(Warren Zevon, 1976)
Along with witty quips, poetic insight, and a love for all things doleful, one of Zevon’s greatest skills as a songwriter is his ability to craft a compelling narrative in the framework of the rock song. His self-titled “debut” (technically preceded by Wanted Dead or Alive, though the latter is largely forgotten) features a great many of these examples, including the titular outlaws of “Frank and Jesse James” and the drug-addled drifter looking for solace in “Carmelita”. Zevon adopts the viewpoint of a pimp for “The French Inhaler”, a devastating yet sympathetic look at a woman’s descent into prostitution in the squalid streets of Los Angeles. The piano that begins the song—one of many vesitges of Zevon’s early interest in classical composition—creates a larger-than-life regality that frames this tale of the underworld. “How are you gonna make your way in the world, woman / When you weren’t cut out for working?” he asks the woman, who came to Hollywood in order to strike it big. Fame, unfortunately, has a price: “How are you gonna get around / In this sleazy bedroom town / If you don’t put yourself up for sale?”
Unsurprisingly, it’s all downhill from there, and not just for the woman. Not long after she tries to climb her way to the top by feeding off of the lowlifes at the bottom, the pimp realizes how much of a sham his existence is, resulting in the song’s spine-tingling climax: “So I drank up all the money / Yes, I drank up all the money / With these phonies in this Hollywood bar / These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.” The physical ruin this leaves both participants in is captured in one of Zevon’s best observations, uttered by the pimp as he watches the woman leave a client at two in the morning: “And her face looked like something death brought with him in his suitcase.” The fatalism with which Zevon depicts Los Angeles is a hallmark of his view of the city that helped shape his sound in a huge way. Sometimes, all one can say—as the wasted woman at the end of “The French Inhaler” does—is “So long, Norman.”
(The Wind, 2003)
“Keep Me in Your Heart”, the final track of both The Wind and Zevon’s story as a songwriter, is a beautiful, tear-inducing farewell that caps off that album with a love that can only come at the end of a life. It is a song that is typically—and deservedly—listed as one of his best compositions, and it’s a standout cut on The Wind. The song’s exclusion on this list, then, will likely be to many a crime. But if there’s one song on that record that tops “Keep Me in Your Heart” in serving as a summation of this man’s career and as a caustically sweet farewell, it’s “Dirty Life and Times”. Opening with the clever line, “Somedays I feel like my shadow’s casting me”, the sense of death that looms over The Wind is firmly in place. Zevon, who immediately began work on the album following his diagnosis with mesothelioma, is very much counting time here, and he’s making every second count.
In the four minutes that comprise “Dirty Life and Times”, he covers just about every publicized facet of his career. There’s his persistent desire to avoid the commercial: “One day I came to a fork in the road / Folks, I just couldn’t go where I was told.” He then reiterates his cynical-yet-affectionate view of human nature: “It’s hard to find a girl with a heart of gold / When you’re living in a four-letter world.” And, of course, he can’t help but lay out the difficulties of the game of love: “And if she won’t love me then her sister will / She’s from Say-one-thing-and-mean-another’s-ville” leads right in to “Gets a little lonely, folks, you know what I mean / I’m looking for a woman with low self-esteem.” Lots of grievances go on this list of “Dirty Life and Times”, but, in the end, just as he is on “Keep Me in Your Heart”, Zevon is looking to reach out to those he loves: “Who’ll lay me out and ease my worried mind / While I’m winding down my dirty life and times?”
(Warren Zevon, 1976)
Los Angeles is a fundamental part of the Zevon sound. Warren Zevon, the strongest of all his studio LPs, echoes with the horns of rush hour traffic and exudes the illuminated billboards of Sunset Boulevard, which all reach their crescendo in the epic “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”. As he softly plays the piano, Zevon recalls: “I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel / I was starting into my empty coffee cup.” Far from early morning ennui, this moment ushers in a near apocalyptic take on the fate of LA: “And if California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing / Until I pay my bill.” His solution? “I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lying,” he admits: “All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles / I’m gonna drink ‘em up.”
Backed by a tastefully placed string section, he then waxes Biblical: “Don’t the sun look angry through the trees / Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves / Don’t you feel like desperados under the eaves / Heaven help the one who leaves.” Where the track jumps into the realm of the transcendent, however, is when he lets the words stumble into a wordless climax: “I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel / I was listening to the air conditioner hum.” Then, fittingly, he hums, then joined by matching strings. “Look away down Gower Avenue,” he cries amidst the air conditioner’s tune. Eloquent and loquacious though Zevon was, he also knew just when to let the words stop, and the coda to “Desperados Under the Eaves” is one such instance. It’s a simple point being made: as the tectonic plates shift the Golden State toward its watery demise, all one can do is hope he can dodge his hotel bill yet again.
(Mr. Bad Example, 1991)
“Searching for a Heart” suffered an unfortunate fate in its initial LP version. Lyrically, it’s not just Zevon’s best take on the topic of love; it’s one of the truest things ever said on the subject, ever. By contrast, its music is as bland and safe as ‘90s soft rock can get—the lyrics are done better justice by Don Henley’s wonderful, jazzy cover on the posthumous Enjoy Every Sandwich tribute. Nevertheless, “Searching for a Heart” is an inimitably Zevonian take on looking for that special someone. It opens with a setting of the scene, a sort of netherworld for the unrequited lover: “Darkness in the morning / Shadows on the land / Certain individuals aren’t sticking with the plan.” The speaker knows what it is he’s looking for, and more importantly he knows what it isn’t: “They say love conquers all / You can’t start it like a car / You can’t stop it with a gun.” (Those lines are favorites of David Letterman, who Zevon called “the greatest friend [his] music ever had.”)
“They tell you love requires a little standing in line,” he says to his shadowy object of affection, “And I’ve been waiting for you lover / For a long, long time.” For now, though, he remains on the outside, not quite ready to take the plunge: “Leaving in the evening / Traveling at night / Staying inconspicuous / I’m staying out of sight.” Zevon’s style has been called “song noir” before, a tag especially true of “Searching for a Heart”. Scarred though his heart may have been, love never ceased being a target on his radar. It was a desirable target whose difficulty to obtain made it necessary to lurk in the shadows, waiting for that right moment for his guard to be let down. The end of “Searching for a Heart” suggest something to that effect: “I’ve been searching high and low for you / Trying to track you down / Certain individuals / Have finally come around.” Zevon may have tried to emphasize the blackened part of his heart—which he did quite successfully—but he was never afraid to admit the risks he was taking to maybe, just maybe, soften it up. “Searching for a Heart” is the noir detective toeing his way into the light, finding what he had convinced himself was the very reason to keep to the darkness in the first place.
(My Ride’s Here, 2002)
“Modestly titled,” Zevon joked as David Letterman introduced “Genius” during the singer’s last public appearance. Once he concluded that performance of the song, one thing was plain: to hell with modesty. In an all-too-short lifetime rife with lyrical gems, “Genius” is a crowning achievement. Released just a year before his death, the song plays out like a novel in miniature, opening with the humorous intonation: “I’ve got a bitter pot of je ne sais quoi / Guess what? I’m stirring it with a monkey’s paw.” Zevon here addresses an ex-flame—it’s unclear whether she’s real or fictional—who has an intellect that matches his but a cunning that left him undone. “Did you light the candles? / Did you put on Kind of Blue? / Did you use that Ivy League voodoo on him too?” he asks her after seeing her walk out of a barbershop, where she was working her moves on a barber there. “He think he’ll be alright but he doesn’t know for sure / Like any other unindicted co-conspirator,” he observes as she walks away.
Watching her skillfully deceive her mark brings his mind to other geniuses. Mata Hari, he reminds us, “Had a house in France / Where she worked on all her secret plans / Men were falling for her sight unseen.” Also in her company is Albert Einstein, who “was a ladies man / While he was working on his universal plan / He was making out like Charlie Sheen.” As Zevon lists more and more details about the methodology of his ex-beloved’s con games, he depicts himself as someone equally as smart—but not quite capable of being able to do all that is necessary to be as conniving. Zevon’s gift for narrative is at its peak here: literate without being talky and articulate without being dry, “Genius” crafts a bitterly funny story of a man who, even at 55, still had yet to work out all of the kinks of the romantic sleight of hand.
And, even moreso than the material on The Wind, the final stanza of this cut gets right at what makes Zevon so unique a voice: “Everybody needs a place to stand / And a method for their schemes and scams / If I could only get my record clean / I’d be a genius.” All of the sunglass-sporting skeletons may not have been purged from his closet when he left the world in 2003, but songs like this are an indication that he is exactly that: a genius.