The Regulars: Warren Zevon: An underappreciated genius
What do the following characters have in common?
• Frank and Jesse James
• A headless mercenary soldier in Africa seeking revenge for his
• A junk bond king on the lamb in a Florida bingo parlor
These are just a few of the subjects of songs by the late Warren Zevon that he wrote and performed during his lengthy and largely unheralded recording career. Zevon, who died in 2003 of inoperable lung cancer at age 55, was a lyrical genius. Although not much of a commercial success, Zevon had a small but loyal fan base which definitely included me.
Zevon’s albums featured tracks that could crawl into the darkest corner of human existence as well as some of the most beautiful, soulful love songs. His songs ran the entire gamut of the human experience, varying as much as life itself.
Unfortunately the only song most people know Zevon for is “Werewolves of London” from his best-selling 1978 “Excitable Boy” album. You’ve probably heard the chorus, “… Ahoo, Werewolves of London…” But his body of work was so much more impressive than that catchy pop tune.
Like many people, Zevon was a person of profound contradictions. With an I.Q. that was off the charts Zevon was a classically trained musician, but he chose pop music because he wanted to “speak to his generation.” Zevon’s musical style could not be labeled or categorized since he was more concerned about the music fitting the mood and story of the song. Occasionally a verse would even use a different language including Russian, French, Spanish or Polynesian.
Take this verse from “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”:
“Roland searched the continent for the man who’d done him
“He found him in Mombassa in a barroom drinking gin
“Roland aimed his Thompson gun. He didn’t say a word.
“But he blew Van Owen’s body … from there to Johannesburg
… Roland the headless Thompson gunner …
Or this verse from “Splendid Isolation”:
“Michael Jackson in Disneyland
“Don’t have to share it with nobody else
“Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
“And lead me to the world of self
… Splendid Isolation, I don’t need no one …”
In short, Zevon’s songs always told an interesting story and I could hardly wait for his next album to see what his brilliant, at times twisted mind would concoct.
After being diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2003, Zevon was given three months to live but lasted over a year. “I’m starting to feel like a fraud,” Zevon stated in his usual sardonic manner after living so much longer than expected. He accepted his fate with an amazingly calm acceptance and used his final days to compose, “The Wind,” a masterpiece farewell album. “The Wind” is about dying but is not morose. “Keep Me in Your Heart,” his farewell song, is a real gem. “The Wind” garnered Zevon three posthumous Grammy awards.
I was lucky enough to meet Zevon in 1991 when he opened for Richard Marx at the Sioux City Auditorium. These two artists had nothing in common. This was painfully obvious to me as I endured a line heavily populated with 13-year old female Marx fans to purchase my Zevon tickets. Zevon was not much of a conversationalist, so the visit was short and direct, but I did get a photo with him.
Zevon’s personal life was as volatile as his professional one, with plenty of lows. He quit drinking in 1987 or he would have died at a much younger age. After the fatal mesothelioma diagnosis, he lived long enough to see the birth of his twin grandchildren and the release of his final album.
I predict that like many great artists Zevon will be appreciated more after his death than before. If you haven’t been exposed to Zevon’s work, I highly recommend you take a listen. I think you’ll be amazed.