Jackson Browne vs. Warren Zevon

Jackson Browne is a legend of 1970s west coast popular light rock music scene, what is often known as adult-oriented rock or, even worse, middle-of-the-road music. He was not middle of the road in any way. A talented songwriter with a clean-cut ‘boy next door’ image, his work ethic irritated his friends in the Eagles. By contrast, his protégé Warren Zevon, was a hard-drinking pill-popping tearaway who shouted lyrics about bad girls, evil men, death, blood and every other bodily fluid imaginable. Jackson was drawn to Warren just as Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young were. Having cashed his chips in at the corporate casino, you get the feeling Jackson wanted to be more like Warren. Perhaps towards the end of his shortened life, Warren reflected that he might have been remembered by more people, with a healthier bank balance, if he had been more like Jackson.

While Jackson was brewing his own coffee in a whistling tin kettle and singing softly about rocking on the water, sister, what was Warren doing? He was singing about deceased hitmen without heads, international envoys, war in Africa, and having his dad send him lawyers, guns and money in somewhere like Damascus. Teenaged girls only had enough money for one of these two albums.

While Warren wrote about laying his head on the railway track, Jackson was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. Warren is the only man I can think of who mentions jizz in a pop song. Yes, lock up your daughters. Warren is the man for a teenaged boy. Trouble is, what parent would allow this kind of noise, even in the 1970s?

In a world before the Walkman, your parents tended to hear your music. They were more strict than the Lord Chancellor himself, and would nod approvingly as you presented the latest Jackson Browne or Eagles 12-inch. But what those same parents did not know, was that Jackson’s and the Eagles’ favourite drinking buddy was Warren. They sing on many of his best numbers, and were in the studio for the others. Warren is just as much a part of that scene as the Eagles and just to underline his wide appeal in that set, Linda Ronstadt covered not just one but several of his songs. When Linda sings those words, they become something altogether exceptional. Something commercial. Yes, Linda made the railway tracks seem a little whimsical. Safe, even. Sweet.

Perhaps they weren’t really railway tracks at all. Perhaps it was a metaphor? And if you start using words like metaphor, you’ve lost the kids. Your platinum disc struggles to hit gold. Or silver. Your single tanks. Without the kids, you’re nowhere. But Warren lived by his own lights. He always made sure he had his druthers. Nobody ever told him what he could say. If they did, they would lose.

When Jackson sold out, became a heartthrob and hit the big time with Don and Glenn and JD, something in his soul died. To rekindle that, he latched onto Warren and made sure that Warren got a record deal when he needed one. After that, he was on his own. David Letterman spotted the genius. So did The Boss, Dylan, actors like Billy Bob, and horror/comedy writers like Stephen King, Hiaasen and McGuane. What these men realised, and they were nearly all men, was that Warren was the masculine side of life that many of them felt unable to express. Warren was a rocker with a brain and a soul. They were just middle of the road, in the worst sense. The Boss could sing about ‘nam but only in a gentle sort of way. Warren wrote about entrails and death and body parts.

There is nothing I can write about Warren that is not better served by listening to two of his tracks. Start with Werewolves of London, his most successful song in the UK. For obvious reasons. Yet listen hard, and you’ll see it is no novelty. It has some seriously dark stuff. Then, listen to Splendid Isolation. Who else do you know, with his kind of reputation, who sings about Georgia O’Keeffe?

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