I first learned of Warren Zevon sometime in the early 1990s, by way of the song “Werewolves of London”, which was playing on Dr. Dimento, or perhaps it was just in the rotation on PYX 106 in Albany. Either way, I had those lyrics quickly memorized and thought the song was funny. But I paid no attention to the man behind the curtain for a long time.
In 2000, I was introduced to Widespread Panic by my brother Chris and in the next couple years I saw the band a few times and collected bootlegs of shows along the way. In the process, I came across a great song, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, which I would play and sing loudly during my travels. It took until later in 2002 to find out that the song was written by the same guy that wrote “Werewolves”, Warren Zevon. The adventure into learning more about this mysterious musician had begun and I was hooked on his music.
But I was almost too late. I tuned into Letterman one night by pure happenstance, to watch what would be Warren’s final appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. He didn’t look sick, he looked like a Rock Star. I watched the conversation between two friends unfold, Letterman asking Zevon about what he had learned about life from the point of view of someone dying. Warren’s response was simple: “You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich…”, a phrase that would become the title of his tribute album, released in 2004, featuring many of his friends, family and artists he influenced. Enjoy Every Sandwich is not only great advice but a proper tribute album, and one I highly recommend for even casual Warren fan unfamiliar with his catalog. Warren played a few songs that night, interacted with Paul Shaffer and Dave all the while in what became a classic night of Letterman.
A year later, 10 years ago today, Warren Zevon died of inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma, but only after recording The Wind, which would win Two Grammy, including Song of the Year, and featured many of his friends and contemporaries – Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, EmmyLou Harris, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty, among many others. Gone was a quietly influential, dark and twisted mind that crafted incredible ballads, classic rock tunes and sing-a-longs.
Zevon is far more than the guy who wrote “Werewolves of London”. In fact, if that’s the only song you know of his, keep reading! Warren Zevon is an incredible singer-songwriter who took personal struggles and dark topics and turned them into hilarious, and at times depressing songs, which painted a picture of a troubled yet creative psyche.
A couple examples of Warren’s lyrical stylings:
“I called up my friend Leroy on the phone, I said buddy I’m afraid to be alone, cause I got some weird ideas in my head, about things to do in Denver when you’re dead” – “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”
“Michael Jackson in Disneyland, don’t have to share it with nobody else, lock the gates Goofy, take my hand, and lead me through the world of self” – “Splendid Isolation”
“Well I’m going to Detox Mansion, way out on Last Breath Farm. I’ve been raking leaves with Liza, me and Liz clean up the yard” – “Detox Mansion”
“Carmelita, hold me tighter. I think I’m sinking down. And I’m all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town” – “Carmelita”
Warren also on a classic episode of The Larry Sanders Show, provided “Even the Dog Can Shake Hands” as the theme song to the short-lived 1999 TV show Action, and Kevin Smith’s soon to air hockey film-turned-miniseries, Hit Somebody!, is based on the song of the same name by Zevon (featuring David Letterman’s vocals).
You can find these and many other incredible songs in his collection on the Internet Archive, a wonderful resource for music and much, much more. Three shows from Upstate New York are featured on the Archive: Saratoga Performing Arts Center 1991, Saratoga Winners 1993 and Sideshow Music Hall in Lackawanna 1999. You can also listen to a full performance below from The Warehouse in Rochester in 1988 below.
Warren Zevon was only 56 when he died, leaving behind his son Jordan, a singer-songwriter living in Los Angeles. A biography written by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, received high praise when it was published in 2008 and is in the same league as Keith Richards’ rock and roll lifestyle detailed in his acclaimed memoirs. Warren is gone but not forgotten and his music lives on, as musicians like Widespread Panic and Bruce Springsteen, not to mention many Jerry Garcia Band recordings, continue to share his music and introduce future generations of fans to his music and songwriting genius.
New York Times – Warren Zevon’s Last Waltz
The Guardian – Warren Zevon: the man behind the demons
UltimateClassicRock.com – Top 10 Warren Zevon Songs
Warren Zevon Internet Forums – tons of music, links, discussion on all things Warren.