Every now and then I hear a song by Warren Zevon and I think only Warren Zevon could have written that.
Now, bear with me – because that statement seems obvious and therefore kinda silly. But there are some songwriters that wow you with their best work. And then their very best work is on another level. People marvel at certain songs by Leonard Cohen or Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan of course and The Beatles and Burt Bacharach, Paul Simon and a few others.
But I think Warren Zevon is not only underrated in the songwriting game – I think he had such a special gift that there are songs of his that leave me almost distraught. There were great cover versions of many of his songs – if you don’t like his voice. And he had his way with a few covers himself. But what makes his really great songs even better (to me, anyway) is the fact that he didn’t exactly have mega-success. He was a cult act, ultimately. A weird runaway hit with Werewolves of London and the album that came from, Excitable Boy is really his one record that gets cited, that turns up on lists and in pictures; that was actually a success commercially.
Deep in that catalogue though there are some gems. The heart-breaking kind. The cancel-him-because-this-is-too-brutal kind. And maybe all points in-between.
I have these moments when a Zevon song comes on and I think – how did he do that? How was he able to summon that, to channel that? Lyrically there was almost no one better.
So here are the ten songs I think are the truly great examples of Zevon’s songwriting. There might be better songs by him in some sense, but these are the ones I think of as being close to perfect. The ones that move me the most. The ones that blow my mind in fact. These then are the songs he wrote that leave me scratching my head, or contemplating life on some deeper level. The songs that make me laugh – that baffle me with their brilliant, beautiful, dark-as-all-fuck humour and/or their earnest love-song grace.
Desperados Under The Eaves
This is the one. The one, too, that set me off on a big Zevon kick this week. From his self-titled 1976 album which is not actually his debut, but Warren wanted you to think so. He made a record in 1969 and it sunk almost without a trace. He hated it. Hated that it failed. And he hit the bar hard. And grew two reputations: One as a horrible, cantankerous drunk. The other as a brilliant, brilliant songwriter. This is his first real masterstroke. A song that moves me in some way I can’t actually articulate (which is not great when you’re a music writer – though I’ve tried to view it as the ultimate compliment; rendered speechless by a song, the real power of music). I saw Madeleine Peyroux sing a version of Desperados as a concert-closer a few years back and it was enchanting.
Sample Lyric: “And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill”
Empty Hearted Town
This seemingly just exists in demo form – eventually released after Zevon’s death on a compilation of early and unreleased recordings. “Ain’t life strange? Ain’t it funny. Nothing matters much but love and money”. So begins the sad-sack tale of a lovelorn loser wandering the streets of L.A. in the autumn. (“Cigarettes make the sun come up/Whiskey makes the sun go down/And in between/We do a lot of standing around” – as far as autumnal hues go, that one is painted a distinct shade of Bukowski bleak). Poor, poor pitiful him eh. What a song. What writing.
Sample Lyric: “I’m walking down the sidewalks of L.A./Wishing I had a warmer jacket/And the leaves are falling down./And I’m just another man, with an empty handed heart, in an empty hearted town./I’m walking down the sidewalks of L.A./Wishing I had a warmer jacket/And something more to say”.
Accidently Like A Martyr
This is probably Warren’s crowning glory as a ballad writer. And it’s a sad and rather horrible story behind the song. Such a beautiful song. From such a destructive force of a human. His ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, wrote his biography (at his request) it was published posthumously. He told her not to hold back. She didn’t. In and around all the guest stars (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne) singing his praises Crystal lets out the stories of his drinking, abuse and womanising – including the story that he turned up to play this song to her as an attempt to once again reconcile. He ignored his daughter’s desperate plea to reconnect with her daddy in favour of playing the song to his ex-wife. Heart-breaking. But, if we allow ourselves to think of the song rather than the man we have it all here. The title feels like something maybe Bob Dylan would write – and maybe Dylan thought so too. He would cover this song often (which is its own reward surely, you’re a songwriter and The Bob covers you). And not only that, I’m pretty sure Dylan took the line “Time out of mind” from this tune to create the title of his own finest record since his sixties and seventies run of greatness.
Sample Lyric: “The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder”
In the late 1980s, on a decent-enough “comeback” album called Transverse City Zevon, with a little co-writing assistance from his actor-friend Stefan Arngrim, basically predicted Facebook with this tune. There wasn’t really even internet then – it existed in privileged whispers only – and yet Zevon was already way ahead of the rest of us, his sardonic humour hurtling him ever forward: “There’s a long, hard road and a full hard drive/And a sector there where I feel alive/Every bit and every byte/Is written down once on the night”. Genius.
Sample Lyric: “Networking, I’m user friendly/Networking, I install with ease/Data processed, truly Basic/I will upload you, you can download me”.
The title track to his breakthrough record is something else. And super tough to sell right now I’m sure. But I heard this many moons ago and was startled straight away by an opening line that’s set to a jaunty rock’n’roll groove and a steady trinkling piano melody: “Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best/Excitable boy, they all said/And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest/Excitable boy they all said”. I still marvel at this. What a set-up. What a horrible story we are about to hear. What a devastatingly unhinged character. Like Randy Newman before him, Zevon is making us complicit in the damage – we are the chorus that sings along with the title-hook, or wants to, or knows that, musically, it’s there for the taking. But the story that unfolds is not good or kind or decent at all. In fact the news just gets steadily worse. He bites the usherette’s leg in the dark during a show, and of course that was just because he was an excitable boy. When he is finally let out of the home after ten years away for doing the worst crime, we hear that “he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones”. This is new-level brutal. And yet the song is almost lampooning its own catchiness as and while it is happening. This is the song that made me realise that this writer had a rare genius.
Sample Lyric: He took little Suzie to the junior prom/Excitable boy they all said/And he raped her and killed her, but he took her home/Excitable boy they all said”.
In the 1980s when Zevon got sober he sent himself up with this tune. Well, he was sending up so much of American society so why not turn the lens on himself. Here he sings about being on Last Breath Farm but the masterstroke is to name Liza – Liza Minelli being a famous case then for the celebrity sobriety story. Cruel? Absolutely. But that’s Warren Zevon.
Sample Lyric: “Left my home in Music City/In the back of a limousine/Now I’m doin’ my own laundry/And I’m getting those clothes clean”.
My Shit’s Fucked Up
The album Life’ll Kill Ya (released in 2000) is my favourite Warren Zevon record. Hands down. Easy. Every song’s a gem. He is at his sardonic best. The album’s chief theme is there in its title. Two years on from this set of recordings Zevon would get a diagnosis of a rare cancer that proved fatal. He was poking fun at himself when he was apparently healthy. Almost predicting his outcome.
Sample Lyric: “Well, I went to the doctor/I said, ‘I’m feeling kind of rough”/He said, ‘Let me break it to you, son/Your shit’s fucked up’./I said, ‘my shit’s fucked up? Well, I don’t see how’/ He said, ‘The shit that used to work – it won’t work now’”
For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer
Also from Life’ll Kill Ya, this is just a steady stream of one-liners, well rhyming couplets actually. But, wow, Warren Zevon is some comedian. This starts with the opening line moving forward from the title like a great poem or short story: “I can saw a woman in two/But you won’t want to look in the box when I’m through”. And then to double-down on the incompetence of the pathetic magician on the stage, “I can pull a rabbit out of a hat/I can pull it out but I can’t put it back”. He’s useless. He’s hopeless. And it’s amusing to hear this – “You can put me in chains, and I will escape/Better not wait up ‘cause I might be late”. It’s amateur hour. But the masterstroke to this dark humour is that it’s all a metaphor for his failings as man – unable to hold anything together, a relationship or himself for that matter. And the extra edge to this metaphor being the performer on the stage – something Zevon had been, as he hid from almost all other responsibilities, for a quarter-century or so at the time of writing this amazing, deceptive song.
Sample Lyric: “It’s lonely up here/When the tricks have been played/And the spotlights have faded/And the plans that we made/Have fallen apart/It’s lonely as hell/And there’s no magic spell/For a broken heart”.
Lawyers, Guns and Money
I mean, it’s basically Hunter S. Thompson in a song/as a song. Or the creations of Garry Trudeau. And again, it’s Warren cracking himself up while setting up a great short story. The song opens, “I went home with the waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the Russians too”. This in late-70s paranoid America. The song’s title a loving shorthand for when the defecation is flung onto the electrical cooling device, eh.
Sample Lyric: “And I’m hiding in Honduras/I’m a desperate man/Send lawyers, guns and money/The shit has hit the fan”.
Keep Me In Your Heart
When Warren knew he was dying he leapt into making music. He hit the booze again too. His days were numbered. He gathered guest stars galore and made a final album (The Wind). It was released in mid-to-late 2003. Zevon was dead a couple of weeks after. He made a late masterpiece with this song – and several of the other tunes on the album aren’t bad at all. There’s some dark humour (of course). A cover of Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door comes with Zevon shouting “open up” during the chorus. But whether this scoundrel was lovable or not, was just an excitable boy or was actually Mr. Bad Example, possibly all melts away when you hear Keep Me In Your Heart. “Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath/Keep me in your heart for a while” it starts. And it doesn’t let up. “If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less”. He sounds as close to Bob Dylan as he was ever able. The song has appeared in several movies and TV shows to help shower on the weepiness in scenes detached from Warren’s personal experience. I reckon he would have loved that final act of selling out.
Sample Lyric: “Sometimes when you’re doin’ simple things around the house/Maybe you’ll think of me and smile/You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/Keep me in your heart for a while”.
So. There are the ten songs that sum up Warren Zevon’s genius to me. I wrote a bit more about Warren and mentioned a few other songs as well as some of these a while ago.
And I know I haven’t mentioned all my favourites – including a couple of cover versions – so I made a playlist of all of Zevon’s best music if you’re interested in going deeper. I realise he wasn’t for everyone. But every now and then I think about this music and this guy and I get quite emotional. There are so many accounts of him being a bad dad and a bad husband and a bad human – and I’m not saying the cost of that was worth it, emotional collateral damage shouldn’t just be brushed off. But I only knew him as a songwriter. And to me he was one of the greatest to play this game. Some of these songs get me very close to tears. Just thinking about Desperados Under The Eaves or Keep Me In Your Heart or Empty Hearted Town will do that. And lately I think about For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer a lot. It’s like some Owen Marshall sleight of hand.