Tomorrow, September 7th, marks the 13th anniversary of the death of one of music’s finest songwriters ever, bar none. This man ranks at the top with Dylan, Springsteen, Hal David, Tim Hardin, and the teams of Jagger-Richard and Lennon-McCartney. Springsteen himself said “this one was a moralist in cynic’s clothing, and he nails a part of the American character rarely captured in pop music”.
A young classically-trained piano prodigy named Warren Zevon grew up to be one of the most enigmatic figures in 20th century music; while his performing career ranged from playing piano on the road for the Everly Brothers to headlining his own shows with his own unique material, he never achieved the popular success he deserved. He was viewed both as cerebral and as gonzo as they come. He had a couple of hit records in the 1970s, namely “Werewolves of London”, and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, and then dropped off the charts for 30 years. His own statements on his career are a combination of bitterness and relief at his lack of fame and fortune. They bring to mind the Chinese proverb about the blessings of obscurity. It‘s my contention that Warren Zevon is one of the most important figures in 20th century popular music and that his body of work has only begun to achieve notice.
His untimely, but not unexpected, death occurred in Los Angeles in 2003 of cancer at the age of 56. He lived large for quite a time, and then succumbed to the road, to drugs, alcohol and his own expectations of what should befall a genius such as himself. For a genius he was.
Firstly, he was an incredibly talented lyricist; not even Bob Dylan matches Warren‘s weird mixture of self-revelation, bizarre humor, Chandleresque cynicism, self-deprecation, coupled with fact and fiction as told by one of the most varied cast of characters since William Shakespeare. Some of those characters are aspects of Warren; others are way beyond the imaginings of any other songwriter. Examples: “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” , “Carmelita”, “Desperados Under The Eaves” and one of his many masterpieces “The French Inhaler” in which he sneaks in a mention of one of his literary heroes, Norman Mailer. It’s the best song about Marilyn Monroe ever written. Take notice, Elton.
For a literary figure, Warren could rock out too. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and the truly apt “I‘ll Sleep When I‘m Dead” are terrific examples of 1970s rock and roll at its best.
And for heartfelt sentimentality, two of his finest achievements are the acoustic performances of Steve Winwood‘s classic “Back In the High Life” and his own “Don‘t Let Us Get Sick”, both of which can be found on the posthumous release of 2007 entitled Preludes. This 2-CD set includes one of the most articulate and revealing interviews ever given by a man who far preferred to let his music speak for itself.
In that interview he reveals that he sometimes wrote material with other performers in mind: George Jones, for example, who totally ignored Warren‘s submission of a song written especially for Jones. He also mentions writing a song with Jennifer Warnes in mind but in the end keeping it for himself. Many of you will be familiar with the landmark album Jennifer recorded many years ago: Famous Blue Raincoat , a work of surpassing beauty featuring the songs of Leonard Cohen. I hereby urge Ms. Warnes to consider a full-length project for the works of Warren Zevon. She still has a magnificent voice, and given her interpretative ability, could well produce a timeless recording for Warren‘s “customers”, as he liked to call his fans.
Warren was acutely aware that most popular songs were romantic love songs, and he stated on more than one occasion that this was not what he did. Yet I find that love, passion, and craftsmanship permeate his work to such an extent that I am reminded continually of the famous dictum of French author André Gide: “Do not understand me too quickly.” Keep this in mind when you listen to any Zevon song; his material is both ironic and straightforward: there is nothing quite so serious as humor, and nothing quite so funny as taking yourself too seriously.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute was paid to him by longtime fan David Letterman: on October 30, 2002, Zevon was featured on the Late Show with David Letterman as the only guest for the entire hour.
Ah, Warren, you‘re sleeping The Big Sleep now, but your work will keep discerning music fans wide awake for the next century or two.
Watch: Warren on Letterman Part 1
Watch Warren on Letterman Part 2
Watch Warren on Letterman Part 3
Watch Warren on Letterman part 4