There’s no doubt that Warren Zevon merits consideration as one of the major artists to have emerged from the L.A. scene of the mid-seventies. His first two releases on Asylum Records were laden with luminaries such as Jackson Browne, Glen Frey, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood and Linda Rondstadt, but the albums, ‘Warren Zevon’ and ‘Excitable Boy’ were not common Laurel Canyon fodder. Zevon prodded the underbelly, the seamier side of life, and continued to do so until his untimely death aged only 56. His songs, darkly sardonic and laced with black humour, were populated by misfits and littered with references to popular culture and he had a fierce following among his peers (as evidenced by those who continued to appear on his albums). Haunted by addiction and its attendant fuck ups, Zevon never achieved the promise of those two albums in terms of sales but his late career albums (‘Mr Bad Example’, ‘Mutineer’, ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’) are as essential as those of his 70s glory days while he is a rare example of a songwriter performing his own eulogy on his last album, ‘The Wind’, recorded after a diagnosis of untreatable lung cancer.
Zevon released 12 albums (plus two live discs) in his lifetime. His debut (‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’, 1970) is for completists only, leaving the 1976 Asylum Records self titled ‘Warren Zevon’ as the starting point. One of the problems with listing 10 essential Zevon songs is that one could populate it with picks from this and its follow-up and still have to leave some out. So, in an attempt to broaden the picture can we consider that some of his most popular songs, the excellent gonzo fuelled cartoon rockers such as ‘Werewolves Of London’, ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’, ‘Excitable Boy’ and ‘Lawyers Guns And Money’ are already spoken for. (We’re following the hallowed tradition of having your cake and eating it school of rock criticism here). In addition, it goes without saying that Zevon’s delivery of one of the best lines ever in a rock song, his shamed admission that, “She took me back to the Hyatt house and . . . I don’t wanna talk about it” in ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ is worthy of a Grammy, an Oscar, a Pulitzer and Nobel prize and is beyond the reach of a paltry list. Such a pity Ms. Ronstadt missed it out on her otherwise fine cover but that might have been too much for so many spotty adolescents already in love with her hot pants roller skating persona.
Anyhow, given that all the above are already spoken for and are safely ensconced in any sensible person’s various playlists, here’s a list of 10 songs which, for this writer at least, showcase the best of Warren Zevon. No apologies for the top heavy reliance on his 1976 classic in the top four, these songs can’t be ignored. But, as always feel free to disagree, we welcome your suggestions in the comments below.
Number 10: ‘She’s Too Good For Me’ from ‘The Wind’ (2003)
Zevon recorded ‘The Wind’ in full knowledge that his days were numbered. Famous friends rallied around to guest on the album but had the sense not to overwhelm his last testament. The last song on the album, ‘Keep Me In Your Heart‘ has apparently become a much requested song to be played at funerals but it’s the stark mea culpa of ‘She’s Too Good For Me‘ which stands out. Recorded with long time ally Jorge Calderón and with Don Henley and Timothy B. Schimdt on backing vocals, it’s Zevon at his most vulnerable as he seems to apologise for his, at times, abusive behaviour towards the women in his life.
Number 9: ‘Detox Mansion’ from ‘Sentimental Hygiene’ (1987)
A comeback album after a descent into addiction, ‘Sentimental Hygiene’ found Zevon yet again in the company of famous friends with even Dylan appearing on one of the songs. The title song, ‘Detox Mansion’, is a slight return to the powerhouse rock of Excitable Boy with David Lindley’s ferocious lap steel guitar slithering all over the three quarters of REM who add the muscle. Zevon himself sounds as excited to be doing his own laundry and to be raking leaves with Liza Minelli in his new found sobriety as he was when ripping lungs out a few years earlier.
Number 8: ‘Heartache Spoken Here’ from ‘Mr. Bad Example’ (1991)
There are several songs from ‘Mr. Bad Example’ which could be mentioned here (the title song, ‘Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead’, ‘Suzie Lightning’) but we’ve plumped for this straightforward (for Zevon) ditty. A sunny little song with a country rock vibe it could sit easily on a Dwight Yoakam (who sings harmony here) or John Hiatt album with its twanged guitar and sweet pedal steel. It also gives us the opportunity to mention Waddy Wachtel, one of Zevon’s most important guitar foils.
Number 7: ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ from ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ (2000)
The title song of this album finds Zevon returning to the piano led sound of earlier songs such as ‘Frank And Jesse James’ and ‘Johnny Strikes Up The Band’. Some folk have speculated on Zevon’s latter albums, imagining that he had some precognition of his eventual demise but, from the first, he was always fascinated in death and dying and here he just sets it out in plain terms, “From the president of the United States to the lowliest rock and roll star. The doctor is in and he’ll see you know.”
Number 6: ‘My Ride’s Here’ from ‘My Ride’s Here’ (2002)
The jury seems to be out as to whether Zevon knew he had cancer when he wrote this song but it certainly seems to be something of a farewell note. As such it probably assembles more names than Zevon’s other songs combined, opening with the line “I was staying at the Marriott with Jesus and John Wayne” and going on to name check the romantic poets Shelley, Keats and Byron while even Charlton Heston gets a look in. This mash up of Hollywood stars, biblical characters (seraphim are mentioned), frontier tales (the 3:10 to Yuma and San Jacinto) and literary characters poses a question as to what the song is actually about but he’s still hanging about the Marriott, still yearning, until, at the close of the song he sings “I’m bound for glory, I’m on my way. My ride’s here…” Is he hoping for a posthumous fame, Woody Guthrie style?
Number 5: ‘I Was In The House When The House Burned Down’ from ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’ (2000)
The 2000 release,’Life’ll Kill Ya’ is the hidden gem in Zevon’s catalogue. Recorded primarily with a trio of Zevon, Calderon and Winston Watson on drums, the album is chock-full of great songs including the scabrous ‘My Shit’s Fucked Up’ which, for some reason, isn’t included in the track list on the album cover. ‘I Was In The House When The House Burned Down’ is Zevon in folk mood, strumming an acoustic guitar and blowing his harmonica as he imagines himself as a sort of Zelig character, witness to all sorts of screw ups going back to biblical times.
Number 4: ‘Carmelita’ from ‘Warren Zevon’ (1976)
One of the prettiest songs in Zevon’s catalogue, its wearied cantina delivery catches perfectly the malaise and, well, stupor, of a strung out Yank, shivering in LA’s Echo Park and holding onto imagined good times in Ensilada with the titular heroine (who probably was the one who introduced him to that other heroin). He’s definitely sinking, pawning his typewriter just to get another score.
Number 3: ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ from ‘Warren Zevon (1976)
A song which gives hedonism a good press, Zevon here is hell bent on having a good time for as long as he’s capable of doing so. After all, he’s got a 38 special on his shelf ever ready to use if his bad boy shenanigans catch up on him. His bragging is backed up by the sheer ferocity of the song, nestled as it is between ‘Mohammed’s Radio’ and ‘Carmelita’ on the album. It pounds away with r’n’b harmonica wailing over percussive fireworks with Zevon speaking in (Mexican?) tongues between the verses and is the forerunner of the fantastical stories which populated the next album, That he just about lived the life he bragged of here is tragic in a way but he did make good mayhem.
Number 2: The French Inhaler from Warren Zevon’ (1976)
Perhaps the consummate Warren Zevon song, ‘The French Inhaler’ is the inverse of the LA dream of its time. With Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Eagles’ Frey and Henley singing alongside the Sid Sharp strings arrangement, it wouldn’t sound too out of place on Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky‘. Here, Zevon nails the Hollywood scene in its shallowness, its fascination with appearance and the murk which ran through it like a glittering sewer. Apparently Zevon wrote the song when he discovered his ex had hooked up with another musician but, as with several songs on the album, he also refers to topical LA gossip, in this instance, the furore regarding Norman Mailor’s excoriation of Marilyn Monroe. The title, ‘The French Inhaler’, is never really explained. It refers to a fairly exotic trick of exhaling and inhaling cigarette smoke simultaneously and it may also be a codified reference to oral sex. Whatever, it could easily be the title of a story regarding the sleazier side of Tinseltown as portrayed by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald, Jim Thompson and James Ellroy.
Number 1: ‘Desperadoes Under The Eaves’ from ‘Warren Zevon’ (1976)
While the Eagles played at being desperadoes in a made-up wild west world, Zevon’s desperado is stuck in limbo in a soulless Los Angeles. There’s a delicious irony as he sits in a Hawaiian styled Tiki bar with a mindset worthy of nihilists such as Thomas Bernhard. He imagines his only way out of his dilemma, basically not being able to pay his rent, is for California to slide into the sea in a cataclysm. Tourist images are transformed into a personal Calvary with the palm trees looking like crucified thieves. The song is given an epic delivery with sweeping strings as Zevon and the cream of LA (Carl Wilson, JD Souther and Jackson Browne ) hymn the hum of an air conditioner as he looks wistfully on to a receding Gower Avenue, the spiritual (and actual) home of the original Hollywood film studios.