Warren Zevon’s Warren Zevon

imageRhino Records, in conjunction with Asylum, has just re-issued Warren Zevon’s first album! The self-titled collection is part of Rhino’s Collector’s Edition line, which seeks to re-introduce “legendary albums remastered, and expanded…with previously un-released material, extensive liner notes and rare photos.”

Okay, I know, it’s not his first album. But it’s really the first one that counts. I have a copy of the real first album on vinyl that I bought in a department store for 99 cents! It was called Wanted Dead or Alive and while some of the song titles sound like they might prefigure the Zevon classics, it was mostly a disappointment. No, this one is his first album on Asylum Records. Produced by Jackson Browne and featuring some of LA’s elite as backup singers and musicians, it introduced Zevon’s peculiar brand of songwriting to the world in a big way. And even more than 30 years later it sounds bright and different than all the other country-rock stuff that was pouring out of LA in those days.

Rhino has put together a two-disc deluxe set, with the original album on the first disc, and a second disc of demos and alternate takes that serve to flesh out the original album and show us just how fully formed these songs were when Warren and Jackson went into the studio. The demos include “Frank and Jesse James” which was even more fascinating since I had just watched Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in the past week. Other tunes on the bonus disc? “The French Inhaler,” “Hasten Down the Wind” (in a full band version), “Carmelita,” and others. Some solo piano, others with backup (alternate takes) and even a live version of “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” from a radio show. Every song from the album appears in one (or sometimes two) alternate renditions. The historical value of these tracks overtakes the limited audio quality of some of the early demos. The warmth of Zevon’s voice, the comfortable piano work, gives a hint of the man behind the myth.

Have you read I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, the amazing biography by Warren’s ex-wife Crystal? It left me wondering what people saw in this virtually irredeemable drunken bully. And yet even those folk he seemed to hurt the most had good things to say about him. They carried a big love for Zevon. And you notice that there’s always real humanity in his lyrics and melodies. He didn’t write songs like all those other Rodeo Drive cowboys. He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. Even his song about the James boys says as much about rock star fame as about the Missouri outlaws. And wasn’t that the point of the Pitt film too?

There are no werewolves or mercenaries on this album…but the citizens of Zevon’s world are us and our neighbors. Who among us hasn’t dated someone who fits the description of “Hasten Down the Wind”? “He agrees, he thinks she needs to be free, then she says she’d rather be with him…” Life is confusing and Zevon captures all that confusion, and gives the listener a sense that there’s somebody out there who understands.

Read in the book about Warren’s parents, and then listen to “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded.” You’ll see what I’m talking about.

The demos were beautifully translated by Jackson Browne’s sensitive production to create (Asylum/Rhino, 2008, originally released 1976)what has to be one of the classic albums of the ’70s. Phil Everly, a couple of Eagles, some Fleetwood Mac, a Beach Boy and Bonnie Raitt join some of LA’s choice session guys (David Lindley, Bob Glaub, Bobby Keys, et al.) to provide support. They are all here, but this isWarren Zevon’s show, his songs, his voice, his vision. And I, for one, am glad to have this deluxe package to enjoy.

As for rare pictures, indeed there are a few. A dozen pages of liner notes by Bob Mehr tell the story of the recording sessions and creation of the songs. There’s one-page look at a Zevon notebook and then tracklists; no lyric sheet though. It’s the only thing left to ask for. Otherwise, it’s a nearly perfect set. Thanks, Asylum/Rhino!

(Asylum/Rhino, 2008, originally released 1976)

About David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.