In 1969, Warren Zevon released his debut album, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” To say it flopped would be an understatement. Wounded by its failure, Zevon stepped back from the limelight and spent the next few years working as a session musician. In 1976, he returned with a self-titled album of such scathing wit and dark humor, it immediately established him as one of the decade’s finest singer-songwriters. The rest of his career would see dramatic lows and equally dramatic highs, with his battle with the bottle inspiring both his best and worst efforts. In 2003, he died at the tragically young age of 56 from lung cancer. Today, he’s remembered as one of the most talented songwriters of the last century, with a body of work that’s inspired and influenced other artists as much as its delighted his fans. Here, we pay tribute to the man Bruce Springsteen once described as “a moralist in cynic’s clothing” as we count down the 10 best Warren Zevon songs of all time.
As ultimateclassicrock.com writes, “Carmelita” had been kicking around for some years before Zevon finally got around to recording it on his eponymous second album in 1976. But while other artists had done their best with the song, only its writer could deliver this story of a forlorn junkie “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town” in the way it was intended.
9. Nobody’s in Love This Year
1989’s futuristic concept album “Transverse City” wasn’t Zevon’s finest moment. Like a lot of concept albums, it was overblown and overlong. The very 1980s production values didn’t exactly help either. But there are still some gems to be found, including the very lovely, country-inflected balled “Nobody’s in Love This Year.”
8. Jeannie Needs a Shooter
Zevon had a talent for productive partnerships. His work with Jackson Browne ranks among his finest. His collaborations with Bruce Springsteen weren’t exactly shoddy either. “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” has all the gloss and love on the run themes you’d expect from The Boss, but its sardonic observations and twisted humor are pure Zevon. Neither one ever confirmed just who did most of the legwork on the song, but when the results are this good, who really cares?
7. Tenderness On The Block
As thisisdig.com points out, Zevon may have been best known for his savage wit and black humor, but he wasn’t averse to the occasional love song either. “Tenderness On The Block” is a tender, coming-of-age song about a girl’s first experience of love. Co-written with Zevon’s frequent collaborator Jackson Browne, the track appeared on Zevon’s career-defining 1978 album, “Excitable Boy.”
6. Excitable Boy
Warren Zevon was never the most straightforward of songwriters. His lyrics twisted and turned, taking the listener from laugh-out-loud humor to straight-up tragedy in the space of just three minutes. “Excitable Boy” is Zevon at his most Zevon-ish. What starts off as a cheerful little ditty about an excitable boy covering himself in pot roast ends in horror, with that same excitable boy later raping and killing his prom date before building a cage from her bones. The biting comment about society’s habit of whitewashing horrors to make them more bearable (the titular character is just an “excitable boy”) doesn’t go unnoticed. Neither does the jaunty, piano-driven melody and the very sweet sound of Jim Horn on saxophone.
5. Accidentally Like A Martyr
Warren Zevon didn’t do straightforward very often, but when he did, the results could be epic. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” is a straight-up love song about a man reflecting on a breakup. As theemptytheatre.com says, there’s a mournful sadness to the track, with a twinge of regret that stabs at the heart. Zevon’s trademark caustic humor might be absent, but what we get instead is pretty, tender, and incredibly listenable.
4. Poor Poor Pitiful Me
Taken from Zevon’s self-titled 1976 comeback album, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” ended up being a bigger hit for Linda Ronstadt (who, like many other artists of the time, ended up mining the album for its treasures), but Zevon’s version is still the definitive take. The themes are dark and certainly not for family entertainment, but Zevon’s trademark humor brings a lightness and an energy that’s practically infectious.
3. Keep Me In Your Heart
Written and recorded by Zevon during the final days before losing his battle with cancer, “Keep Me In Your Heart” is an emotionally charged, beautiful song that serves as both a plea to be remembered and a promise to watch over those left behind. There’ve been some lovely cover versions of the song released in the years since (most notably by The Wailin’ Jennies and Jorge Calderón and Jennifer Warnes), but Zevon’s pathos-filled original is the one that’ll really pull at your heartstrings. Understandably, the song ended up earning him a posthumous Grammy nomination.
2. Werewolves of London
Taken from the 1978 album “Excitable Boy,” the brilliantly clever “Werewolves of London” unquestionably ranks as Zevon’s biggest and best-known hit. Even if someone claims to have never heard of him, a 2-second blast of the intro will remind them they have. An inside joke between Zevon and his hard-drinking pals about some of their less salubrious nightly hangouts in LA, “Werewolves of London” was never intended to be taking particularly serious, which is kind of the joy of it. That, and one of the memorable hooks in pop history.
1. Desperadoes Under The Eaves
Warren Zevon was always a musician’s musician. Thanks to his classical training, he was able to do things with a song that most other musicians could only wonder at. “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” showcases his talents in all their glory. Inspired by his own battle with the bottle, the deeply autobiographical song describes the narrator’s struggle with alcoholism in a way that manages to be both incredibly descriptive and just a little bit vague at the same time. Zevon himself orchestrated the string arrangements, while his choice of backing vocalists (Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys, JD Souther, and Jackson Browne) doesn’t exactly leave a lot to be desired.