Between his birth to a Mormon mother and L.A. gangster father, and dying from mesothelioma possibly contracted while playing in his father’s Arizona carpet store, Warren Zevon composed one of the most quick-witted, prismatic, charismatic, worldly-wise bodies of popular songwriting. It’s one that still defines what it means to be smart in music. A notorious, booze-swilling, gun-toting extrovert in adulthood—capable of outrageous acts of violence or regret—his early songs are populated by unforgettable, cartoonish characters like the sociopathic murdering lad of “Excitable Boy,” the headless mercenary of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and of course, that impeccably groomed lycanthrope with a taste for piña coladas and beef chow mein in “Werewolves of London.” Zevon was a voracious reader and a cracked intellectual of sorts; his range of subjects was wide from the get-go: boxing (“Boom Boom Mancini” from Sentimental Hygiene) and the internet (“Networking” from Transverse City) to threats to world peace (the title track from The Envoy) and Elvis Presley (“Jesus Mentioned,” also from The Envoy). Even occasional inside jokes like “Gorilla You’re a Desperado” were entertaining.
In his quick, literate lyrics, the pianist/guitar player showed the entire spectrum of human emotion from biting humor and sharp sardonicism to fragile self-loathing and raw neediness. As his career wound on, the travails in his personal life, most self-created, literally became his songs. Unwilling to kid himself or anyone else, he increasingly confronted his problems head on in songs like “Searching for a Heart” (Mr. Bad Example),” “My Shit’s Fucked Up” (Life I’ll Kill Ya), and finally, “Keep Me in Your Heart” (The Wind). His illness and death in 2003 at the age of 56 was mourned on national television by superfan David Letterman. It also robbed the music world of an intentional and irreplaceable intellect and song craftsman—the kind of artist who when asked for any final life lessons famously responded: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” from Warren Zevon (1976, Asylum)
The most intriguing thing about Zevon as a songwriter is his versatility. He was equally talented at being a snarly, balls-to-the-wall rocker as he was at looking in the mirror and being an honest and confessional balladeer. Here on his self-titled debut album, he splits the difference with a humorous fast-lane Hollywood tale. Driven by Waddy Wachtel’s slashing electric guitar, and enlivened by David Lindley’s fiddle, Jai Winding’s piano, and Bobby Key’s saxophone, the half-complaining, half-bragging songwriter brays those now immortal lines: “She really worked me over good/ She was a credit to her gender/ She put me through some changes, Lord/ Sort of like a Waring blender.”
It’s a cliché to even think it, but his first album may in the final analysis still be his best. The guest list includes nearly every L.A. player of the era imaginable, including Jackson Browne, Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Bonnie Raitt. This song is one of four Zevon numbers later covered to great acclaim by Linda Ronstadt.
Warren Zevon - Carmelita (Incomplete) - 10/1/1982 - Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJWarren Zevon on MV
“Carmelita” from Partners (1992, Warner Bros.)
Sometimes it takes a vocalist other than the songwriter to find the right mood for a song. Or to dredge all the meaning out of it. An unforeseen instrumental voice can also be the key to a definitive recording. On this standout cover by Norteno legend Flaco Jimenez, the accordionist teams with vocalist Dwight Yoakam and a quintet of guitars to create the most moving and effective version of Zevon’s tale of heroin addiction. There’s magic in the combination of Yoakam’s easy, long-lined delivery backed with Falco’s solos that is instantly right in lines like, “Well, I pawned my Smith & Wesson/ And went to meet my man/ He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/ By the Pioneer chicken stand.”
“Hasten Down The Wind” from Warren Zevon (1976, Warner Bros.)
Although it’s a ridiculous exercise, choosing an artist’s “best” song is always a matter of individual taste. And yet it’s easy to understand how “Hasten Down the Wind” rates high for Zevon fans. While he was a master at dark humor and had a gift for injecting cynicism and sarcasm into lyrics, Zevon also had a soft heart and an enormous capacity for self-examination and outright sadness. Most of his love songs are sad and this tune from his debut is the prime example. While Linda Ronstadt’s duet with Don Henley made the song famous, it’s the original version— a duet with Phil Everly, whom Zevon once worked for—that holds the most power. Although clever lyrics were a Zevon specialty, few, if any, were as elegant as this chorus: “She’s so many women/ He can’t find the one who was his friend/ So he’s hanging on to half a heart/ But can’t have the restless part/ So he tells her to hasten down the wind.”
“Lawyers, Guns and Money” from Excitable Boy (1978, Asylum)
Originally written, appropriately enough, on two cocktail napkins, this is a real-life tale of a caper that Zevon and a friend had in Hawaii. After an afternoon spent in a cocktail lounge, the duo headed for a house in the mountains. En route, the waitress who talked them into this trip suddenly revealed that her friend who owned the house wouldn’t mind if they broke in. Zevon’s companion immediately had visions of sending a telegram to his record label requesting lawyers and money, and Zevon, well … he took it from there. The steady stomping rhythm and growling electric guitar add the perfect weight to this wonderful example of Zevon’s derisive sense of humor and razor-like ability to be what Bruce Springsteen called, “A moralist in cynic’s clothing.”
“Werewolves of London” from Stand in The Fire (1980, Asylum)
Monetary success in the music business depends on having a hit, and as unlikely as it may be, “Werewolves of London” was horror film fan Zevon’s biggest moneymaker. Lyrics like “I saw a werewolf drinkin’ a piña colada at Trader Vic’s/ His hair was perfect” make it clear that any moral to the story is not really the point. And has there ever been a more beautifully alliterative line in pop music than “Little old lady got mutilated late last night?” This live version with ad-libbed lines about looking for James Taylor and renting a car in Del Mar has an explosive, rocked-up energy missing from the original version on Excitable Boy. When so moved, Zevon could rock hard with the best of them.
“Let Nothing Come Between You” from The Envoy (1982, Asylum)
By 1982, following periods of determined sobriety and reckless abandon, things were coming to a head with his record label. When The Envoy failed to sell, Asylum dropped their problem child who’d nevertheless brought them measure of prestige and success. Here is that rarest of Zevon blossoms: a happy, optimistic love song that is simple and tuneful right down to the “De de de de de de de de de de” line that alternates with every other line of the chorus. Despite all his world-weary cynicism, Zevon knew what joy was, and for once he indulges himself in it. Sadly, The Envoy’s failure also sent him into an emotional tailspin; it would be five years before he recorded again.
“Reconsider Me” from Sentimental Hygiene (1987, Virgin)
The quality of his songwriting always drew elite guests to Zevon’s albums. On Sentimental Hygiene Neil Young and Bob Dylan contribute instrumental guest shots to an album featuring a pre-major label R.E.M. (minus Michael Stipe) as the backing band. This earnest plea for forgiveness, from a man who’s again sober and in control after a rough patch, anchors what’s a very personal collection. As outrageous as Zevon’s behavior often was, he was open, when sober, about his issues and earnest about making a case for another chance: “If it’s still the past/ That makes you doubt/ Darlin’, that was then/ And this is now.” The descending and ascending melody in the chorus is a beautiful touch. Whether you believe him or not, his impassioned tone as a vocalist is impossible to miss.
“Raspberry Beret” from Hindu Love Gods (1990, Warner Bros.)
In the drive to succeed, build a career, and write hits, it’s easy to forget that musicians often play music just for fun. Recorded concurrently with Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon and R.E.M. clearly had a ball wanging their way through a set of mostly blues covers—like Robert Johnson’s “Travelin’ Riverside Blues” and a funky, Meters-ized version of “Crosscut Saw”—on this odds ‘n’ sods collection. The gem of the session, however, is this true-to-the-original cover of Prince, where Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck expend a tremendous amount of energy and display their camaraderie with the older singer-songwriter. While he’s primarily known for his songwriting, Zevon could be a good-to-great singer capable of conveying emotion in a ballad or grabbing a microphone to belt out lines like “She wore a/ Raspberry beret/ The kind you find in a second hand store.”
“Don’t Let Us Get Sick” from Life’ll Kill Ya (2000, Artemis)
Late in his career, Zevon began to contemplate death with increasing frequency in his songs. In true Zevonian style, he cut a concept record around the idea of death—just before his own inoperable diagnosis. Produced by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade—the team behind Boston’s Fort Apache Studios—Life’ll Kill Ya ends with a rare acoustic guitar and voice-only cut. In what amounts to a prayer to an unidentified higher power, Zevon admits, “I thought of my friends/ And the troubles they’ve had/ To keep me from thinking of mine.” In the choruses he gently implores, “Don’t let us get sick/ Don’t let us get old/ Don’t let us get stupid, all right?/ Just make us be brave/ And make us play nice/ And let us be together tonight.” As placid and honest of a tune as he ever wrote, it’s clear that despite his rep as an inebriated, out-of-control adventurer, Zevon was also a great lover of tenderness who was aware of the damage he’d wrought and feared its consequences. Known as the highwater mark of his last “comeback,” Life’ll Kill Ya, was followed by yet another death-focused album, My Ride’s Here (2002).
“Disorder in the House” from The Wind (2003, Artemis)
In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma. On the Late Show with David Letterman in October 2002, Zevon acknowledged he “might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn’t pay off.” Refusing treatment or pain meds that might dull his senses, he set to work on a final album. Many guests joined the proceedings, none bigger than Bruce Springsteen, who’d co-written “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” with Zevon in 1980. His backing vocals and guitar solos add just the right upbeat kick to a song that won the Grammy Best Rock Vocal Performance (Group or Duo) in 2003. Zevon died just 12 days after the album’s release.
Zevon was always a fan of the original rock and roll pioneers, and this rollicking, roots rock rave-up, with the great Jim Keltner pounding a drum kit, speaks in the universal of America: “It’s the home of the brave and the land of the free/ Where the less you know the better off you’ll be.” But it also touches on Zevon’s trademark humor: “Disorder in the house/ Reptile wisdom/ Zombies on the lawn staggering around.” In the end he turns the mirror on himself, “Disorder in the house/ I’ll live with the losses/ And watch the sundown through the portière.” It’s a rousing finale to a singular life and career, one destined to forever be treasured by fans of wily writing, bright creativity, and the ability to laugh and cry in song at one’s own feats and foibles.