Recalling Great Songs–“The French Inhaler” by Warren Zevon

Jun 24th, 2011 in Music

We have been mired in Warren-World for over a month and unable to scrape Warren Zevon‘s stunning 1976 major label debut album off of our turntable.  A large reason for our repeat listening is needing to hear The French Inhaler over and over and over (a particular shortcoming of vinyl and turntables if you don’t have the 45 rpm single stylee). We humbly opine that The French Inhaler is one of the finest songs ever recorded.

Lyrically the song is primarily a kiss-off to “Tule” Livingston (Zevon’s ex-wife and mother of his son Jordan), but also about life and lust in the LA music scene.  Evidently, after the breakup of Zevon and Tule, Warren found out that she was sleeping with another musician, and in the liner notes of the reissued album Jordan says that his mother confessed to him before she passed that the song was a “f*** you” to her for sleeping with this other musician.” At the conclusion of the song, Zevon also makes reference to the furor surrounding Norman Mailer’s exploitative Marilyn Monroe biography published in 1973.

Musically, the song is a marvel featuring piano, complex chord changes, strings, and the perfect harmonies of Don Henley and Glenn Frey (a zenith moment they never again approached).  We first hear those harmonies at the 1:00 mark, but thankfully they recur throughout the song.  The album was produced by Zevon’s pal, Jackson Browne, with support from the best of L.A.’s session players at the time.

One of our lasting musical memories is of catching Zevon at the Roxy in 1978 in support of his masterpiece, “Excitable Boy.” Zevon put on a manic show that night, but we all cringed when he repeatedly jumped up and collapsed to his knees (doing nothing in the process to undermine his mantra:  I’ll sleep when I’m dead).  It’s a wonder he survived another 25 years.

Warren Zevon went to sleep permanently on September 7, 2003, aged 56, leaving behind one of the great discographies of all-time and capped off by this great song.  Put it on repeat and marvel.

“How’re you going to make your way in the world
When you weren’t cut out for working
When your fingers are slender and frail
How’re you going to get around
In this sleazy bedroom town
If you don’t put yourself up for sale

Where will you go with your scarves and your miracles
Who’s gonna know who you are
Drugs and wine and flattering light
You must try it again till you get it right
Maybe you’ll end up with someone different every night

All these people with no home to go home to
They’d all like to spend the night with you
Maybe I would, too

But tell me
How’re you going to make your way in the world, woman
When you weren’t cut out for working
And you just can’t concentrate
And you always show up late

You said you were an actress
Yes, I believe you are
I thought you’d be a star
So I drank up all the money,
Yes, I drank up all the money,
With these phonies in this Hollywood bar,
These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar

Loneliness and frustration
We both came down with an acute case
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

Your pretty face
It looked so wasted
Another pretty face
The French Inhaler
He stamped and mailed her
“So long, Norman”
She said, “So long, Norman””

Written by Warren Zevon 1973 Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp./Darkroom Music BMI

Check it out below.



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