AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #237 : WARREN ZEVON

A GUEST POSTING by ROL HIRST

mastermind behind My Top Ten blog

Warren Zevon is known to the great unwashed for one song and one song only. It’s a great song, don’t get me wrong. I never tire of hearing it and it contains the best example of alliteration-meets-assonance I’ve ever heard in a pop song.

Little old lady got mutilated late last night

Sorry. We English teachers have to get our kicks where we can.

For many years, I didn’t know much more about Warren Zevon, and then I bought his “Greatest Hits” album Genius and found myself loving all the songs. Zevon’s songwriting has wit and attitude, a real edge that separates him from many of his contemporaries… and he swore a hell of a lot on record, even back in the 70s. Swearing on record is pretty much de rigueur these days – even Lloyd Cole sings “Motherfucker” on his latest album – but Zevon led the way… which might explain why many of his best songs never got any airplay.

Eventually I started digging into Zevon’s back catalogue proper, and that’s when my love affair with his work really began. Over the last few years, rarely a week has gone by where I haven’t listened to something by Zevon… and I can’t think of any other artist I could say that about, even my all-time favourites.

I thought it was about time I got around to inflicting a Warren Zevon ICA on JC… but there were so many great tunes to choose from, I had to restrict myself. So… no Werewolves, and none of the other “hits” from Genius. This means I couldn’t include Excitable Boy; A Certain Girl; The French Inhaler (an absolute classic); Poor, Poor Pitiful Me; Splendid Isolation; or Roland, The Headless Thompson Gunner. I wouldn’t even allow myself the greatest Prince cover ever recorded… Raspberry Beret by The Hindu Love Gods (aka Warren with Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills).

Despite all those omissions, I was still spoilt for choice, and it took me some time to narrow this list down. Hope you enjoy my selections… there’s many more great tunes where these came from.

1. Play It All Night Long : from ‘Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School’ (1980)

In 1970, Neil Young wrote Southern Man, criticising the southern states of the USA for their history of racism and slavery. In 1972, Lynyrd Skynyrd responded “I hope Neil Young will remember: a southern man don’t need him around anyhow” on Sweet Home Alabama. In 1980, Warren Zevon wrote a “satirical homage” to Sweet Home Alabama while stoned. It’s the perfect threequel, though the lyrics kept it well away from the radio.

Grandpa pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam
Daddy’s doing Sister Sally
Grandma’s dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We’ll get through somehow

I’m going down to the Dew Drop Inn
See if I can drink enough
There ain’t much to country living
Sweat, piss, jizz and blood

“Sweet Home Alabama”
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

How many other pop songs can you name which contain the word “brucellosis”?

Oh, there’s one more link in this chain (that I know of). In 2007, southern man Kid Rock released All Summer Long which samples both Sweet Home Alabama and Werewolves of London. Its chorus also echoes Play It All Night Long as Rock sings “Singing Sweet Home Alabama all summer long”. It’s pretty good, for a Kid Rock song.

2. For My Next Trick, I’ll Need A Volunteer : From Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)

One of my favourite Prefab Sprout songs is The Old Magician, in which Paddy McAloon uses his titular magician as a metaphor for old age, failure and regret. Here’s Warren doing similar, although his magician represents being useless in love.

Well I can saw a woman in two
But you won’t want to look in the box when I am through
I can make love disappear
For my next trick I’ll need a volunteer

I can pull a rabbit out of a hat
I can pull it out, but I can’t put it back
I can make love disappear
For my next trick I’ll need a volunteer

Both magicians end up alone on an empty stage.

3. Night Time In The Switching Yard : From Excitable Boy (1978)

It’s not always the lyrics that draw me to Warren’s work. There are very few in this track. What grabs me instead is the funky bassline – you’d be forgiven for thinking Warren had dragged Nile Rodgers into the studio. Night Time In The Switching Yard has an incredibly hypnotic quality. Great late night chill-out listening, on repeat, forever.

4. Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School : From Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980)

Here’s another one that doesn’t get in primarily on its lyrics – though that title alone surely deserves a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Dancing School is a metaphor for brothels, apparently. I love the way this opens with strings and then kicks into an edgy rocker, and Warren’s voice is perfect for pleading.

5. Frank And Jessie James : From Warren Zevon (1976)

Not his debut album, but considered by many to be so. Prior to this, way back in 1969, Warren had released one other record, under the name Zevon, partly produced by Kim Fowley, until the pair of them fell out. It took Warren 7 years to recover and get another record out, this one produced by Jackson Browne. You can hear that very clearly in the production, which appropriately evokes the wide open spaces of the old west. A story song: no jokes, no snark, just well told and emotive. (Though it may be a bit too Billy Joel for JC.)

6. Desperados Under The Eaves : From Warren Zevon (1976)

In a similar vein musically, but one of the first times that the true character of Warren Zevon shows through in the lyrics. Cynical, world weary, with a bruised heart and an eye for devastating detail.

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

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Obviously this was the one that most inspired the band Lucero to pen: Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles.

7. Disorder In The House : From The Wind (2003)

OK, enough of the slow stuff. let’s kick it up a notch. Shortly after his death in 2004, a number of celebrity admirers contributed to a Warren Zevon tribute album titled Enjoy Every Sandwich (his own philosophy, after he was asked how he was coping with the cancer that eventually killed him). Covers were contributed by Bob Dylan, The Pixies, Van Dyke Parks and Don Henley, among others, as well as one track from a big Zevon fan and collaborator, Bruce Springsteen. The pair first worked together on Warren’s 1982 album The Envoy, but this track comes from Zevon’s final album, released 21 years later. Springsteen’s guitar and backing vocals mix well with another of Warren’s witty takes on mortality. He’s really enjoying every sandwich on this one.

It also contains the line:

I’m sprawled across the davenport of despair

I mean, come on… beat that! (Oh, there’s also a Lhasa Apso in this song. Just saying.)

8. Let Nothing Come Between You : From The Envoy (1984)

A love song, plain and simple. Zevon-style.

Got the license – got the ring
Got back the blood tests and everything
Putting on my boutonniere – It’s her favourite flower
Then I’m walking down the altar and I’m gonna take the vow
De de de de de de de de de de
Don’t let nothing come between us

Brucellosis, boutonniere, Lhasa Apso, davenport… truly there was no word Warren Zevon was afraid of using in a lyric.

9. My Shit’s Fucked Up : From Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)

Surprisingly written some time before his terminal diagnosis, although this one does confirm his phobia of doctors. One to turn up loud if you’re feeling your age this morning. (I know I am.)

Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
“Let me break it to you, son”
“Your shit’s fucked up.”
I said, “my shit’s fucked up?”
Well, I don’t see how–“
He said, “The shit that used to work–
It won’t work now.”

10. My Ride’s Here : From My Ride’s Here (2002)

This one, on the other hand, was written shortly after Warren learned that he was dying. I can’t help but think that the hotel he’s waiting at here is the same one where he sat drinking salty margaritas in Desperados Under The Eaves. I like the way he appears to be tempted back into religion (Zevon came from a Jewish background) but appears to reject it at the end. Where is that ride taking him?

I was staying at the Westin
I was playing to a draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the Tablets of the Law
He said, “It’s still the Greatest Story”
I said, “Man, I’d like to stay
But I’m bound for glory
I’m on my way
My ride’s here”

11. Keep Me In Your Heart : From The Wind (2003)

The final Warren Zevon song. Last track of his last album. If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, get yourself some eyedrops.

I want this song played at my own funeral.

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while

ROL

13 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #237 : WARREN ZEVON

  1. You’d think after all those years of writing a blog called My Top Ten, I might have learned to count to ten by now. Apologies for going one over, JC… not sure what I’d have cut out. It was hard enough getting it down to… 11!

  2. Oh man Rol, I love Warren. Well done for narrowing it down to just 11 songs, I know I couldn’t have. ‘Accidentally Like a Martyr’ would definitely have to be in mine, as would his superb cover of ‘Back in the High Life Again’, ‘El Amor de Mi Vida’ and ‘Mutineer’ too – but what to drop to find room for them? It couldn’t end with anything other than ‘Keep Me in Your Heart’ though.
    This is a magical ICA. Great stuff Rol.

  3. “Lawyers, Guns and Money” would’ve been on my list, but “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” is more than acceptable.
    “Trouble Waiting to Happen” and “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”(also a great movie), “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and too many others to mention.

    All said, you did a great job.

    Maybe you could do an album of Warren Zevon covers? If so, it has to have Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ version of “Mutineer”.

  4. Hmm, I guess I understand why you left off Excitable Boy and its “hits,” but I’d have at least have snuck in Johnny Strikes Up The Band. Maybe also Mohammed’s Radio if you wanted to go way back. Lynchie is on the money about a Zevon covers ICA–It was Linda Ronstadt who put Zevon on the map in the US with her (definitive) version of Poor Poor Pitiful Me. Still, nice work on a difficult task to pick just these fine 10. Drinkin’ heartbreak motor oil and Bombay gin…

  5. What can I say? Warren Zevon is one of the few artists where I own all of the albums. Even the [not very good] first Fowley solo album from the 60s. I wanted to see him in 1978 as “Werewolves Of London” was a surprise hit but his chemical excess scuttled that tour. It remained until his leaner years in the 90s when we finally saw him at Jani Lane’s Sunset Strip rock club in Orlando! By that time he’d normally burned so many bridges that he largely toured solo with acoustic guitar. He’s such a talent that I’d have still gone, but that night the fates smiled. His opening act gave him full rock backing and it was very fulfilling.

    He was a real writer’s writer. Hard boiled but with a glass jaw and a wounded heart to match. A mess personally, but what a catalog. A random toss of the Zevon dice would be unlikely to let the listener down, so I can’t really find fault with any of this, but I would speak up for my wife, who is inordinately fond of the haunting “They Moved The Moon;” from Zevon’s controversial “Transverse City” album.

  6. Oh I have it soo hot for Zevon and his crapped out second place schtick. Even his naff stuff is deeply brilliant in places. I’d have had Rosarita Beach Cafe from Preludes and maybe Ain’t The Pretty At All on my list. But it’s a damned fine list

  7. Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner is one superb track – as are most of the things he touches.
    That one and Mr Bad Example fight it out for number 1 in my ears
    He also gave us 2 phenomenal cover versions – he turned Back In The High Life from a slightly wishy washy 80s thing (sorry Steve Winwood, but your original is a bit limp) into a thing of emotional beauty, and his version of Knocking On Heavens Door recorded when he knew there wasn’t long left is an absolute triumph with a dollop of poignancy

  8. Thank you, all. Seems like there are far bigger Zevon experts reading this blog than me, so I’m glad my choices met your approval. The Winwood cover was in contention for a while.

    PPM – I grew up on a farm, so I knew of brucellosis when I first heard that line… perhaps why it resonated so well.

  9. For some time I’ve been thinking that the great WZ would be a perfect ICS candidate but I knew that choosing just a few tracks would be massively daunting. My hat’s off to Rol for that selection (although I’ve got to agree about lamenting the loss of ‘Mohammed’s Radio’ and ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’). I think it’s easy to forget just how funny Mr Zevon could be. If you’d spent as much of your youth in dodgy pubs and folk clubs as I did than you’d know why ‘Macgillycuddy’s Reeks’ is still guaranteed to put a smile on my careworn face.

  10. This is one of the best goddamn posts I’ve ever read.. So much detail about one of the greatest singer/writers of all time! I loved it

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