A Beginner’s Guide To Warren Zevon

When Warren Zevon was nominated (for the first time!) this year for induction in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, I did not expect him to get in. The class was too strong, I thought. And Zevon — a long-dead singer-songwriter who never had a No. 1 hit or much of a media profile — was easily the least famous or successful person nominated. And fame and success tend to matter the most in these situations, I reasoned. (Artistic quality is also relevant, but only in relation to how well known you are.) Plus, his voice is weird, his past is problematic, and his songs are acidic and sardonic and pop unfriendly.

Don’t get your hopes up, I told myself.

But in recent weeks, against my better judgement, I let myself be optimistic. Zevon did well in the fan vote. Influential admirers like Billy Joel and David Letterman campaigned on his behalf. Experts who prognosticate about the Rock Hall predicted that he would make it. Hell, even I publicly endorsed the man.

Alas, my original instincts were correct. I am not about to slander any of the people who were inducted this week. There are all worthy honorees. They are legends, icons, geniuses … and also much more famous and successful than Warren Zevon. It really is as simple as that. In the end, there just aren’t enough people — at the moment! — who know about this guy.

Now, the very reason I even cared in the first place about Warren Zevon getting into the Rock Hall was that it would expose his music to a wider audience. But in order to get in the Rock Hall you must already have access to a wide audience. It’s the same Catch-22 that has kept countless other artists below the mainstream radar out of this institution.

But I’m not going to complain about this. Instead, I will do my part to fix the problem. For those who are unfamiliar with Warren Zevon, I have put together a guide to his music. I promise that once you hear the man, you will be interested. Because Warren Zevon is an extremely interesting person! What if I told you that his father was a bookie nicknamed “Stumpy” who was also a known associate of the gangster Mickey Cohen? How about the factoid that, at age 13, he befriended the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky? Or that his songs have been covered by both Bob Dylan and GG Allin?

This is not just another boring classic rocker. Warren Zevon is one-of-a-kind and — if you excuse the cliché — the embodiment of whatever “rock ‘n’ roll” is supposed to mean.

So, let’s discuss his career!


The obvious starting point for neophytes is 1976’s Warren Zevon, his breakthrough second LP. Along with including several of his most beloved songs, it’s also the tone setter for the rest of his work. Warren Zevon is populated by the sorts of romantic outlaws, anti-social rejects, doomed dreamers, and heartbroken cynics that can be found on his other albums. And it is very much preoccupied with a film noir version of Los Angeles, where the glow of the sun and the klieg lights illuminate an underlying moral rot that is pervasive and profound. From here on out moral rot will be one of Zevon’s great subjects.

The record immediately established him as a “songwriter’s songwriter” in a city full of multi-millionaire musical bards. Produced by Jackson Browne — who befriended Zevon in 1968 back when he was floundering in a folk-rock duo with the comically twee moniker of lyme and cybelle — Warren Zevon features a galaxy of L.A. stars, including members of The Eagles (Don Henley and Glenn Frey) and Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham) as well as Bonnie Raitt and Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys. But if Zevon was accepted as part of an artistic community, he also made it clear that he was decidedly different from his peers.

As a writer, he was uncommonly sophisticated, both lyrically and musically. “The French Inhaler” is a dual narrative that simultaneously addresses the mythos of Marilyn Monroe and the failure of Zevon’s first serious romantic relationship. “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” — the consensus pick among fans and critics for his best composition — similarly manages to be a personal statement of resolve inspired by Zevon’s long professional wilderness period in the early ’70s and a broader observation about his debauched adopted hometown. As a piece of music, “Desperadoes” affects a near-orchestral sweep that drew upon his background in classical music. (Completing a symphony remained one of Zevon’s unrealized musical ambitions.) Elsewhere, he mocked the myopia of his peers in songs like “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” in which a Lothario complains about all of the beautiful women who just won’t leave him alone, and “Join Me In L.A.,” a sarcastic take-off on the utopian fantasies of Scott McKenzie’s hippie era anthem “San Francisco” from a decade prior.

But what really separated Zevon from the rest of the L.A. pack is a sensibility that feels adjacent to punk. This isn’t exactly true in a musical sense, especially on the relatively mellow Warren Zevon. (Though it should be noted that “Carmelita,” a country rock/mariachi hybrid about a heroin-addicted writer in love with a Mexican woman, was the one that GG Allin covered.) But the punk label does apply to Zevon in terms of attitude.

Zevon did not flatter the audience or present himself as an inherently sympathetic figure, and that made him an utterly untypical 1970s singer-songwriter. When his friend Jackson Browne wrote about the wreckage of his personal life, the process was ennobling — it made him seem sensitive and insightful. It felt like he was the hero of his songs. Zevon was not that kind of writer. He dragged his listeners directly into his personal muck, and he made the muck feel like muck. And this did not make him seem noble. In fact, he could be almost recklessly unconcerned with coming across like an asshole in his songs. This fearless candor in regard to the darkest parts of his life and psyche would become another trademark.

Warren Zevon was critically acclaimed and put him on the map, particularly after one of the era’s biggest pop stars, Linda Ronstadt, covered “Hasten Down The Wind,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Carmelita” in 1976 and ’77. This allowed Zevon to live what he described in retrospect as “the noir life – vodka, drugs, sex.” And, not for the first or last time, that lifestyle almost killed him. (“I thought my days were numbered in fractions,” he later remarked.) It was during this period that he wrote the songs for his next LP, 1978’s Excitable Boy While Warren Zevon gave him prestige, the looser and harder rocking Excitable Boy made him an FM radio mainstay thanks to the title track, the riotous “Lawyers, Guns, And Money,” and especially “Werewolves Of London.”

The success of the latter track was something of a mixed bag. The song’s barrelhouse piano riff and Zevon’s snarling vocal spotlighted his charismatic swashbuckling side, but it was also a novelty tune that presented a somewhat reductive version of his music. On the album, “Werewolves Of London” is followed by one of his finest ballads, “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” which presents a “regretful introvert” counterbalance to Zevon’s hell-raising bravado on the previous track. This push-pull between his demons and his conscience is the main narrative thread running through his work. Raging Saturday nights are always accompanied by hungover Sunday mornings on Warren Zevon albums.

Excitable Boy did well, but it sold peanuts compared to Hotel California, Rumours, and all the other blockbusters his compatriots were making in the ’70s. Compared with his friends, Zevon would always be a marginal figure in the pop mainstream. And this — despite what some members of the Zevon cult might want to believe — was not a professional profile he enjoyed. He sought fame right up until the end of his life, when he cannily recognized that the tragic downturn of his health could be leveraged as a publicity opportunity.

For his final album, 2003’s The Windreleased just a week and a half before his death from lung cancer at age 56 — Zevon instructed his management to “use my illness in any way that you see fit to further my career right now,” according to the 2007 book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. (More on that book later.) His highest profile media appearance was an historic visit to The Late Show With David Letterman in October of 2002, in which he discussed his grim prognosis with the same gallows humor he long exhibited in his songs. (“I lived like Jim Morrison,” he confesses at one point, “and then lived another 30 years.”) He also coined the phrase that became his epitaph, “Enjoy every sandwich,” and sang three songs for what turned out to be his final public performance.

The album has the same self-conscious sense of mortality, as well as a sentimental streak that is absent from his other records. That, of course, is understandable given the gravity of Zevon’s personal circumstances. It would probably be dishonest for a man at the end of his life not to write a heartfelt farewell like “Keep Me In Your Heart.” Though The Wind also has moments that are simultaneously harrowing and darkly funny, like the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which starts off like a sick joke and then transforms into a literal plea for spiritual salvation.

The most heartwarming aspect of The Wind is the number of legends — Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Emmylou Harris — who turned out to help him make it, which bookends the album nicely with Warren Zevon. And while he didn’t live to see how The Wind was received, the publicity worked: The album went gold, and it garnered five Grammy nominations, including Song Of The Year for “Keep Me In Your Heart.” Zevon, posthumously, won two awards.


While The Wind remains his most mainstream album, the inspirational “Enjoy every sandwich” aspect of his persona stands in stark relief with the self-destructive posture he struck in his prime. If you’re looking for that Zevon, head straight to 1980’s Stand In The Fire, a hellacious live album recorded the same year at The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood.

The case for Zevon being the antithesis of the typical laidback L.A. singer-songwriter starts here. On the cover, a bleary-eyed photo of Zevon thrusting out his crotch makes him resemble the devil himself, an image entirely appropriate for the music contained within. Apparently the mood in the audience was pandemonium — audience members were literally brawling in the bathroom — and that translates to the action on stage, where Zevon acts like a cross of Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Richards, and the ’80s era shock talk show host Morton Downey Jr. After listening to Stand In The Fire, you might be amazed that Zevon didn’t die sooner.

The tour documented on Stand In The Fire was in support of Zevon’s fourth LP, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, which failed to capitalize on the success of Excitable Boy. While it doesn’t have an obvious radio hit in the mold of “Werewolves Of London,” it does have “Play It All Night Long,” a classic anthem about a dysfunctional redneck family in which Zevon manages to make the word “brucellosis” sound musical. The rest of the album similarly eschews the accessible rock of the previous record for more inscrutable fare — delicate musical interludes commingle with the head-banging self-flagellation of the title track (the refrain of “swear to God I’ll change” was another personal mantra) and the eccentric New Wave pop of “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado.” The album’s weakest track, a limp cover of Allen Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl,” was the first single, which speaks to his questionable commercial instincts at the time.

In 1981, Rolling Stone put Zevon on the cover. In the photo, he’s posed spread-eagle in a manner that makes it look like he’s being ripped apart. That he was on the cover of at all was a minor miracle — not only because he was already past his commercial peak, but also because Jann Wenner had once vowed to ban him from his magazine after he witnessed a drunken and crazed Zevon acting out backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert. But the frankly astonishing article, written by Zevon’s close friend Paul Nelson, promised that he was now on the straight and narrow. Though what ultimately stands out are the horrific details about the depths of Zevon’s addiction, which are shared with a level of honesty that would be unthinkable in a modern celebrity profile.

“From what I know about alcoholism,” he says at one point, “I’d say there’s nothing romantic, nothing grand, nothing heroic, nothing brave — nothing like that about drinking. It’s a real coward’s death.”

What’s amazing about the Rolling Stone piece is that Zevon’s substance abuse actually got worse in the mid-’80s. And you can tell when you listen to 1982’s The Envoy, a record so shrill and punishing in places that it can only be the product of a man who is gakked-up beyond all recognition. The song that seems most representative of his headspace is “Ain’t That Pretty At All,” a screaming expression of nihilism in which he declares “I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.” But there are Sunday mornings here as well — “Let Nothing Come Between Us” is as sweet as “Ain’t That Pretty At All” is bitter. Pitched somewhere in the middle is “The Hula Hula Boys,” about a husband who is humiliated when his wife has her way with the hotel staff while on vacation in Hawaii. In true Zevon fashion, it’s a comic concept that he’s also able to play for genuine pathos.

After The Envoy, Zevon decamped to Philadelphia for an extended “lost weekend” that lasted until he sobered up in 1986. Now a decade removed from Warren Zevon, he was faced with the tall task of putting his life and career back together. The following year, he responded with one of his greatest records, 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene. Once again, his famous friends showed up: Neil Young plays guitar on the title track, Bob Dylan blows some harp on “Factory,” and Don Henley sings on “Trouble Waiting To Happen.” (Even Flea pops up to play slap bass on “Leave My Monkey Alone.”) But the most crucial guest stars are from R.E.M. — guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills, and drummer Bill Berry act as his backing band, which gives the album a rougher and more youthful feel compared with the slick L.A. studio cats who populate his records from the Carter administration. (Three-fourths of R.E.M. also joined Zevon for the side project Hindu Love Gods, whose self-titled 1990 LP is a fun but minor curio with a cool Prince cover.)

As a writer, Zevon naturally addressed his tenuous sobriety directly in “Detox Mansion” and indirectly in “Reconsider Me,” a devastating ballad in which he promises to one of the many women he’s wronged that he will “never make you sad again / ‘Cause I swear that I’ve changed since then.” Anyone worried that a clean Zevon had lost his edge only had to listen to “Boom Boom Mancini,” a brutal story song about the real-life boxer who mistakenly killed the South Korean fighter Duk-koo Kim in the ring in 1982. Not the kind of figure that most songwriters would empathize with, but a quintessential Warren Zevon protagonist through and through.

By the end of the ’80s, Zevon didn’t have the budget to tour with a band. So he hit the road as a solo act and played any market that would have him. Known as a piano player, the acoustic troubadour era is captured vividly on 1993’s Learning To Flinch. In the case of “Splendid Isolation” – an all-time Warren Zevon song stranded on 1989’s Transverse City — he managed to improve on the studio version. An ode to the type of reclusive lifestyle to which he was drawn, “Splendid Isolation” shouts out Georgia O’Keefe and Michael Jackson as inspirations as Zevon slowly reveals the paranoia and loneliness endemic to the loner’s way of life.

Then again, Zevon was now forced by financial constraints to work by himself. On 1995’s Mutineer, he recorded at home and played most of the instruments. The result is a fascinating (and weirdly moving) combination of cheap, rinky-dink sonics and rich, mature songwriting. The title track became one of his most enduring songs, with covers by Dylan and Jason Isbell, among others. But Zevon’s version remains the most affecting, if only for how his voice breaks as he reaches for the high note in the chorus. A love song posed in the language of a crime at sea, “Mutineer” is about putting the person you love ahead of yourself, a sentiment delivered in a manner that somehow doesn’t come across as sentimental. The song is understated but attentive about the ways that committed partners communicate. Like when Zevon sings, “Grab your coat, let’s get out of here,” an invitation that is as casual as it is incredibly romantic.

The next Warren Zevon record, 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya, is also the strangest in terms of what happened to him afterward. Released two years before his cancer diagnosis, it sounds like the work of a man who already knows he’s living on borrowed time. The signature track, “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” essentially predicted his own fateful doctor’s visit, and the surprisingly effective cover of Steve Winwood’s “Back In The High Life Again” sounds like a preview of The Wind. Calling the album prescient is a massive understatement, though the reality is that Zevon’s death obsession was just a byproduct of his overall reflective mood at the time. Take “Hostage-O,” perhaps the tenderest song ever written about S&M, which Zevon described as a sequel to “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.”


One of the most interesting — and obscure — corners of Zevon’s career is his output in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it was finally clear that he was never going to be rock star. Zevon reacted by making Transverse City, a quasi-concept album about cultural decay aided and abetted by omnipresent technology. Inspired by the cyberpunk science fiction of William Gibson, Zevon’s pre-internet musings occasionally are ahead of their time, especially the proto-social media portrait “Networking.” But the production inextricably bounds the album to its era, though like Neil Young’s Trans, the janky synth tones have aged from “bad” to “charming” over the course of time.

Zevon’s next studio effort, 1991’s Mr. Bad Example, was an attempt to retrench. Even more than Sentimental Hygiene, this record sounds like Zevon emulating the style of his ’70s records. Which is hardly a bad thing, even if the songs rarely reach that standard. This was the era when Letterman really emerged as a crucial benefactor, putting Zevon on his show on a semi-regular basis even if most of his audience only knew him as the “Werewolves Of London” guy. (This super-cut of Zevon appearances on Letterman’s show runs for an hour and 45 minutes, and is one of my most reliable “before bed” watches.) And Letterman kept up with his hero’s output — decades later, he still cited “Searching For A Heart” as a personal favorite.

If you have gotten this far, you definitely need to read Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. In the annals of rock books, it is utterly unprecedented: Neither a straight biography nor an unauthorized tell-all, it is an oral history corralled by Zevon’s ex-wife that Zevon himself asked her to write before he died. And she responded by documenting his monstrous behavior — the substance abuse, the domestic violence, the womanizing, the self-interest at the expense of his family — as well as his genius artistry and post-sobriety kindness and sensitivity. It has to be the most complete biographical portrait that any public figure has consented to be put forward, and it mirrors the unflinching honestly of Zevon’s songs.


Warren Zevon feels like his proper debut, but his actual first album, Wanted Dead Or Alive, came out in 1970. The most well-known song, “She Quit Me,” landed on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, but like the rest of the record, it sounds like generic late ’60s boogie rock. It took several more years of woodshedding before he mastered his own style.

The only other Zevon album that doesn’t really land is 2002’s My Ride’s Here, the rare example where his stylistic tics feel like shtick. (Co-writing a song with Mitch Albom probably didn’t help.) Then again, Bruce Springsteen recorded a cover of the title track for the 2004 tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich — The Songs Of Warren Zevon, so what do I know?

Much better is 2007’s Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, which collects demos that were discovered posthumously from his pre-Warren Zevon era. While mainly of interest to die-hards, Preludes does include some pretty great previously unreleased songs, particularly “Studebaker,” a tribute to “a misbegotten car” that could be a metaphor for Zevon’s career.

Some of my favorite Zevon music isn’t on proper albums — the bootleg of his 9/29/82 gig in Boston plays like a longer and more nuanced version of Stand In The Fire, with excellent performances of songs from the bulk of his late ’70s and early ’80s albums. In terms of drama, it’s hard to beat this recording of a show in Milwaukee from the Life’ll Kill Ya era. The audience heckles him throughout, demanding to hear his early hits. But Zevon soldiers on, joking about how this will be his last tour.

If it were anyone else, the situation might seem pathetic. For Zevon, however, the environment is, if not ideal, at least nothing he can’t handle. A professional wrestler of inner demons, on his night he is triumphant over the external adversity. Even in defeat, he wins.