Yesterday, I asked my father, a pianist and music lover, if he was familiar with Warren Zevon’s music. Considering that Zevon was a classically-trained musician, popular in a pivotal decade of music for my father and featured piano in many of his songs, I figured he was a fan.
“Sure, I used to listen to him back in the day. Has he come out with anything new lately?”
“Dad, he’s been dead for eight years.”
“Oh, wow. Really? I guess I haven’t listened to him since “Werewolves of London”.”
After my Dad said that, I figured he never actually listened to Warren Zevon at all. “Werewolves of London” is not a song you bring up if you’re a fan.
At one point that was the only song of Warren Zevon’s that I knew as well and I kind of hated it. It was on every Halloween compilation my mother owned and it would get played over and over during the holiday. After each howl, I swore off Zevon more and more.
I spoke of Zevon a bit on my recent CultureMap post about being indie-ignorant and diggin’ my old timer musicians and I wanted to expand more.
Recently Geoff got me more closely acquainted with Zevon. I’m surprised I didn’t notice Zevon’s charm and electricity sooner considering he was a popular late 70’s rocker much like my cherished Fleetwood Mac (who were friends with Zevon and played on many of his records). I also played piano for over twelve years of my life and it’s in my blood, so Zevon’s penchant for the piano means a lot to me. It’s an instrument you don’t hear as prominently featured anymore.
There is an essence to Zevon that could be labeled as cheesy though it’s that feature that makes him stand out. Similar in a way to Billy Joel, Zevon was an epic storyteller, sharing the stories of headless Thompson gunners, serial killers, the occupation of Veracruz, hillbilly Southerners, or dudes stuck in Honduras. Though Zevon had his personal songs, many were stories of people living desperate lives. A quote from Associated Press found Zevon stating, “I always like to have violent lyrics and violent music, the knowledge of death and fear of death informs my existence. It’s a safe, kind of cheerful way of dealing with that issue.”
Of course there were poignant songs too. Songs you couldn’t help but feel were windows to his complicated heart. My favorite song of Zevon’s and one I relate to in a wistful way is “Desperados Under the Eaves”, a song about a man lost in Los Angeles:
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
Zevon had his battles with alcoholism, drugs and partying. He was also a husband and father. He had many subjects to write about, but maybe the most difficult topic he ever had to broach was his impending death. In 2002, at the age of 55, Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Taking the news like a fucking champ, Zevon decided to record one last album, The Wind, before he died. How can you not love a dude who covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” right before he dies?
Even when faced with death, Zevon joked on his last public appearance with David Letterman that, he had made a “tactical error in not going to a physician for twenty years.” Zevon died in 2003 and won his first Grammy for The Wind. He continues to inspire people today most notably the writers of Californication.
You’re maybe thinking, why, why should I care about this guy that I know so little about?
Because they don’t make them like him anymore. They don’t make the bad boys and the reformed bad boys you actually want to be like.
The guys who did their own thing always and forever.
Zevon was a musical genius disguised by a bad ass facade.
On a side note, he also had some mad style.
And on another side side note, there is a new biography of Zevon in the works! Can’t wait!
Zevon’s last performance, less than a year before he died…
I love Warren Zevon! My dad is a big fan and I grew up listening to him in my dad’s truck. My dad will support that the “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is incredibly heart-wrenching.
Lawyers, Guns and Money is my favorite. I can hardly think of my dad without hearing a little bit of Zevon.
LGM is the best!! I’m trying to get my Dad hooked on Zevon now.
I am also a huge Warren Zevon fan. My dog is even named Zevon 🙂 Hugely underrated song writer!
Sorry for the double comment – it submitted before I finished! 🙂
Did you ever read the biography written about him? (I’ll sleep when I’m dead)
It was good, but I laughed when you said that he was also a stylish dude, because I learned from the book about his OCD and particularly when it came to plain gray tshirts.
I haven’t read it yet, but I would like to! You recommend?
It wasn’t written very well. But, if you’re a huge fan like me, it was worth it just to get a cool glimpse of how he really was. Which was… pretty insane. 🙂
Hunter Thompson told a great story about his good friend Warren Zevon. Zevon showed up in Aspen and spent all night drinking and playing music with Thompson. When Thompson said it was time to call it a night and head for bed, Zevon said he was on his way to Chicago, got back in his car and kept going.
That is awesome. Where did you hear that story?
Great article! … Warren fans will be happy to know that a while back, his son, Jordan, gave the Internet Archives website full permission to post known bootlegs of his dad’s rare live stuff… as long as it wasn’t exchanged for money. Now, there are about 100 Warren Zevon live bootlegs available for download…. Check it out, some are amazing:
Chad–You sent me an email. I can’t find it anywhere. Can you re-send? I can’t find anything better than this for you! So much for internet research on my part. Warren Zanes
oh mr. zevon. my dad is a huge fan. he made us make our dogs middle name warren
HA! That’s awesome!
Don’t think there will ever be another bio after Crystal Zevon’s, as Warren left her his diaries. Tough to write anything authentic without them.
Can’t say I agree with(or like!) the comparison to Billy Joel. Joel is so self-referential and self-reverential. Not Zevon’s style at all! Perfect example: Joel worke in a bar for a while and came upwith “Piano Man” (“man, what are you doin’ here?). Zevon worked in a bar for a while and came up with “Roland.” Or, of course, you can put “Piano Man” up against “Painofighter” and you know who’ll get the knockout!
Actually I know from an inside source that there is a bio in the works. 😉
One of my friends introduced me to Warren Zevon’s work in the past year. I remember when he played the last interview with Letterman, by the end of it I was bawling my eyes out and my friend was all like, “Umm… You do realize he’s been dead eight years, right?”
Yeah, that interview is pretty sad. He was definitely stoic. Makes you think a lot about life while watching it.
I’ve never listened to him, but this article makes me pretty sure I’d like him. I love discovering new old musicians.
Warren Zevon and Billy Joel have NOTHING in common.
(Although there is a funny passage in the Zevon bio about Joel whining around 1976 that he can’t get his record company to pay attention to him. If only that had remained the case.)
I grew up “hearing: Warren`s music, because my pops loved it. Now I`m about to be 43 years old and have really started listing to his music. Zevon had a dark sense of humor and a charm that will never be duplicated. His style of writing and composing is like no other! I find myself getting Zevon songs stuck in my head for days at a time! Warren really put his heart on his sleeve in most of his music, you could tell exactly what frame of mind he was in when writing each song. Some of his music has a folk/country feel to it, I am not a fan of country music, but if you listen to Warren`s lyrics, the actual music does not really matter. You nailed it in this piece, Warren Zevon was the dark side, bad boy, villain that his songs played out to be. In closing , my wife and myself will continue playing old Zevon records our early 60`s record player and learn new things about Warren every time! I`m really glad that I decided to finally “listen” to the mans music instead of just hear it!
found this website while I was searching for “all the salty margaritas in los angelos, I’m going to drink ’em up.” tshirts. Be such a BA shirt. I gotta make one now.
Like that you posted “play it all night long”! What a song to hit back at skynyrd.