30 Years Ago: Warren Zevon, R.E.M. and an All-Star Cast Team Up for ‘Sentimental Hygiene’
From his 1976 self-titled LP to his final album, 2003’s The Wind, Warren Zevon regularly garnered some incredible assistance on his recordings. A-list rock stars and music legends happily played second banana to the singer-songwriter on his records – either producing, acting like sidemen or singing backup.
In Zevon’s career, no lineup is more remarkable than the one that helped him make 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene. Guests included old compatriots such as Don Henley, David Lindley and Waddy Wachtel alongside luminaries from a variety of genres, like P-Funk master George Clinton, rockabilly revivalist Brian Setzer, soundtrack star Jennifer Warnes, Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea, not to mention legends such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The core group for the sessions was three-fourths of R.E.M.: guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry.
At the time, R.E.M. was on the precipice of massive success (“The One I Love” and the platinum Document would arrive just after Sentimental Hygiene), although Zevon had begun working with the band a few years earlier. A big fan of R.E.M.’s debut LP, Murmur, the singer had traveled to Athens, Ga., in February 1984 to record some demos of his newest material with the group. During the stop, Zevon even joined a newly born R.E.M. side project called Hindu Love Gods in concert, in which they played some of his new tunes (“Boom Boom Mancini” and “Trouble Waiting to Happen”) as well as “Werewolves of London” and an assortment of covers.
It was a bright spot in a dark time for Zevon, who had recently hit rock-bottom. After 1982’s The Envoy fizzled commercially, he was dropped from Asylum Records, learning about the decision in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The bad news sent Zevon into an alcoholic depression, eventually leading to a rehab stint and an effort to get his career back on track.
Writing was part of the process. For instance, “Trouble Waiting to Happen,” which referenced Rolling Stone and obliquely mentioned his ouster from Asylum: “I read things I didn’t know I’d done / It sounded like a lot of fun / I guess I’ve been bad or something.” Meanwhile, “Detox Mansion” was more specific, but still characteristically tongue-in-cheek, with mentions of “rakin’ leaves with Liza” [Minnelli] and cleaning up the yard with Liz [Elizabeth Taylor].
“I was sitting with Jorge [career-long collaborator Jorge Calderon], and he said, ‘I see you’re drinking Coca-Cola. I guess you don’t wanna go back to Detox Mansion’,” Zevon revealed about the song’s sardonic inspiration.
But Zevon wrote nakedly heartfelt songs about his struggles, too. “Reconsider Me” was about a relationship that his bad behavior had destroyed and a plea for his estranged lover to return. The singer-songwriter would later say that “Reconsider Me” (along with “Hasten Down the Wind”) were the most personal songs he’d ever released.
“Those are about as close as it gets,” Zevon told Rolling Stone in 2000. “Those are close like, ‘Maybe she’ll hear this…’ They’re that kind of close. The women don’t come back, though. They’re impressed, but they don’t come back. They’ll tell their friends.”
Because Zevon was unsigned when he wrote “Reconsider Me,” he offered it to former roommate and collaborator Stevie Nicks, but the album on which she recorded it was shelved (the song was eventually released on a box set in 1998). So the tender ballad was still up for grabs after Zevon was eventually signed to Virgin Records and began making his comeback.
Having kept in contact with R.E.M. – Zevon did a guest spot at an ’85 concert to sing “The Factory” with the gang and Buck showed up to play at one of his solo shows – he invited the group to back him on his new album. They agreed, joining forces to record the bulk of the material in January and February of 1987 at Record One in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Even Michael Stipe got involved, singing backing vocals on “Bad Karma.”
“Warren Zevon is the quintessential L.A. songwriter,” Mills told Buzznet in 2007. “I’ve learned to find the good things about Los Angeles and Warren tends to remind both of those and the darker, seamier side.”
In fact, the sessions went so well that the boys ended up with extra time on their hands. After a dinner at which some members were over-served (but not the recently sober Zevon), the quartet decided to return to the studio and bash their way through an assortment of covers – mostly blues classics, but also Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.” Those recordings would have nothing to do with Sentimental Hygiene, but would cause controversy in 1990 when the guys felt that Zevon’s management wanted to capitalize on R.E.M.’s new status as rock stars by putting the session out as Hindu Love Gods.
“I think it’s really great, but unfortunately there’s a whole side to it that’s very black and ugly,” Berry told Spin in 1991. “Basically we were exploited. We love Warren and don’t regret doing it at all, but his management and record company kept begging us to support it with publicity and a tour or something. But we can’t just drop what we’re doing. It was just one fun drunken night long ago.”
After R.E.M.’s involvement with the sessions ended, they continued, with the likes of Jennifer Warnes and Don Henley adding backing harmonies to tracks, as well as other legends stopping by. Neil Young agreed to play dirty lead guitar on Sentimental Hygiene’s title track. And then Bob Dylan showed up.
“When I walked into the studio and they said, ‘Bob Dylan’s here,’ I said, ‘Why?’ Zevon recalled to the New York Times. “‘To see you.’ That’s worth a million records to me.”
Dylan, who Zevon often called one of the greatest (if not the greatest) of his influences, contributed a harmonica part to “The Factory.” In addition, a couple of tracks were recorded without R.E.M.’s involvement. One of them was “Leave My Monkey Alone,” a song about the '50s Mau Mau uprisings that became a funk tune with the help of Flea and George Clinton. Released as a single, the song earned a unique honor as Zevon’s lone entry on the Billboard Dance chart (No. 18) and also turned into a very ’80s music video, complete with awkward dance moves from the singer-songwriter. It was all part of the comeback package when Virgin issued Sentimental Hygiene on Aug. 29, 1987.
“It was very exciting being the first American on Virgin and having Paula Abdul videos and Herb Ritts [photo] sessions,” Zevon told Goldmine in 1995. “The down side of it was, I think that [Virgin Records executives] woke up one morning, looked around and said, ‘Who’s this guy again? Did he come with you?’ And the other one said, ‘Isn't he like Jackson Browne, with novelty hits?’”
Although Zevon’s sixth album would re-establish him in the music industry and land at No. 63 on the Billboard 200, the level of success that was achieved was clearly less than Virgin expected. After the follow-up, Transverse City, came out in 1989, Zevon was dropped from a label again. At least this time, he didn’t have to find out in the pages of Rolling Stone.
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