Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Next Time I Would Rather Break Than Bend

Warren Zevon, 1947–2003

The seventh anniversary of the death of Warren Zevon (January 24, 1947–September 7, 2003) passed with little more public attention than he received during most of his lifetime. Zevon had only one American Top 40 hit—1978’s “Werewolves of London”—and while to this day it receives rare but consistent airplay, the only other Zevon song I can recall hearing more than once on the radio in almost thirty-six years of listening is “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”

At this point, your best bet at finding Warren Zevon on the radio is to wait—not very long—to hear Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” a song best described as either a clumsy tribute to or a cruel and unholy bastardization of “Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

And that’s just not right. Even a thoroughly crappy artist like Kid Rock doesn’t deserve the ignominy of being forever identified with a Kid Rock song, for God’s sake. Warren Zevon’s own music—as opposed to a crappy, mutated mash-up of one of his notable riffs—deserves to be remembered, and I’d like to do what I can to help with that.

This will not be easy. I know almost nothing about Zevon that I didn’t learn just now on Wikipedia,1 and of the thirty-two Warren Zevon songs in my music collection; five are duplicates2 and another three are cover tunes. So you shouldn’t consider this an expert’s comprehensive list of a great artist’s greatest songs, it’s just a humble list of cool tunes that you’re guaranteed to like,3 courtesy of a buddy who just discovered a bunch of thirty-year-old music and wants to pretend he’s better informed than you are. And also, he smells better than you, because he’s me.4

Werewolves of London: I’m not going to go into this song in any particular detail because you’ve almost certainly heard it. I will mention, however, that the mascot of the Werewolves, a short-lived minor-league baseball team based in London, Ontario, was named Warren Z. Vaughn. And that’s cool.

Mr. Bad Example: Complete with horn section, this is probably the bounciest song you’ll ever hear about an amoral misanthrope who steals, swindles, and whores his way through a charmed life. “Mr. Bad Example” is a great example of Zevon’s deft way with words and an off-kilter sense of humor:
I got a part-time job at my father’s carpet store
Laying tackless stripping, and housewives by the score
I loaded up their furniture, and took it to Spokane
And auctioned off every last naugahyde divan

I’m very well aquainted with the seven deadly sins
I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in
I’m proud to be a glutton, and I don’t have time for sloth
I'm greedy, and I'm angry, and I don't care who I cross.
My Shit’s Fucked Up: From his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya, “My Shit’s Fucked Up” is a wry (and obviously vulgar) complaint about the unstoppable march of aging. Except for the fact that it includes a brilliant cover of “Back in the High Life Again”—which, if you ask me, runs slow, sad circles around Steve Winwood’s version—I know nothing else about Life’ll Kill Ya. If you own it, tell me what you think.

Boom Boom Mancini: I’ve long held a half-baked theory that a songwriter’s talent can be measured by what proportion of his or her songs aren’t about love, sex, partying, or getting out on the dance floor and working it.5 This is why I tend to avoid pop and R&B music, and “Boom Boom Mancini” is evidence that my dumb theory may hold water. I wouldn’t have guessed that a song about a boxer would interest me at all, but the driving rhythm and straight-ahead, stripped-down rock sound of “Boom Boom Mancini” changed my mind after the first measure. Plus, there’s not a word in it about love.6

Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song): It’s about hockey—the best sport in the world—and it includes a spoken performance from David Letterman. What more can you ask for?7

Renegade: The character Zevon creates in “Renegade” displays a desperate and perhaps misplaced pride, a fruitless defiance against a power that he knows will break him. Or at least that’s how I’m reading it; Zevon’s use of post-Civil War and modern-era Southern imagery makes it hard to see his being a renegade as a positive thing, despite some well-crafted verses:
I don’t want to grow old gracefully
I don’t want to go ’til it’s too late
I’ll be some old man in the road somewhere
Kneeling down in the dust by the side of the Interstate

I am a renegade
I've been a rebel all my days
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead: I was disappointed to find that this song lists few if any things that can be done in Denver, regardless of your body temperature, but it’s a fun little song anyway. The movie Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, a critical and box-office disappointment starring Andy Garcia and Christopher Walken, takes its name from the song, rather than the other way around. And except that the song is played over the movie’s end credits, the two aren’t even remotely related. This, frankly, is a good news for the song.

This doesn’t quite exhaust my knowledge of Warren Zevon, but it comes fairly close, and I figure I ought to save the other three songs for next year’s tribute. If you’re willing to drop $6.93 on digital downloads of the songs above, then I’m proud of you and I’ve done my job. Please let me know what you think. On the other hand, if you’ve spent any money on Kid Rock, I don’t want to hear about it.

1. Which, of course, means I may well no nothing about him at all.
2. “Werewolves of London,” “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”
3. This is not a guarantee at all. Why on Earth would I make a guarantee like that? What the hell do I know about your taste in music? Have we even met?
4. I’m on a horse!
5. Or whatever it is the kids are doing on dance floors these days.
6. You could probably make the case that “the name of the game is be hit and hit back” is about love, but it’d make you a bit of a sicko.
7. This is a rhetorical question. If you have an actual answer to it, please keep it to yourself.


  1. I don't listen to the radio much for music. It's pretty much crap. I've seen some of my favorite artists more times in concert than I've heard them on the radio.

    Sadly, I think (until now) the only Warren Zevon tune I've heard is WOL (Awoooo!). I've heard that his final performances are very moving.

    \m/ KID ROCK!!!! Hells Yeah! \m/

  2. I don't think Zevon knew he was dying when he recorded his final album, but from what I've heard, aging and mortality were definitely heavy on his mind, and the results weren't exactly top-down driving-to-the-beach music, but I've read very good things about them. I have to imagine that his final performances were pretty powerful as well.