And when 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
Warren Zevon (1976) ****
Musically speaking, an album that sounds like Jackson Browne turned to the Dark Side was nothing either revolutionary or of any special note to emerge from Southern Cali in 1976; the lyrics are obviously the main attraction here - it's, well, a singer-songwriter album, and therefore the difference between lacerating memorability and forgettable accomplished mediocrity comes down, as it so often does in pop music, to attitude. Weaving self-consciously cynical tales of the sleazier side of '70s L.A., Zevon comes across as the simpatico West Coast stepbrother of Steely Dan, minus the jazz pretensions. Backed up by a slickly professional set of top-notch L.A. session men and a decade's experience in the biz (this is actually his second album, but for all intents and purposes his debut - the less said about his extremely premature 1969 LP, Wanted Dead or Alive, the better), the musical backing may situate his songs snugly between Bob Seger and the Eagles, but the songs themselves are a considerable notch above those MOR classic rockers in terms of brains, soul, wit, and elan. In other words, this review is going to focus mostly on the lyrics rather than bother much with the adequate musical qualities, as it should.
Besides, the songs - when they're on - are simply so damn good. Which is a slight problem - if the entire LP lived up to the likes of the down and out heroin ballad "Carmelita" (allegedly a Springsteen parody) I might rate this as highly as, say, John Prine's debut. As is, unfortunately, Zevon seems to have resided in Laurel Canyon a mite too long, and some bad habits of his Asylum record labelmates seem to have rubbed off on him. I'm speaking chiefly of the album's first single and (thankfully unsuccessful) attempt at a soft rock hit, the Linda Rondstadt-covered "Hasten Down the Wind". I'm not even going to try to resist the juvenile pun obviously, painfully sitting there. Take ten seconds to figure it out if you haven't sniggered already. In fact, most of the rest of side one troddles on ground almost as shaky as Zevon's brown baritone itself. While the album gets off to a fine, if deceptively normal, non-perverse start with a simple piano boogie about the cowboy outlaws "Frank and Jesse James" - which could almost fool the unsuspecting listener that they're in for an Eagles album - the next two songs are bog-ordinary country-rock songs of no particular memorability or merit in either lyrics, performance, or presentation. Hey, maybe this is an Eagles album after all! And then we get to "Hasten Down the Wind". Oh brother, this guy looks like he's starting to suck. But then in a drastic turnabout we get the LP's first genuine rocker, the headpounding "Poor Pitiful Me" which openly mocks and derides the self-pitying tendencies of the singer-songwriter genre, narrated by a completely unsympathetic, sleazeball womanizer who boasts of how rough it is having all these So Cal women throwing themselves at his feet to be abused by him. That same character seems to turn up in the next song as well, "The French Inhaler" (a pun on....oh, if you don't get the sexual reference, nevermind), though through a somewhat more sympathetic lens (if not exactly trustworthy, likeable, or non-scuzzy). Musically it could be demented Billy Joel, as the narrator sits at a Hollywood bar full of phonies that he pretends to be friends with because - well, hell, I guess a guy has to have some friends - with money that he may or may not have acquired pimping out a failed aspiring Hollywood actress. Or maybe he's just talking about the type of beautiful, lonesome, messed-up gal that every seasoned bar veteran knows so well. Either way, the genuine Warren Zevon finally emerges for the first time on those two songs, and thankfully now that he's got his sea legs, that guy hangs around for the rest of this little long-player.
Maybe my ears are glossing over some key verses, but lyrically I find nothing noteworthy about the tune that kicks off side two, "Mohammed's Radio" - and for once that doesn't matter, as it's a fine slice of anthemic neo-Van Morrison-ism. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" gives the finger to those who would rather keep it cool and Zen, providing this gin-soaked, unrepentantly hell-raising asshole (Zevon, not me) a lifelong personal anthem. It's "Carmelita", the Mexi-Cali flavored heroin ballad that may be the album's strongest highlight, however, as Zevon sings of methadone clinics, welfare checks that get cut off, selling typewriters to pawn shops, and living on the outskirts of town with a Mexican squeeze, all with a discernible twinkle in his eye - as if it's all actually a parody of the sad-sack, beautiful-loser style of singer-songwriter balladry. Or he could be singing heartfelt sentiments with a bemused attempt at grim levity - who knows? I will pause to regretfully note the lone bummer on side two, "Join Me in L.A.", slimy moron-funk that's as disgusting and gross as '80s Don Henley (and sounds suspiciously like it), before arriving at the final track, "Desperados Under the Eaves". Now I know this is outright parody, from the title alone, and it's terrific parody - he nails with unerring, mocking accuracy the macho cliches of cocaine outlaw-blues of '70s rock, yet manages to keep the tune oddly emotionally moving, as the narrator holes up in a shoddy L.A. hotel awaiting the eventual California earthquake. A fitting end to an album that both exemplifies and undercuts the singer-songwriter movement of the Me Decade.