On Sept. 7, 2003, Warren Zevon slept...and, of course, by that we mean that the legendary singer-songwriter succumbed to the lung cancer he’d been battling at the age of 56. For as popular as he was among his fellow musicians and songwriters, Zevon never really found the same level of fame that many of his peers achieved, in no small part because of his well-documented history of battling such demons as drugs and alcohol. To honor Zevon, we’ve put together 15 songs from his long and illustrious career, to remind you of how great his music was and to make sure that you’ve been properly Zevonized.
“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (Warren Zevon, 1976): Produced by Jackson Browne and featuring backing vocals by Lindsey Buckingham, this tune was already a classic as a result of Zevon’s own version, but it became a Top 40 hit in 1978 when Linda Ronstadt covered it, and a Top 5 country hit in ’96 when Terri Clark recorded her version.
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” (Warren Zevon, 1976): Between being utilized as the title of a two-disc anthology of his best work as well as the title of the memoir written by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, it’s fair to say that this was one of Warren’s best-known songs, not to mention the one that summed up his predominant mindset for much of his hard-lived life.
“Werewolves of London” (Excitable Boy, 1978): Although it was cowritten with Waddy Wachtel, the title of Zevon’s signature song – at least amongst mainstream audiences – came from Phil Everly who, while Waddy and Warren were part of the Everly Brothers’ backing band, asked them to write a dance song for the Everlys called “Werewolves of London.” Zevon reportedly came up with the opening line (“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand”), after which he and Wachtel traded lyrics back and forth until the thoroughly absurd song was complete.
“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” (Excitable Boy, 1978): Who better to explain the origins of the final song Zevon ever played live (on The Late Show with David Letterman) than Zevon himself? As he wrote in the liner notes of his anthology, "In 1974 I ran off to Spain and got a job in an Irish bar called the Dubliner, in Sitges, on the Costa Brava. The proprietor was a piratical ex-merc named David Lindell. He and I wrote this song at the bar one afternoon, over many jars."
“Play It All Night Long” (Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, 1980): Although best remembered by many for its reference to “Sweet Home Alabama” and its follow-up lyric (“Play that dead band’s song”), it should never be forgotten that it’s arguably the only song of note to prominently feature the word “brucellosis” in its lyrics, thanks to Zevon having read Newton Thornburg’s Black Angus around the same time that he penned the tune.
“A Certain Girl” (Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, 1980): Although Zevon’s cover song inclusions were few, he invariably made the most of them, as was the case with this track by Allen Toussaint. It’s actually credited to Naomi Neville, but that was the name of Toussaint’s mother, who – along with his father, Clarence – occasionally found themselves the beneficiaries of his songwriting royalties.
“The Envoy” (The Envoy, 1982): Inspired by the career of Philip Habib, American diplomat and special envoy to the Middle East, Zevon later received what he described as “a very nice letter of appreciation on State Department stationery.”
“The Hula Hula Boys” (The Envoy, 1982): This particular track is a family affair, as it features Warren’s son Jordan providing harmony vocals, but as far as Jackson Browne is concerned, it’s predominantly prime Warren. “Do you know what the chorus of ‘The Hula Hula Boys’ actually means?” Browne asked during an interview with The Independent. “It’s a saying in Hawaii that loosely means ‘get to the point’, but literally means ‘sing the chorus’. So when they sing the chorus, they’re singing ‘sing the chorus’. That is the funniest f---ing thing I have ever f---ing heard! That’s Warren Zevon at his best. With one stroke, he’s saying nothing and everything. Zevon is a singular writer.”
“Bad Karma” (Sentimental Hygiene, 1987): While we could’ve included a number of different tunes from Zevon's “comeback” album, including the title track and the closing track, “Leave My Monkey Alone,” we’re opting for this one for a very specific reason: like the rest of the album, it features Zevon backed by Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry, but unlike the rest of the album, it features backing vocals by Michael Stipe. That’s right, you get 100% of R.E.M. on this track!
“Splendid Isolation” (Transverse City, 1989): Zevon always managed to score a number of high-profile musicians for his albums, but this LP had the deck stacked in a big way, thanks to appearances by Jack Casady, Chick Corea, Jerry Garcia, David Gilmour, Mark Isham, Jorma Kaukonen, and J.D. Souther. In addition, you’ve got this track, which features guitar work by Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers and harmony vocals by Neil Young.
“Mr. Bad Example” (Mr. Bad Example, 1991): Zevon goes polka! This title track to Warren’s ’91 LP tells the tale of a con-man with an impressive resume of chicanery. Plus, you can do a jig to it!
“Mutineer” (Mutineer, 1995): Another title track, this was originally going to be the final song Zevon performed live, but when he made that appearance on Letterman’s show, there was some confusion over the order of Zevon’s three planned songs, so Zevon rolled with it and performed “Mutineer” first. In the wake of Zevon’s death, Letterman showed the performances again, and this time he rejiggered the running order made sure that Zevon got his wish: “Mutineer” was played last.
“My Shit’s Fucked Up” (Life’ll Kill Ya, 1999): The song evolved out of Zevon’s lifelong fear of doctors, with its narrator finally visiting his practitioner and being informed, “Your shit’s fucked up.” Ironically – and in a big, big way – this was prior to Zevon actually getting said diagnosis himself. “I might’ve made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years,” Zevon admitted to David Letterman during his final appearance on The Late Show. “It was one of those phobias that didn’t really pay off.”
“Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)” (My Ride’s Here, 2001): This song is a rarity for a couple of reasons, starting with the fact that the lyrics were actually penned by Mitch Albom, best known as the author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. More importantly, though, the voice you hear shouting “Hit somebody!” is none other than David Letterman. Even though Zevon played the song on The Late Show, Paul Shaffer actually does the yelling during the performance, which is why we’ve gone with the studio version that features Dave in all his glory.
“Keep Me in Your Heart” (The Wind, 2003): How better to end things than with the last song written and recorded by Zevon before succumbing to cancer. By this point, he was too weak to keep going back and forth to the studio, so a studio was set up in his home to record this swan song. Just knowing that it was on his last album makes it sad enough, but now that you know the specifics, just go ahead and let the waterworks flow.