The French Inhaler by Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon was an industry veteran by the time he made his major-label debut in 1976. He’d toured with the Everly Brothers as their band leader, and was rooming with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in 1975. Jackson Browne had championed Zevon, and produced his first major solo album (his 1969 debut was unsuccessful).

‘The French Inhaler’ is an extraordinary song for an artist launching their career. It’s not ambitious stylistically, following the same laid back west coast template as Browne and the Eagles. But it’s a complex song, dispensing with verse/chorus structures and winding its way through a series of jabs at his ex-girlfriend Tule Livingston. Jordan Zevon, Zevon and Livingston’s son, recalled “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?’ She knew he was a genius”.

Musically, it’s centred on Zevon’s proficient piano playing, but the magic comes from the backing vocals from Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey. They appear halfway through the word “night” about a minute into the song, and come and go throughout. As much as I’m sometimes ambivalent about their band’s work, the two head Eagles are magnificent here.

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
Devastated
The French Inhaler
He stamped and mailed her
“So long, Norman”
She said, “So long, Norman”

11 Comments

  1. I’ve just been revisiting Zevon’s stuff and getting to know the Excitable Boy album. I’ll go back and listen to this album next, I reckon.

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