When Warren Zevon’s self-titled album arrived in 1976, it seemed impossible that this guy could have been making his major label debut. So assured were his melodies and so world-wearily insightful were his lyrics that it seemed like the work of a fully-formed artist.
What most didn’t know at the time was that Zevon had already experienced a musical career full of twists and turns, including a failed 1969 solo album, songwriter-for-hire work for the Turtles, and a stint leading the Everly Brothers touring band. By ’76, he was a sort of cult hero on the West Coast rock scene, which is why he had so many luminaries appear as guest stars on the Warren Zevon album.
For example, the soaring harmonies that you hear on the brilliantly bittersweet ballad “The French Inhaler” were provided by Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey, while the song, like the rest of the album, was produced by Jackson Browne. Yet it’s Zevon’s perspective, with caustic, cutting lyrics leavened by the unabashed beauty of the tune, which shines through on the track.
“The French Inhaler” was inspired by Zevon’s breakup with Marilyn Livingston, mother of his son Jordan. In typically idiosyncratic Zevon fashion, however, he frames the song as if the narrator were advising a would-be ingénue to run from the hills of Southern California as fast as she can. After a sprightly, Mozart-like opening piano flourish, the song dives right into the nitty gritty: “How’re you going to get around/In this sleazy bedroom town/If you don’t put yourself up for sale.”
The narrator insinuates that dreams of stardom lead to the tawdriest outcomes if one’s not careful: “Drugs and wine and flattering light/You must try again till you get it right/Maybe you’ll end up with someone different every night.” Yet he also admits that he’d like to be one of those rotating beaus: “They’d all like to spend the night with you/Maybe I would too.”
Zevon’s ability to insert black humor into his songs was one of his great talents. In “The French Inhaler”, it comes when he insults and then identifies with the nightlife: “With these phonies in this Hollywood bar/These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.” The song eventually takes a wrenching turn when the girl’s fate is revealed: “And when the lights came up at two/I caught a glimpse of you/And your face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase.”
Jordan Zevon told The Guardian in 2013 that his mother was acutely aware that she was the target of the song, and yet she, like most everyone else who’s ever heard it, found it irresistible. “Despite the subject matter, my mom would play that song to me after a couple of glasses of wine and laugh and say: ‘Isn’t that brilliant?’” the younger Zevon remembered. “She knew he was a genius.”
The closing line (She said, “So long, Norman”) was apparently a dig at Norman Mailer, but in the context of the song, it comes off as the girl’s farewell to the narrator, unable or unwilling as she is to heed his advice. “The French Inhaler” is funny, nasty, self-deprecating, sympathetic, and ultimately heartbreaking. In other words, it was just a typical effort from the late, great Warren Zevon.