Warren Zevon is an acquired taste. A musical savant by any standard, his unique style harbors either staunch detractors or ardent devotees. The sad truth is that Zevon was never fully appreciated in his own time. He did not shatter records for selling records, however, he enjoyed the kind of pure success that most true artists can only dream of. What longtime friend Jackson Browne refers to as “the success that matters: this very loyal following of people who truly get him. There’s no greater success than being loved and admired for what you really do”. Zevon grinded out a brilliant yet tumultuous career spanning the late 1960s until his death in 2003 at the age of 56.
Warren’s work continues to resonate because, behind all the masterful melodic phrasing and vibrant lyrics, his music evoked honest emotion. “He awoke your inner cynic” says Browne, which is why his songs translate so effectively. It is simply a distinctive ability to impress upon a moment. That ability is perhaps best characterized on screen with Zevon’s only hit. A silly ditty that Zevon, LeRoy Marinell, and Waddy Wachtel wrote in fifteen minutes. Appearing on his third album, Warren always referred to it as a “novelty song”. Most critics refer to it as a classic. It features the colorful imagery and hypnotic piano licks indictive of Zevon at his peak. The song, like the artist himself, is an outright original. A soulful, rollicking anthem called “Werewolves of London”.
It is the tune Warren is best known for. But even with the popularity of “Werewolves”, he is relatively unknown. Partly because he was his own worst enemy. As author and music archivist Steven Hyden puts it, “Throughout Zevon’s prime in the ’70s and ’80s, he was very much the epitome of the ‘problematic’ artist — in one of his best-known songs, he sings gleefully about an ‘excitable boy’ who rapes and kills a woman and then takes her home. In his personal life, Zevon was a womanizer who raved maniacally (and sometimes violently) through alcoholic blackouts”.
Hyden continues, “Zevon’s talent had made him one of the most admired musicians and songwriters in Los Angeles — Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and members of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Beach Boys all lined up to back him on his classic self-titled 1976 breakthrough. But in time, Zevon would burn nearly all of those bridges”. Warren seemingly sabotaged his chances at superstardom, always more comfortable along the borders of the spotlight than in the center of it. As he stated in a 2002 Rolling Stone interview shortly before succumbing to cancer, “I don’t remember stardom with any longing. My success was a fluke. I was a folk singer who accidentally had one big hit”. But “Werewolves” was a genuine hit. The tune peaked at #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May of 1978.
Seventeen years before “Werewolves” raced up the charts, an adaptation of a Walter Tevis novel premiered on the big screen. It was called “The Hustler” and it is perhaps the greatest billiards movie of all time. It stars Paul Newman as a young, cocky pool shark named Edward “Fast Eddie” Felson. In 1986, Newman was asked to resume his legendary role of “Fast Eddie” in a sequel directed by Martin Scorsese. Called “The Color of Money”, it features the same kind of pristine pool action as its predecessor. This time, Eddie is mentoring a young, swaggering shark. The upstart hotshot’s name is Vincent and is played superbly by Tom Cruise. It is Eddie’s job to show Vincent the ropes. However, Vince has a hard time learning to place the hustle before his pride. He could never learn Eddie’s lesson that “Pool excellence is not about excellent pool”.
Before long, Vincent quits listening to Eddie. The Zevon scene captures Vincent dominating the room when Eddie gave him clear instructions not to. Scorsese utilizes a brilliant 360 tracking shot to highlight Cruise as he runs the table. All the while, Vincent is grooving to “Werewolves” blaring on the jukebox. He even sings along as he gives arrogant brashness bolstered definition. As Warren’s signature song is married to the absolute swagger of Tom Cruise, the result is cinematic bliss. This is a pivotal scene in the movie. It is conveyed by the mood. The mood is created by the music.
Warren’s raw style perfectly captured the intended gritty tone of the film. Rolling Stone Magazine senior editor David Fear states, “Scorsese said he wanted to fill this sequel to ‘The Hustler’ with the sort of down-and-dirty music you’d hear in pool-hall jukeboxes. So, what better than Zevon’s 1978 sleazy-sounding song about a ‘hairy-headed gent/who ran amuck in Kent’.” Zevon’s Werewolf proves the perfect vehicle for Cruise’s shark. The song, as Fear says, is “The ideal accompaniment to Tom Cruise strutting and showboating as he runs a table. Watch as the star smoothes out his pompadour during the ‘His hair was perfect!’ line, and damned if the song doesn’t seem written for his arrogant pool shark”. Scorsese has a legacy of perfectly conveying scenes with one well-placed song. The use of “Werewolves of London” may be his finest effort.