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A Warren Zevon Primer: Explore The Songs Of A Skilled Songwriter

On What Would Have Been His 70th Birthday, We Celebrate A Songwriter’s Songwriter

On January 24, 2017

Warren Zevon would have been 70 today. A songwriter's songwriter, he never found the same fame as his contemporaries–the Eagles and Jackson Browne among them–but he had plenty of fans, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen King and David Letterman, who hosted Zevon's last public appearance on The Late Show.

But, as he wrote in 2000, Life'll Kill Ya, and the man who famously sang "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" died Sept. 7, 2003 from pleural mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. And though he left us too early, he left behind a comparatively small but genius catalogue far beyond the hit "Werewolves of London."

Nothing indicates that a person is well-read and clever like finding out that they have some well-loved Zevon records in their collection. These five albums are essential for any collection, and though they don't cover his whole discography, they're enough to get any listener started on a journey through LA's gritty back alleys, Africa's steamy jungles, and maybe a Chinese restaurant or two.

Excitable Boy (1978)

Yes, this one has "Werewolves of London," "Excitable Boy" and "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner," three of Zevon's best-known songs. But it also has so much more. From the warmly exuberant opening licks of "Johnny Strikes Up The Band" to the sublime melancholy "Accidentally Like a Martyr," to the slick 'n' dirty funk influence on "Nighttime in the Switching Yard," and the just-shy-of-Lite-FM ballad "Tenderness on the Block," Zevon crafted an album that not only defines the sounds of sleezy 70s LA, but takes the listener far beyond Mulholland. Many would imitate to much success, but you can't beat the original, especially not with lyrics like "He dug up her grave/and built a cage with her bones." Awwooo, indeed.

Sentimental Hygiene (1987)

There comes a time when nearly every singer-songwriter feels compelled to write about how terrible fame is. Hell, Billy Joel, a fellow 70s piano man with a third of the talent and six times the glory, has dedicated a sizable proportion of his career to bitching about how much his job sucks. But Sentimental Hygiene is a simple and sober musing on LA life, written after Zevon went to rehab to battle alcoholism in 1984. But drying out didn't dry Zevon's wry sensibilities, still strong on "Detox Mansion" and "Even the Dog Can Shake Hands." Nor did it dull his storytelling talents, with a ballad about legendary boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and another funky history foray, "Leave My Monkey Alone." It's catchy, clever, heartfelt and intimate in the way only Zevon could be.

Warren Zevon (1976)

His Asylum Records debut opens with the deceptively simple melody for "Frank & Jesse James" before bringing in the rest of the band for the sort of narrative ballads that would win him fans in the literary community, including Carl Haissan and Mitch Albom. But in-between the high-end folk songs like "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" (inspired by his own parents, a ruthless mobster and a fragile Mormon) are the kind of rollicking bad-decisions-set-to-song, including "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." And then there are the dark characters who populate every Zevon album, from the heroin addicts of "Carmelita" to the sad gold digger in "The French Inhaler" to a raw and intimate portrait of Zevon's own despair in "Desperados Under The Eaves." Never has the hum of an air conditioner sounded so much like heartbreak.

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)

With grinding guitar on tracks like "Jungle Work" and "Play It All Night Long," even the sardonic title track has a series of handclaps reportedly made by dry-firing a Smith & Wesson into a garbage can full of gravel to make an album that alternates between the brutal and the silly. Though the album is most famous for utilizing the word "brucellosis" in what might be Zevon's darkest song, "Play It All Night Long," there are some light-hearted tunes as well, including "Gorilla You're a Desperado," a catchy little ditty about a gorilla who steals the narrator's BMW and woman, only to discover life outside the cage might be more than he bargained for. How can you not love a song that includes the line, "Most of all, I'm sorry I made you blue/I'm bettin' the gorilla will too."

The Envoy (1982)

Zevon's last album with Asylum before the drug-and-booze binge that landed him in the rehab stay that gave us Sentimental Hygiene, The Envoy is smart, ugly and hopeful all at once. Opening with an eponymous track inspired by US diplomat Philip Habib would be a dangerous choice for a lesser artist, but for a master storyteller like Zevon, it's practically a James Bond movie, all in three minutes and 12 seconds. "Ain't That Pretty At All" is a hellish carnival ride, and followed by "Charlie's Medicine," a minor-key melody about a murdered drug dealer paints the album in a bleak light, but it wouldn't be Zevon without a little levity, including "The Hula Hula Boys," about a man who loses his wife to the Hawaiian dancers on vacation, and the resigned-but-hopeful "Looking For The Next Best Thing."

Transverse City, Stand in the Fire, The Wind (his incredible last album) and Wanted: Dead or Alive are also available on vinyl, and hopefully, one day we'll get vinyl re-issues of Mutineer, Mr. Bad Example, Life'll Kill Ya, and My Ride's Here, some of which came out in super limited pressings in Europe that now sell for an arm and a leg.

But for now, Happy Birthday, Warren. You're much missed here on Earth.

Profile Picture of Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind, and a freelance music writer.

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