I hadn’t thought much recently about the deceased US musician Warren Zevon until Verity Sharp marked the 70th anniversary of his birth on Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 in January. She described him as “a man who struggled with life, emotionally volatile, violent, erratic”. I thought back to other descriptions of Zevon. Andy Kershaw called him “the Hunter S.Thompson of rock and roll” when choosing one of his songs for Desert Island Discs in 2007. Right at the start of his career, I once heard a broadcaster’s summary of his early extra-musical life which made him sound like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine character in Casablanca.
All these colourful impressions are emphasised by various articles on the internet which mention his father’s gangster connections, his childhood acquaintance with Igor Stravinsky, his acquaintance with writers like the aforementioned Thompson plus horror specialist Stephen King and poet Paul Muldoon, his continual philandering and addictions.
Like many people, my first acquaintance with Zevon was through his connection with Jackson Browne. At the time of Browne’s arrival to prominence with the album The Pretender in 1976, he produced the album Warren Zevon. The two toured together in Britain at that time, including in a concert filmed on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Zevon’s cover photograph on that 1976 album is of an alluringly cool dude: the shoulder-length light hair and round-framed glasses, the semi-formal dark jacket over the open-necked white shirt, the serious gaze and the arm raised in purposeful pose.
Barbara Charone in Sounds described the album at the time as “the ultimate L.A. album”, less for Zevon’s association with more established California-based musicians than for the location-spotting of his scenes of deviant behaviour, such as in “Carmelita”, “The French Inhaler” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”.
Looking back now, you feel Zevon’s musical affinity is less with Browne than with another Californian singer-pianist-songwriter: Randy Newman. Like Newman, Zevon’s songs are often narratives, featuring characters whose behaviour is eccentric or subversive. Like Newman, his perspective is often wry and sour, with an awareness of political realities. Among the best are “Frank and Jesse James”, “Excitable Boy”, “Werewolves of London”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Lawyers Guns and Money” and “The Envoy”.
During the 1980s and 1990s, many musicians tended to overuse the multi-tracked heavy rhythms which were then judged to be most suitable for radio and live concerts alike. This certainly seemed to happened in Zevon’s case. Whether it was others’ commercial interests, his own personal distractions or simply changing musical fashions which were the strongest influence in his artistic stasis is hard to say. As Zevon apparently said himself before his death in 2003, “I got to be Jim Morrison longer than he did”.
Throughout his career, as shown by the many clips on You Tube, continued an attractively self-deprecating personality and a gruff but tuneful voice.