The term “bad boy of rock” has been lauded on everyone from Mick Jagger to Billy Idol to Gene Simmons but only one bad boy of rock may have actually lived the life: Warren Zevon. Zevon was a genius lyricist whose biggest hit in the ’70s concerned a disturbed young man who performed a series of unspeakable acts on women. Mainstream success eluded him throughout most of his career, but his dark lyrics about the undesirables in his imagination earned him acclaim and admiration from many of history’s top songwriters including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. David Letterman was a rabid fan, and Zevon even once remarked that the talk show host was the “best friend” has music ever had. Zevon’s life and career was tragically cut short in 2003 just as mainstream acceptance and respect had finally found its way to him. With that, these are ten of my favorite Zevon songs
Carmelita (from Warren Zevon)
1976’s Warren Zevon is not, in fact, Warren Zevon’s first album. His first, Wanted Dead or Alive was released in 1969 but did very little in kick-starting the songwriter’s career. Except for one song, “She Quit Me” which wound up on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, Wanted made very little splash though it did feature a classic Zevon tune, “A Bullet For Ramona” which set the tone for the rest of his career. His 1976 release, Warren Zevon was a bit more refined and even featured some heavy-hitting backup from Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham who appear on the album. Not to mention this song, “Carmelita”, written by Zevon features Eagles member Glenn Frey on guitar. It’s the perfect song to pair with Bob Dylan’s “Romance In Durango” which was released the same year. “Carmelita” wasn’t a huge hit for Zevon but did become a hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1977. Maybe the lyric “I’m all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town,” just sounded nicer sung by her.
Excitable Boy (From Excitable Boy)
According to Crystal Zevon in her book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, this song came about over the course of two evenings where a pot roast (Warren’s favourite dish) was served in the Zevon kitchen. Warren, dressed in a white button-up dress shirt, walked into their kitchen one evening where the freshly cooked pot roast lay on the counter. He then grabbed a fistful of the roast, hopped up on the counter, ripped open his shirt and proceeded to rub the roast over his chest. After that display, Warren (along with co-writer LeRoy P. Marinell) wrote this song. Excitable boy indeed! Listen carefully and you’ll hear Jennifer Warnes and Linda Ronstadt “Wha-ooing” along to Jim Horn’s saxophone.
Werewolves of London (From Excitable Boy)
Zevon was hanging out with Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers when they caught an old movie from 1930 on TV one night called Werewolf of London. From there, Zevon wanted to pay homage to that movie while also creating a song which would fit into the late ’70s disco era. The resulting song “Werewolves of London” was written by Zevon, Roy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel. Drummer Eddie Ponder began the song with his “bum-bum-bum” intro which blended its way along with that now-classic Zevon piano riff. It took a while for the song to be revered as the classic it now is. When Martin Scorsese used the song for a crucial scene in his Tom Cruise hit The Color of Money in 1986, it introduced the song and Zevon to a new audience. To this day, this song along with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is one of the most requested and played radio tunes during Halloween. Warren Zevon and Michael Jackson–what a pair!
Jeannie Needs a Shooter (from Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School)
Producer Jon Landau had met Zevon through Jackson Browne in the mid-’70s, and Landau was, of course, manager to another rising star, one named Bruce Springsteen who was an admitted admirer of Zevon’s. Their song-writing collaboration is “Jeannie Needs a Shooter“ —an ode to old west outlaws straight out of a Sergio Leone movie. Originally titled “Janey Needs a Shooter” in Springsteen’s original, Zevon changed the named of the narrator’s affection to Jeannie. Warren is the outlaw who falls for and marries a woman named Jeannie, but her father is not happy with this union and enacts his revenge during a nighttime ambush. Many of Zevon’s favourite subjects are touched upon in this song: guns, lawlessness, the west and love that goes wrong. After Zevon’s majestic version, Springsteen never released his own version as he felt Zevon’s was perfect as was.
Ain’t That Pretty At All (from The Envoy)
Many of Zevon’s songs during the late ’70s into the early ’80s were not what you would call love songs. In fact, many were about what comes after love—namely hurt and pain. This song featured a confrontational narrator raging against art and creating and that those things are not always all cracked up to be. This track, which is driven by a slamming drum and heavy-synth with a snarling Zevon vowing to “hurl himself against the wall,” came out a decade before angst rockers of the early ’90s found an audience. It just goes to show that perhaps, Zevon was way ahead of his time. Unfortunately, audiences weren’t receptive at the time and it would be five years before Zevon released more music. Still, “Ain’t That Pretty At All” is the closest to punk-rock Zevon has ever come, and if any song of his needs to find a new audience in 2020, this is the one.
Even a Dog Can Shake Hands (from Sentimental Hygiene)
Zevon decided to enter rehab and get clean in 1986. His first album after that experience, 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene showcased a more focused and energized Zevon bursting with creativity after a five-year absence. There was so much clarity and energy and creativity from the Sentimental Hygiene sessions that it attracted not only Bob Dylan to the mix who played the harmonica on “The Factory”, but also Neil Young and members of R.E.M. These guys just wanted to rock with an energized Zevon. On this album’s most rocking-ist tracks is “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands”—a rollicking drum and electric guitar tome on navigating oneself through Los Angeles’s cut-throat entertainment industry. The song was so dead-on accurate it was used as the theme song for Action, a short-lived FOX series about the movie industry in 1999. Imagine if Warren had lived to see what that industry had become today.
Mr. Bad Example (From Mr. Bad Example)
Co-written with Jorge Calderón, “Mr. Bad Example” is Zevon at his lyrical best while writing about a character who is at his worst. The title character of this song is a swindling con-artist whose only purpose in life is to cheat and steal and live the high life of the efforts of others. The music accompanying this dastardly character is whimsical and Mardi Gras-esque in its celebratory tone. It’s as if the child narrator of Tom Wait’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” did grow up and this was what he became. Underneath you can almost imagine Zevon subliminally warning not to get too close to me or you might get stung, under the villainous lyrics. It may or may not be totally autobiographical, but it is certainly one of Zevon’s best.
Searching For a Heart (from Mr. Bad Example)
Despite “Mr. Bad Example”, a more thoughtful, tamer and romantic Zevon emerged during the early ’90s. The wild Zevon was gone and so were many of the self-doubts which plagued him during the previous decade. Zevon, more confident in his writing abilities and clear-thinking was also beginning to earn the accolades which eluded him years prior. David Letterman was singing his praises almost nightly, and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist) used two of Zevon’s songs in his 1991 ensemble drama Grand Canyon. The first was “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and the second was the haunting and beautiful sincere track “Searching For a Heart.” Letterman for one loved this song so much he would use the lyric “you can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun,” as a running gag nightly for months after this song’s release. This might be the most perfect late-night highway driving song ever.
Fistful of Rain (from Life’ll Kill Ya)
By the end of the ’90s, Zevon might have been clean of drugs, but this gospel-influenced tune about those old cravings sneaking its way inside us every now and again is one of Life’ll Kill Ya‘s best songs. Recorded in April 1999, nearly five years since his 1995 album “Mutineer” sank without a trace, Zevon had befriended Hunter S. Thompson and had gained a couple of new admirers from his appearances on Letterman and HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show. A more humorous-natured Zevon even played himself on a few episodes of the Brooke Shields NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan.
As in good spirits as Zevon might have been, his music still carried that air of impending doom and Life’ll Kill Ya could be very well be considered the first of his mortality trilogy albums. Grab ahold of a “fistful of rain” could mean grabbing onto hope in a frightening and scary world or it could mean grabbing onto the nasty vices to help you get through the terror of it all. Even so, whatever the meaning, it would still be a few more years before temptation would ensnare Zevon once again. “Fistful of Rain” contains what might be my favourite Zevon lyric ever: “In a heart there are windows and doors, you can let the light in, you can feel the wind blow.” In fact, it might just be one of my favourite song lyrics by anyone.
Keep Me In Your Heart (from The Wind)
Zevon has undoubtedly written his share of heartbreak songs in his career (“Carmelita”, “Reconsider Me”, “Nobody’s In Love This Year”) but even those didn’t carry the emotional heft that the final track on his final album did. When Zevon was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in fall 2002 doctors gave him three more months to live. In typical Zevon fashion, he said he hoped to live long enough to see that Fall’s James Bond movie which, well, turned out to be Die Another Day. Oof. With Life’ll Kill Ya released at the beginning of 2000 and his follow-up My Ride’s Here in 2002, many figured there’d be no more Zevon albums. They were wrong.
Labels which shunned him in previous decades were offering their services and cash to him while old friends such as Springsteen, Young, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Dwight Yoakam were offering their services just to be able to jam with their friend one last time. The Wind marked the third and final release of Zevon’s mortality trilogy, and it became Zevon’s most successful album since Excitable Boy. “Keep Me In Your Heart” was written by Zevon and Calderón and recorded in the basement studio of Billy Bob Thornton’s house known as “the snakepit.” The Wind was released two weeks before Zevon’s death in September 2003, and it’s closing song “Keep Me In Your Heart” was nominated for Song Of The Year at the 2004 Grammy’s. Besides those recognition’s, this song has one other lasting impact: it’s apparently one of the most requested songs to be played at funerals. An anecdote to his music Warren Zevon would have no doubt found that morbidly amusing.