Warren Zevon

TrackAlbum
Boom Boom ManciniSentimental Hygiene
CarmelitaWarren Zevon
Dirty Life And TimesThe Wind
The EnvoyThe Envoy
GeniusMy Ride’'s Here
Porcelain MonkeyLife'’ll Kill Ya
Roland The Headless Thompson GunnerExcitable Boy
They Moved The MoonTransverse City
Things To Do In Denver When You’re DeadMr. Bad Example
VeracruzExcitable Boy

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Contributor: Merric Davidson

Warren Zevon. The coolest of them all. The master practitioner; distinctive singer, electrifying writer. The man whose songs were often about the brevity of life and inevitability of death. The same man who stared death in the face and didn’t flinch. There had to be a reason why everyone wanted to record with him, a reason why he was the best connected man in rock – Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and many more all came on board. The reason: the charm of the man and the resonance of his songs. His timeless masterpieces – often aided and abetted by the musical precision of David Lindley, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar and Jorge Calderón.

Warren Zevon sure had the right background to inspire his mini-movies of cut-throats and ne’er-do-wells and people you should cross the street to avoid. His father was a professional gambler with gangster connections. The threat of violence is apparent in many of the songs but Zevon could also do funny; the personification of gallows humour. The artwork on the inner sleeves and back covers of the early LPs contained mixed-imagery of everyday life with revolvers and submachine guns thrown in. Fascinating, amusing and disturbing. And while the songs could be about all kinds of doom there was a gentler side to this great writer and I hope that this impossible listing reflects that:

I hear Mariachi static on my radio
And the tubes they glow in the dark
And I’m there with her in Ensenada
And I’m here in Echo Park.

(Carmelita)

Like a lot of listeners I suspect, my first encounter was with his signature song, Werewolves Of London. Zapped me between the ears. Never looked back, fan ever since. Even a not-very-good Zevon song is good enough for me, and Werewolves is a very good Zevon song.

Feel a bit guilty leapfrogging over Warren’s first album, Wanted Dead Or Alive (1969). It’s been rubbished but it’s a really interesting listen and speaks of things to come. He was 22 and learning the game. You can also get hold of even earlier Warren as part of the folk duo, lyme and cybelle (lower case!), on The First Sessions CD but, luckily, that one’s not in my remit. And, to be honest, even though I’d like to have a listen sometime, I don’t know the songs.

The real Warren deal kicked in with his two 70s albums some years after Wanted Dead Or Alive, namely, Warren Zevon (1976) and Excitable Boy (1978). Both exceptional and essential.

Desperados Under The Eaves from Warren Zevon is my first near miss. I guess you could refer to it as the 11th on this list of 10, and if I hadn’t been trying to spread the load across the body of work, it would have climbed higher because it’s an old friend and lyrically unbeatable.

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty Margaritas in Los Angeles
I’m gonna drink ’em up

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.

Frank And Jesse James, Hasten Down The Wind, The French Inhaler and the common Zevon theme of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead are also Warren Zevon near misses, if you can have five near-misses. It’s one fantastic album.

Then came, Excitable Boy, and the world woke up to this new songwriting kid. There are so many great songs on here that to list them would be pointless. It’s probably his most perfect album and if you’re just arriving here, you’ve got a huge treat in store.

The next one, Bad Luck Street In Dancing School, is an album that you expected so much from after Excitable Boy. The fact that I haven’t selected from it tells its own story. One of the better tracks was his cover of A Certain Girl and you’d have to give a nod to Jungle Work and Jeannie Needs A Shooter co-written with Bruce but, you know, there wasn’t really a highlight knock-out number – for me. Still, it was definitely worth the fiver that the sticker on the sleeve says I paid for it in 1980.

Some bad things happened in the 80s, both on and off record, after the release of The Envoy (1982). I‘ve selected the standout title track; the sheer exuberance of the intro and the emphasis on the hellish hotspots never fails to goosebump:

Nuclear arms in the Middle East
Israel is attacking the Iraqis
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese
And Baghdad does whatever she please
Looks like another threat to world peace
For the envoy.

Hardly a rock roll lyric but who gives a … the maestro strikes again and makes it work, and how. There is much to enjoy on The Envoy and I do like the album but not too many there for the desert island. Of the two albums that followed, there’s a fair bit of good stuff on Sentimental Hygiene (1987); apart from the one in the 10 above, you’d want to give a listen to Reconsider Me and Detox Mansion. Warren had by now recovered from the drink and drugs problem that had beset him.

I didn’t much care for Transverse City on release in 1989. Some say it’s a grower and while playing it again for this exercise I saw an awful lot more in it than I previously had. Used to think it was over-produced but it doesn’t feel like that now, with Jerry and Neil and company on guitar throughout. Although possibly undone by a surfeit of famous collaborators – bit too much guitar at times Mr Gilmour – on balance it’s a bit stuck in its very own futuristic time warp. Have a go, see what you think – currently £1.40 online! Its classic status can’t be far off. I’ve picked the closer from side one.

Skipping to more recent times, I’m taking one track from Mr. Bad Example (1991) and Dylan fans can chip in on Mutineer (1995) – see the emotional Letterman clip above – and I’m moving on to the endgame.

Warren Zevon cut three great albums prior to his untimely death.

Life’ll Kill Ya (2000) bears all the hallmarks of WZ and is a kind of encapsulation of all his previous works in twelve songs. After several fallow years, it was, although horribly prophetic, a real treat. Try this:

I can saw a woman in two
but you won’t want to look in the box when I do
I can make love disappear
For my next trick I’ll need a volunteer
.
(For My Next Trick I’ll Need A volunteer)

Or this:

You can dream the American dream
but you sleep with the lights on
and wake up with a scream

(Fistful Of Rain).

But the topper-pick is Zevon’s second song about Elvis co-written with Calderón, Porcelain Monkey – lots of primates crop up in the WZ iconography:

From a shotgun shack singing Pentecostal hymns
Through the wrought iron gates to the TV room
He had a little world, it was smaller than your hand
It’s a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom.

My Ride’s Here (2001) with songwriting partners such as Paul Muldoon, Carl Hiassen, Hunter S. Thompson and Mitch Albom. Thought I’d go for Zevon/Albom’s Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song) which exemplifies Zevon’s songbook in an amusing tale of ambition and fatal error, but you can’t really look beyond Genius co-written with Larry Klein.

Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man
While he was working on his universal plan
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a genius.

Recorded just after he received his death sentence and released just prior to his passing, The Wind (2003) is a truly remarkable piece of work with the starriest cast you’re ever likely to come across, paying tribute. The toppermost track is the opener with WZ ably assisted by Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam, and with Jorge Calderón on bass: They’ll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes, if I tell about my dirty life and times; Ry Cooder’s guitar on Prison Grove will haunt you from here to eternity; Joe Walsh’s signature slide on the bluesy rootsy Rub Me Rawgot a wang dang doodle wrapped in bog snake hide, this goat head gumbo is keeping me alive; El Amor De Mi Vida will bring on the tears, as will Please Stay with Emmylou’s sweet harmony; right up to the unbearable ending, Keep Me In Your HeartShadows are falling and I’m running out of breath, keep me in your heart for a while. Hell it may be one of the saddest albums you’ll ever hear but only by the circumstances of its making. It is a great, uplifting collection, never mawkish, and a really fitting epitaph to this finest of writers.

These three albums contain many ready-made classics: I Was In The House When The House Buirned Down, My Shit’s Fucked Up, Disorder In The House, Keep Me In Your Heart, My Ride’s Here and I’m picking just one track from each because that’s all I’ve got left.

And that’s it.

Except, what the hell happened to Werewolves Of London!

I was staying at the Weston
I was playing to a draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the Tablets of the Law
He said, “It’s still the Greatest Story”
I said, “Man, I’d like to stay
But I’m bound for glory
I’m on my way
My ride’s here…

Warren Zevon (1947-2003). “Enjoy every sandwich.”

The official website of Singer/Songwriter Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon – keep me in your heart

Warren Zevon biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #87

7 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Oct 4, 2013

    It’s becoming a regular event for Toppermost to suggest my day’s listening … I have music on while I’m working most of the time. I started today with “Life’ll Kill Ya”. Just realized that “Dirty Little Religion” has caused me to absent-mindedly press “replay” three times in a row … hang on, four times. So I’ll suggest that one.

  2. Rob Millis
    Oct 8, 2013

    Too soon gone, if ever there was a case.

    The words of Excitable Boy were a clue as to how far the guy would go, but what was that fantastic song with “Grandpa’s pissed his pants again, he don’t give a damn!”?

  3. Merric Davidson
    Oct 8, 2013

    “… brother Billy has both guns drawn, he ain’t been right since Vietnam.” Play It All Night Long (Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School)

  4. Kasper Nijsen
    Oct 22, 2013

    Great list! I only have a minor gripe with your dismissal of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. Six of its songs were included in the 2-disc anthology and Gorilla You’re a Desperado, Empty-Handed Heart, Play It All Night Long… well… I guess ALL songs on the album are among my personal Zevon favorites.

  5. Peter Viney
    Oct 22, 2013

    I used to make up cassettes for the Walkman and The Hula Hula Boys (from The Envoy) was on a favourites cassette I carried for years. We stayed in a hotel in Greece and there was a lady of a certain age who used to swim up and down the pool very slowly in a turban, sunglasses, a necklace and earrings. The pool boys addressed her as countess. One afternoon as usual she pressed money in a pool boy’s hand and they walked off to the hotel. The Hula Hula Boys came on my Walkman right at that point and I laughed so hard that everyone stared at me.

  6. Kasper Nijsen
    Oct 23, 2013

    Ha, great story. I love that song too, especially the final verse “I didn’t have to come to Maui to be treated like a jerk. How do you think I feel when I see the bell-boys smirk?” And, of course, the chorus, which apparently means nothing more than ‘sing the chorus’. Typical Zevon humour, that.

  7. David Lewis
    Dec 29, 2013

    I don’t think any songwriter wrote about international politics as well as Zevon. ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ (with the line of the century – ‘dad, get me out of this’ cut through the subtleties of Latin American politics. He’s in Honduras for a reason. He fled Havana for a reason that’s bigger than the one given in the song. Same with Roland. He was Norwegian for a good reason.

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