Thirty-five years ago, this month, after a five-year recording absence, Warren Zevon released Sentimental Hygiene, one of his most critically acclaimed albums. While the record, and the six studio releases that followed before his death in 2003, ushered in a new, highly focused stage in his career, Zevon’s earlier days provided him with his most recognizable songs. It’s a shame because his clean and sober period is filled with excellent material that bolsters his reputation as a master storyteller and musical craftsman. With that in mind, we present ten songs from the second half of Zevon’s career that may not have the instant recognition factor of “Werewolves of London” or “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, but certainly deserve to be placed among those great songs.
“Detox Mansion” (1987)
Leave it to Zevon to include a sarcastic jab at celebrity rehab centers on his first “sober” album. Sentimental Hygiene was a giant creative leap forward for the singer-songwriter, partly due to his healthy lifestyle but also the solid musicianship backing him up (including three-quarters of R.E.M. as his band). With a swaggering, guitar-heavy garage funk vibe, Zevon – with the help of co-writer and frequent collaborator Jorge Calderon – indulges in self-deprecation and a little sly name-dropping: “I’m gone to Detox Mansion / Way down on Last Breath Farm / I’ve been raking leaves with Liza / Me and Liz cleaned up the yard.” The band is loud and scruffy, and Zevon seems positively revitalized. “Detox Mansion” is, among many other things, an indication that Zevon still had plenty of great tricks up his sleeve and wasn’t about to shy away from his messy past for lyrical inspiration. – Chris Ingalls
“Boom Boom Mancini” (1987)
There are many songs about boxers and boxing, ranging from earnest (“The Boxer” – Simon and Garfunkel) to topical (“Hurricane” – Bob Dylan) to funny (“I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince). My potentially hot take is that Zevon’s biography of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini is the best boxing song of them all. Lyrically, Zevon pulls no punches recounting Mancini’s career from the highs (the victory against Arturo Frias) to the lows (the fight against Duk Koo Kim that led to Kim’s death four days later).
From the opening lyrics, “Hurry home early – hurry on home / Boom Boom Mancini’s fighting Bobby Chacon”, Zevon’s words are detailed and evocative. Still, they’re driven home by the music, singing, and playing. The guys from R.E.M. provide rock solid backing, while Zevon’s lead guitar and piano solos bring the essential workout gym grit. “Boom Boom Mancini” is a rarity: a boxing song that evokes “the sweet science” in its music and lyrics. – Rich Wilhelm
“Splendid Isolation” (1989)
Transverse City was Zevon’s “cyberpunk” album, on which the man fretted about “Turbulence”, “Networking”, and “Gridlock”, among other issues. Amidst the dystopian lyrics, complex music, and many guest stars, you will find “Splendid Isolation”, a mini folk-rock masterpiece, complete with Zevon on harmonica and Neil Young on harmony vocal. Zevon begins this mediation directly, noting, “I want to live all alone in the desert / I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe”, before he succinctly declares, “I don’t need no one.” Zevon then describes Michael Jackson being in Disneyland alone as Goofy leads him “through the World of Self”, a description that resonates even more since both Zevon’s and Jackson’s deaths. Like the character in Simon and Garfunkel‘s “I Am a Rock”, it’s hard to tell how reliable the narrator of “Splendid Isolation” is. Maybe this declaration is simply denial, but he certainly sounds ready for a lifetime of solitude. – Rich Wilhelm
“Raspberry Beret” (1990)
People didn’t talk about what was on their bingo cards in 1990, but if they did, someone would surely have said, “Hearing the ‘Werewolves of London’ guy sing a Prince song with R.E.M. wasn’t on my 1990 bingo card.” Yet here we are, with Zevon and Berry/Buck/Mills under the collective guise of Hindu Love Gods taking Prince’s playfully erotic pop tune “Raspberry Beret” to the garage, with glorious results. The R.E.M. instrumentalists backed Zevon in recording Sentimental Hygiene and spent an evening at the end of the sessions blowing out blues covers and “Raspberry Beret”.
It’s fun to hear Zevon recount Prince’s story about working for Mr. McGee part-time at the 5&10 and the girl who wore the titular beret and “if it was warm, she wouldn’t wear much more”. Sadly, Zevon didn’t sing the verse about the couple riding down to Old Man Johnson’s farm and having the horses wonder who they are, but other than that, this “Raspberry Beret” rocks. I’m not sure that Prince ever acknowledged this cover when the Hindu Love Gods album quietly appeared, but the song made some ripples at rock stations before fading into obscurity. There was brief talk of a Hindu Love Gods tour, mainly from Zevon’s management, but it was never in the cards. – Rich Wilhelm
“Mr. Bad Example” (1991)
Zevon was perhaps only bested by Randy Newman when writing songs based on despicable characters and unreliable narrators. For the title track of his 1991 album, he went all out with a multi-versed, typically wordy epic that tells the story of a horrid, manipulative person (told in the first person, naturally). “I’m very well-acquainted with the seven deadly sins,” he sings, “I keep a busy schedule / Trying to fit them in.” As usual, his lyrics drop plenty of references to unique locales and practices, avoiding all manner of cliché. “I got a part-time job at my father’s carpet store / Laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score / I loaded up their furniture and took it to Spokane / And auctioned off every last Naugahyde divan.” Nobody wrote so hilariously about sociopaths like Warren. – Chris Ingalls
“Rottweiler Blues” (1995)
Mainly consisting of home recordings, Mutineer is an album with great songs that would probably have benefited from the sound of a full band. “Rottweiler Blues”, perhaps the most undeservedly obscure track on this list, is a propulsive rocker that tells the tale of a man who keeps his menacing dog as protection from a cruel, abusive world. “One hundred pounds of unfriendly persuasion / Sleeping on the Florida porch.” While Zevon wrote plenty of tender love songs, his dangerous edge – influenced perhaps by his love of writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer – is usually a more entertaining listen. “If you come calling, he’ll be mauling with intent to maim,” goes the chorus. “Don’t knock on my door if you don’t know my Rottweiler’s name.” – Chris Ingalls
Worlds away from “Rottweiler Blues”, the title track to Mutineer is a spare, meditative track on which Zevon takes a moment to consider the relationship between him and his audience. “Ain’t no room on board for the insincere / You’re my witness / I’m your mutineer,” Zevon muses. No typically-Zevonian irony is detected, though a few years later, in the liner notes to the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead compilation, Zevon did pointedly observe, “I intended this song as a gesture of appreciation and affection to my fans, none of whom bought the record.” Ouch. Nevertheless, Zevon performed “Mutineer” during his post-diagnosis “Enjoy Every Sandwich” appearance on David Letterman in late 2002. Around the same time, Bob Dylan performed the song at several concert appearances, in a move that could very well have been a direct onstage message of support from one great songwriter to another. – Rich Wilhelm
“I Was in the House When the House Burned Down” (2000)
After another five-year break from studio albums, Zevon released Life’ll Kill Ya, with a decidedly more organic sound than its somewhat over-processed predecessor. Produced by the acclaimed team of Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade (Radiohead, Pixies, Uncle Tupelo), the album was a fresh, vital piece of work, containing some of the best songs of Zevon’s career. “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down” kicks off the record with a folky blast, thanks to a stripped-down arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and Zevon’s harmonica. The song’s acoustic leanings match up with gospel-influenced religious imagery: “I was in the house when the house burned down / I met the man with the thorny crown / I helped him carry his cross through town.” As the title Life’ll Kill Y indicates, Zevon was still obsessed with and amused by death, and crucifixions were no exception. – Chris Ingalls
“Sacrificial Lambs” (2002)
My Ride’s Here was Zevon’s last album before his fatal cancer diagnosis, and as always, it’s full of ghoulish gallows humor (the “ride” in the title refers to a hearse). What makes “Sacrificial Lambs”, the opening track, so good is both the musical delivery and the lyrical content. Zevon refuses to go the route of his peers and churn out nostalgic adult contemporary pap; instead, he doubles down with a fresh, heavy-rock arrangement. Lyrically, it’s another weird, wild ride, this time about genetic engineering (“We worked out the kinks in your DNA / Sayonara, kid, have a nice day”) and filled with typically literate, non-rock references. “Madame Blavansky and her friends / Changed lead into gold and back again / Krishnamurti said I’ll set you free / Write a check and make it out to me.” With additional nods to Russell Crowe, Havez Assad, and Coptic monks, it’s no wonder Zevon didn’t exactly set the pop charts on fire. – Chris Ingalls
“My Dirty Life and Times” (2003)
Sometime in 2002, Zevon began to suffer shortness of breath and was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Given the ultimate deadline, Warren started to record what would be his final album, The Wind. Following its release less than a month before Zevon’s death in September 2003, much of the attention The Wind received was for Zevon’s chilling cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, which suited the man’s dark sense of humor nicely, and for the album’s heartbreaking closer, “Keep Me in Your Heart”.
The Wind also includes “Disorder in the House”, a discordant rocker that features Bruce Springsteen playing some scrappy and very satisfying guitar solos for those who wish The Boss would just let himself get messy now and again. But it’s “My Dirty Life and Times”, a plaintive country tune that sets the stage for the record, as Zevon notes that he’s “winding down” said life and times. Joining him on the track is a low-key yet all-star cast that includes longtime Zevon associate Jorge Calderón, Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Billy Bob Thornton, and Dwight Yoakam. – Rich Wilhelm