Artist Lookback: Warren Zevon, His Essential Albums

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“I want live alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe, I want to live on the Upper East Side and never go down in the street…” – “Splendid Isolation,” Warren Zevon

I find myself thinking a lot about Warren Zevon these days. I know most people only know him from his “novelty” single, “Werewolves of London,” which is a shame, because he put out so many more great songs. It’s like only knowing Randy Newman from “Short People.” There’s so much more if you just investigate… Zevon was simply one of the greatest lyricists and songwriters who ever lived.

Part of my problem these days, is that I hate winter, “always cold, no sunshine.” I’m sure that if I lived in some majestically beautiful Scandinavian country, like Sweden or Norway, I’d love winter. Beautiful blonde people, likely skiing to work and sharing rich chocolates with coffee, synchronized precision timepieces, everyone dressed in colorful snow gear, with complete healthcare coverage. That would be ok. But I live in America’s heartland, where it’s just gray and cold. I find myself thinking about Warren’s brilliantly overlooked song, “Splendid Isolation,” a paean to being alone. That’s how I feel in the winter. No good new music. Football is basically over since my Chiefs lost in the playoffs. Even the Rock Chick is mired in her annual, ritualized winter “funk.” I tip toe around this place. “I’m putting tinfoil on the windows, I’m lying down in the dark to dream.” Oh, Warren we need you.

As I posted last month, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their annual inductees list (The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame 2018 Inductees: Getting It Wrong, Again). As usual the list is a combination of the deserving (Nina Simone, The Cars) and the confusingly undeserving (Moody Blues, Bon Jovi). The omissions are more glaring each year. I scan the list, the same way I scanned the ballot this year, because hey, voting is a right people, exercise it… and as usual Warren Zevon’s name was conspicuously absent. Even on the ballot. It’s baffling. While inducting Pearl Jam last year, as a stand-in for Neil Young, David Letterman mentioned he looks forward to coming back to the Hall and inducting his friend Warren Zevon. I look forward to the Hall committee gaining some sanity and having Letterman back to do just that, induct Warren Zevon. Please, induct Warren Zevon… So naturally, since last month, my thoughts occasionally drift back to Warren because of the mess the Hall has made of it.

We live in terribly troubling times. And while Zevon is known for his sense of humor, his biting satire ranks up there with Randy Newman’s, he also had a keen mind for expressing political ideas in his songs. “The Envoy,” “Veracruz,” and the brilliant “Disorder In the House” are great examples. I could use some of that political satire right now. I think we all could. I do often wonder what Zevon would make of the current political situation we find ourselves in.

While I enjoy Zevon’s funnier moments and his political moments, I am still awe of the way he was so open about his struggles with alcohol and substance abuse. Zevon struggled early in his career, but was championed by his friend Jackson Browne who produced his commercial breakthrough, Excitable BoyLinda Rondstadt was also a big, early fan and she covered a number of Warren’s tunes, from the big hit “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me,” (a song Zevon jokingly wrote about Jackson Browne, who bemoaned that all the girls loved him…) to her soulful cover of “Mohammed’s Radio.” After his first two albums, when the acclaim and success finally came, Warren fell into a bad cycle of alcoholism and substance abuse. After Excitable Boy in 1978 it took him 2 years, a lifetime back then, to come back with Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, which was an unflinching look at his addictions. Unfortunately, it would be a recurring cycle for Warren. Every bit of success was followed by a lapse. But unfailingly, through out the rest of his career he sang about his addictions. Considering the tragic deaths of Tom Petty (newly revealed to be an overdose) and Prince, perhaps we should have all been listening to Zevon’s warnings more closely. Zevon also wrote some of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. If “Keep Me In Your Heart For a While” doesn’t break your heart… you don’t have one. His ability to express vulnerability is unsurpassed.

There are certain albums from the Zevon canon that I feel are essential. If you’re not a completist, like I am (I admit it, I have a problem), Zevon has a couple of superb “greatest hits” packages that give you a good feel for his catalog: Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon or I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead are excellent starting places for Zevon’s music. But if you’re like me and you want to delve deeper into what we at B&V feel are his “essential” albums, here is our list. I envy those of you who are uninitiated in the catalog of Warren Zevon… this will be an enjoyable process.

  1. Warren Zevon, 1976. Thought of as his first album, it’s actually his second. This album is Zevon’s masterpiece. The tunes Ronstadt covered are here, “Mohammed’s Radio,” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” One of my all time favorites, a song about heroin addiction, “Carmelita” is also on this record. A tune Zevon wrote for the Everly Brothers (he was in their back up band) opens the album, and it’s brilliant, “Frank And Jesse James.” Two of his best, heartbreaking ballads are here to, “Desperados Under the Eaves,” and “Hasten Down the Wind.” Conversely, I’ve never heard anyone slam an ex like he does on “The French Inhaler,” (“she called me Norman…” I may have dated the same woman). This album ranks up there with anything else coming out of L.A at the time, be it from Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles.
  2. Excitable Boy, 1978. Critics ding this album because it’s a little more lightweight than his “debut.” Jackson Browne was at the helm on this record, and I suspect he steered Warren to a more commercial sound. “Werewolves of London” is here. I always liked the title track, about a deranged serial killer, and “Tenderness On the Block.” The real stand out track is a song I always play when I’m in trouble, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” I love the line, “Now I’m hiding in Honduras, I’m a desperate man, send lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan.” It’s a bit slighter than Warren Zevon but this is still a great listen.
  3. Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, 1980. After a bad bout of alcoholism, Zevon finally got sober and released this album which was seen as a come back. The title track is, as mentioned, an unflinching look at his problems. “Bad luck streak in dancing school, on my knees again.” Another friend and supporter, Bruce Springsteen co-wrote the great “Jeannie Needs a Shooter.” I love Warren’s cover of “A Certain Girl.” Even I’ll admit “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado” is a throwaway, but the snippets of Zevon’s classical composing are intriguing. This is a strong, if slightly flawed album.
  4. Sentimental Hygiene, 1987. This album could have been called, “The Rehab Album.” The 80’s had been mostly cruel to Zevon and he’d fallen off the wagon. He addressed the issues honestly with his sense of humor in tact on tunes like “Detox Mansion,” “Trouble Waiting to Happen,” and “Bad Karma.” The title track, “Sentimental Hygiene” is one his greatest tunes and boasts a guitar solo from Neil Young (you’ll recognize his sound immediately… he supposedly did the solo in 1 or 2 takes, turning to the booth and smiling, “did you get what you need?” I love Neil). Elsewhere Bob Dylan shows up to provide a harmonica solo… not bad company. His backing band here were none other than R.E.M. (sans Michael Stipe). I’ve always loved the song about boxing, “Boom Boom Mancini.” He even has time for a dig at the music industry with “Even A Dog Can Shake Hands.” Like his 1976 eponymous album, there’s not a bad song on this record.
  5. Transverse City, 1989. OK, I know how the words “concept album” sound. And yes, the concept is a tad lost on me. I’ve always felt the concept album format should be left to Roger Waters and Pete Townshend, and maybe, just maybe Billie Joe Armstrong. This is a bit of a dark, glossy, synth-washed affair as well, but it captured the zeitgeist of its time. Put that aside and you’ll find some of Zevon’s finest songs and finest lyrics. “Run Straight Down” and “The Long Arm of the Law” are both sensational tunes. “Splendid Isolation” is a masterpiece and you’ll find it here too.
  6. Life’ll Kill You, 2000. Critics were so-so on this album, but I love it. Rock and roll is typically about girls, sex, cars and more girls. This is an wide-eyed look at mortality. Songs like the title track and “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” hit the issue straight on. Zevon also addresses his mistakes, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” “I Was In the House When the House Burned Down” and “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer” which are all funny takes on his reputation. His version of Steve Winwood’s “Back In The Highlife” may just be definitive. He even points back to what may be the first victim of opioid abuse, Elvis Presley, on “Porcelain Monkey.” Another great, overlooked album.
  7. The Wind, 2003. For his ultimate trick, after writing an album about illness and mortality, Zevon ends up with a terminal illness, a rare form of lung cancer. Instead of heading straight into treatment, he gathers all of his friends – Jackson Browne, Springsteen, several Eagles, Jim Keltner, Billy Bob Thornton – and records not only an album, but a final statement. This is the blueprint for similar albums like Bowie’s Blackstar or Gregg Allman’s Southern Blood. It’s a spectacular send off. Never maudlin, always honest, it’s truly great. “Disorder In the House,” Zevon’s last “state of the union” address, features scorching guitar and vocals from Bruce Springsteen. “Rub You Raw” is a great blues tune with amazing guitar work from Joe Walsh. Don’t let all the guests fool you, Zevon is at the heart of this record. I wish I could write a song as beautiful as “She’s Too Good For Me” or the elegy, “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While.” I just wish Warren could have been miraculously cured…  

These are the records every Zevon fan should own. I think if you take the time and delve in here, you will be rewarded. Wit, wisdom and beautiful melodies… what else do you need…who but Warren could have written, “Michael Jackson in Disneyland, don’t have to share it with nobody else, Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand and lead me through the World of Self.”

“‘So long, Norman,” She said, “So long Norman'”

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3 thoughts on “Artist Lookback: Warren Zevon, His Essential Albums

  1. Editors Note: I went back and listened to ‘Transverse City’ again. What a great album. David Gilmour and Neil Young both deliver fabulous guitar solos… I described the album as being synth washed and glossy. I tend to conflate those terms. I think of anything glossy to be synth washed. That’s not really true. Something can be glossy and not have synths. I think this album is produced in a very 80’s, glossy fashion and there are synths here, but I wouldn’t call it synth-washed. My bad.

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