When he passed away in a flurry of media excitement, Warren Zevon (1947-2003) had long been “too old to die young, but too young to die now.” If we buy the myth of the eternally young artist – and consider the amounts of liquor Zevon once consumed – the literate Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter should have died in the 1970s.
That he survived and went on to record a string of remarkable albums, is a tribute not only to the resilience of the human system (as David Letterman once put it), but also to the genius of a great artist, composer and poet. It would be an injustice if we remember him merely for his 1978 novelty hit single “Werewolves of London” …
“MR. BAD EXAMPLE” (MR. BAD EXAMPLE, 1991): If there’s one song that displays Zevon’s sardonic wit and humor, it’s “Mr. Bad Example,” a breathless monologue which piles outrage upon outrage. Set to an up-beat, horn-driven melody, the singer assures us that he’s “very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins,” adding that “he tries to keep a busy schedule, trying to fit them in.”
The rambling story is a litany of good-humored misbehavior, from stealing the church’s charity funds as an altar boy, to swindling the bald while working in “hair replacement” and hooking up with a prostitute to obtain her passport (and her wig!). And if the listener hopes for a remorseful note at the end, he’s got the wrong guy: “I’ll see you in the next life; wake me up for meals!”
“THE INDIFFERENCE OF HEAVEN” (MUTINEER, 1995): One of Zevon’s many talents was coming up with song titles that are so brilliant we could almost do without the songs themselves. “You’re a Whole Different Person when You’re Scared” and “Something Bad Happened to a Clown” are obvious examples. So is “The Indifference of Heaven,” which is also one of his most unforgiving songs.
The simple, mostly three-chord backing of Zevon’s trademark twelve-string guitar accompanies a series of terse statements that leave little room for hope.
The final verse is a miracle of concise and dramatic songwriting: “I had a girl, now she’s gone. She left town, town burned down. Nothing left but the sound of the front door closing forever.” It’s clear that there was another side to Warren Zevon, the mad comedian and witty ironist.
“PLEASE STAY” (THE WIND, 2003): Released two weeks before Zevon’s untimely death, The Wind includes some of his most moving songs, including this painfully heart-felt ballad. With Emmylou Harris singing back-up vocals, and Gil Bernal playing elegant sax solos, Zevon squeezed one of his finest performances out of his dying body.
The lyrics are as honest as can be, and conclude in a beautiful bridge: “Will you stay with me ’till the end, when there’s nothing left but you and me and the wind? We’ll never know ’till we try to find the other side of goodbye.” The words are especially poignant in the light of Zevon’s nearing death, but even without this circumstance, “Please Stay” holds its own as one of the truly great ballads.
“PLAY IT ALL NIGHT LONG” (BAD LUCK STREAK IN DANCING SCHOOL, 1980): Sad, hilarious, exhilarating, “Play It All Night Long” is a black-humored ode to “country living,” including an ironic reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” A single synthesizer riff runs through the entire song, with slide guitar solos contributing the appropriate country flavor, while Zevon paints a disconcerting picture of life in the country.
Each of the three verses contains sufficient offensive material to cause any farmer to take up arms. The first begins with “Grandpa pissed his pants today; he don’t give a damn.” The second adds incest to injury: “Daddy’s doing sister Sally; grandma’s dying of cancer now.” And finally, the third verse neatly sums things up: “There ain’t much to country living, but sweat, piss, jizz, and blood.” Yet for all the insults, Zevon somehow manages to make it all sound like a wry tribute to rural life.
“DESPERADOES UNDER THE EAVES” (WARREN ZEVON, 1976): Zevon’s first album contains two unforgettable epics of love and alcoholism in his hometown Los Angeles: “The French Inhaler” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.” The latter opens with an orchestral prelude that shows Zevon’s classical influences, followed by: “I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel.” It ends with a dramatic impersonation of the humming air-conditioning, a majestic melody that builds and builds as a chorus of strings, voices and guitar join in one of the greatest outros of all time.
In Under the Volcano, the legendary drunkard’s novel, Malcolm Lowry famously asked: “How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’ clock in the morning?” To which we may add: How, unless you listen to Warren Zevon’s epic drunkard’s hymn, can you hope to understand the transcendent, timeless beauty of the air-conditioning humming in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel?