagles-assisted harmonies take on a different tone when gilding the narrator’s condescending advice. And the triumph of the music flies directly in the face of the outcome the two main characters suffer: She packed away in Death’s suitcase, he living out a measly existence in Hollywood’s seediest bar with the rest of the pretenders. “The French Inhaler”, beautifully and chillingly, depicts that figurative 2 AM moment when the lights come on, eradicate all our self-deceptions, and leave us mercilessly alone in their cold glow. And all you can really say at that point is “So long, Norman.”

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)

Tom Petty Countdown #5: “Insider”

The story behind this song is that Petty wrote it with the intention of giving it to Stevie Nicks, then thought it too good to let go. Nicks understood and agreed to sing back-up on “Insider,” Petty eventually gave her “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which the two rode all the way to the bank, and all was fine with the world, right?

Well, not quite, because, while there’s no doubting that “Stop Draggin’” is a great song, “Insider” is not just better, but is one of the best songs that Petty has ever written. And yet it remains largely unheard, tucked away quietly on Side 2 of Hard Promises. I’m begging you, casual TP fans, look this song up, and you’ll be as floored as I was when I discovered it upon purchasing the CD many years ago.

First of all, it is a tender band performance, featuring what may be Benmont Tench’s finest moments with the Heartbreakers. His organ propels the music in the verse, riding over the acoustic guitar and hitting all of the right emotional notes without ever overdoing it. His pounding piano in the wordless bridge is more elemental, as he bashes way in conjunction with the frustration of the narrator.

Then there’s the stunningly great duet that Petty and Nicks perform here. On “Stop Draggin,” it was more of a he said/ she said vibe, but here, they’re on the same team. As Petty woefully tells his tale yet keeps his emotions on a low boil, Nicks acts as his id, letting loose with all of the pain he’s too proud to show.

Above all, it’s a wonderful song, with music that sighs and then surges as each new wound rises to the surface, and lyrics that nail the plight of someone whose vision of a perfect love is ultimately betrayed. When Petty draws the curtain to revel the third party who has ultimately interfered with this scenario, it’s with a mixture of disgust and concern: “I’ll bet you’re his masterpiece/I’ll be you’re his self-control/Yeah you’ll become his legacy/His quiet world of white and gold.”

In the final moments, as he tried to define his own role in this farce, he comes to the shuddering realization that he simply wasn’t what she wanted: “And I’m the one who oughta know/I’m the one you left to rust/Not one of your twisted friends/I’m the one you couldn’t love.”

On this last line, Petty’s voice practically quakes, the façade finally coming down. It is an overpowering moment in this amazing song. This guy may say he’s an “Insider,” but few songs have ever so expertly detailed the helplessness of what it’s like to be on the outside of a relationship looking in.

(For the full e-book of this list, Breakdown: Tom Petty’s 100 Best Songs, check out the Amazon links below.)



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Tom Petty Countdown #28: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”

You would think from the video of this duet with Stevie Nicks that turned into a big hit (#3 on Billboard) that the song was a proper collaboration between the band and the Fleetwood Mac chanteuse striking out on her own. But in fact, Petty and Mike Campbell wrote the song for the Heartbreakers to record, which they did. Producer Jimmy Iovine then convinced Petty to give this song to Nicks for her own album, Bella Donna.

So what you end up getting is Nicks’ singing overdubbed onto the Heartbreakers recording, with Petty’s original vocal mostly edited out except for a single verse and during the refrains, when Nicks harmonizes over the top of him. The result was so seamless that it stands as one of rock’s great duets.

It works wonderfully as such because of the lyrical content. If Petty had sung it by himself, it might have come off as a one-sided and condescending request to a young girl (“You need someone looking after you”) to let the man take charge of her life. With Nicks on board, it becomes a running argument that hits surprisingly profound levels, aided and abetted by The Heartbreakers soulfully restrained performance.

From such an unlikely beginning, a hit song was born. With artists of this caliber, it turns out they don’t even have to be in the same room together to create magic.

(For the full e-book of this list, Breakdown: Tom Petty’s 100 Best Songs, check out the Amazon links below.)



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