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Best Warren Zevon Songs: 20 Essential Tracks For Excitable Boys
Adam Beeson
List & Guides

Best Warren Zevon Songs: 20 Essential Tracks For Excitable Boys

The best Warren Zevon songs reveal the songwriter – ‘a moralist in cynic’s clothing’ – to have been one of the most gifted talents in music.

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Warren Zevon was a restless, sardonic genius. Born on 24 January 1947, he came to embody the dark side of the music industry’s drinking and drug excesses in the 70s. His lasting legacy is not his wild life, though; as the best Warren Zevon songs prove, it is as one of the most gifted songwriters in modern music.

Though Zevon was noted for his unsettling humour and satirical songs, there is also a vulnerability and longing in his finest ballads which is genuinely touching. His friend and collaborator Bruce Springsteen said Zevon wrote beautifully about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, and described him as “a moralist in cynic’s clothing”.

Death and dying were among Zevon’s favourite topics, and the musician was only 56 when his life ended as a result of lung cancer, on 7 September 2003. Though Zevon said he found life “hard and baffling”, his insights and observations have inspired music fans and musicians alike.

Here, then, are our 20 best Warren Zevon songs.

Listen to Warren Zevon’s greatest tracks here, and check out our best Warren Zevon songs, below.

20: Tenderness On The Block (1978)

Though Zevon was renowned for his black humour and savage wit, some of Warren Zevon’s best songs proved he was also capable of writing delicate songs about love, including Tenderness On The Block, a moving coming-of-age song about a young girl’s first love. which was co-written with Jackson Browne. It is somehow typically Zevon that the song was composed after a wild, drunken night in which he pulled the banister off the stairwell in his house. Browne later said that he could not keep up with Zevon’s fearsome drinking. “I passed out, because I don’t drink like that, but he kept going. When I woke up, the song was finished. He wrote most of it. I started it, and he finished it.” The song appeared on 1978’sExcitable Boy album.

19: For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer (2000)

Zevon’s 2000 album, Life’ll Kill Ya, contained lots of wonderful curiosities worthy of inclusion among the best Warren Zevon songs, including My Shit’s Fucked Up and Porcelain Monkey, a song that reflects on Elvis Presley’s tragic downfall. The album also contained the offbeat, touching For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer, an imagined lament from a lonely magician. The song featured some great guitar playing from Chuck Prophet, who had vivid memories of the recording session. “Warren was intimidating in so many ways, but also astonishingly intelligent. It was just incredible to be around him,” Prophet said in 2003. “He really is one of the sharpest, funniest, wittiest people I’ve ever been around. As acerbic as he is and as surly as he can be, he’s also one of the sweetest guys, too.”

18: Searching for A Heart (1991)

Searching For A Heart, the closing track on Mr Bad Example, is a wrenchingly honest meditation on love. Zevon’s friend, the talk show host David Letterman, said that the lines “They say love conquers all/You can’t start it like a car/You can’t stop it with a gun”

were among the finest Zevon ever wrote. This complex reflection on desire and unrequited love revealed the songwriter’s ambiguity about life: the song’s narrator is open to true love, but knows how hard it is to find. The song’s lyrics, which admit to a past of a “thousand casuals and one-night stands”, was written during a period in which Zevon had become sober. Eagles’ Don Henley later covered it as the opening track for the posthumous all-star tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich, whose title came from an interview Zevon did with David Letterman. Asked about any wisdom he’d gained facing his own mortality, the songwriter replied: “Just how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

17: Reconsider Me (1987)

Reconsider Me, from the album Sentimental Hygiene, is a gorgeous forgiveness ballad which became a staple of Zevon’s live shows. Jai Winding, son of renowned jazz trombonist Kai Winding, played keyboards on the song, alongside Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, on guitar. Though the single release failed to chart, this tortured pop classic has since risen in stature among the best Warren Zevon songs, attracting covers by Pretenders, Stevie Nicks and Steve Earle. “To me, the message of my songs, of all songs, is ‘enjoy life’,” Zevon famously said – even about the sad ones.

16: Mohammed’s Radio (1976)

Zevon’s lyrics for Mohammed’s Radio seem hauntingly relevant in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, as he warns, “Everybody’s restless and they’ve got no place to go.” His complex song about angst and despair, which was produced by Jackson Browne for Zevon’s self-titled album from 1976, was about being preyed on by law enforcement, at a time when people were struggling to survive in a depressed economy. It is the favourite song of The Wasp Factory author, Iain Banks, who said he was struck by the brilliance of Zevon’s dark lines “You know, the Sheriff’s got his problems too/He will surely take them out on you”. Another excellent aspect of the song is the backing harmonies from Zevon’s California friends Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, whose voices, on loan from Fleetwood Mac, blend perfectly. An example of how the Warren Zevon’s best songs also lent themselves to other artists, Linda Ronstadt recorded her own excellent version of Mohammed’s Radio in 1978.

15: Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner (1978)

“In 1974 I ran off to Spain and got a job in an Irish bar called The Dubliner, in Sitges, on the Costa Brava,” Zevon recalled in the booklet to the Anthology album. “The proprietor was a piratical ex-merc named David Lindell. He and I wrote this song at the bar one afternoon, over many jars.” The fictional character Roland is a Norwegian mercenary who fights for money in Africa, using the famous Thompson machine gun. After he is betrayed and murdered by a fellow mercenary, his ghost continues “wandering through the night”. The song, from Excitable Boy, was a favourite of screenwriter David Koepp, who named his big-game hunter Roland, in The Lost World: Jurassic Park movie, after the character. David Letterman also felt it was one of the best Warren Zevon songs, and he specially requested it as the last song Zevon ever performed in front of an audience, when the musician appeared on The Late Show in October 2003.

14: Lawyers, Guns And Money (1978)

Lawyers, Guns And Money opens with a memorably funny verse: “I went home with a waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the Russians, too?” The desperate, down-on-his-luck narrator of Lawyers, Guns And Money, also from Excitable Boy, writes to his father from Honduras with a plaintive plea: “Send lawyers, guns and money/The shit has hit the fan.” From its brilliant opening about a waitress and Russians, and gambling in Havana, Zevon’s caustic rocker – featuring Kenny Edwards on bass, Rick Moratta on drums and Waddy Wachtel on guitar – is full of biting, twisted humour. Zevon’s blunt lyrics belied a deep intellectual approach to the world. The songwriter, who described himself as “an art guy”, said, “I know an encyclopaedic amount about visual art. Poetry. And music. Classical music especially. All that stuff. That’s the actual rest of my life.” Wachtel, who co-produced the song, said there was an inspirational “creative flow” to the way Zevon wrote his songs.

13: Detox Mansion (1987)

In the early 80s, Zevon’s life spiralled out of control in a frenzy of drugs and alcohol. “I ran around like a psychotic,” he later admitted. He made no albums between 1982 and 1987, spending much of the time in rehab. When he returned, with 1987’s superb Sentimental Hygiene album – which featured guitarist Peter Buck, drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills from R.E.M. – he wrote about his experiences in the self-mocking Detox Mansion, a track that featured David Lindley on lap steel guitar and immediately took its place among the best Warren Zevon songs. It opens with an amusing invocation of celebrity rehab, and goes on to explore how a songwriter can subvert his own therapy for artistic gain, as he sings: “Growin’ fond of Detox Mansion/And this quiet life I lead/But I’m dying to tell my story/For all my friends to read.”

 12: Hasten Down The Wind (1976)

Zevon started his musical career in 1966 as part of the folk duo Lyme And Cybelle, with Violet Santangelo. After working in advertising and writing jingles, he spent two years working with The Everly Brothers, touring with the duo as pianist and bandleader. He remained close friends with Phil Everly, who sang on the aching, haunting ballad Hasten Down The Wind, about a woman leaving a relationship because “she needs to be free”. Zevon’s moving, sensitive song about the end of a love affair used a wonderful weather metaphor to describe a doomed relationship. Zevon was married and divorced twice. His second wife, Crystal Zevon, later wrote the memoir I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon. The song was also recorded by Ronstadt, as the title track to her 1976 album. One of the top Warren Zevon songs of the 70s, Zevon recorded a passionate version on his live album Stand In The Fire, recorded in August 1980 at The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood. “When I wrote this song, I was poor and strung-out and screwed up. Linda Ronstadt recorded it and intervened between me and starvation,” Zevon told the audience.

11: Carmelita (1976)

Zevon was a great storyteller and he brilliantly captured the life of a forlorn junkie in free fall in Carmelita, a song about an addict “strung out on heroin” who scores his drugs by the Pioneer Chicken stand on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles. Zevon spent much of his youth in Los Angeles, where his father, William, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who was a boxer in his early days in America, then settled into a career as a professional gambler and “a mobster, generally”, as his son described him. Carmelita was first recorded in 1972 by Murray McLauchlan (the Canadian singer met Zevon when he was the opening act on an Everly Brothers tour). Zevon cut his version four years later, using Eagles star Glenn Frey on guitar, setting the jaundiced words to a romantic melody. Carmelita was another hit for Ronstadt in 1977.

10: Mr Bad Example (1991)

Zevon met his longtime bassist and collaborator Jorge Calderón in 1972 and they became songwriters together on several tunes, including Mr Bad Example, the title track of the 1991 album that also contained the song Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, which inspired the title of a 1995 movie starring Andy Garcia and Steve Buscemi. The edgy, dark lyrics to Mr Bad Example (“I’m greedy and I’m angry and I don’t care who I cross”) are accompanied by a swinging melody. Calderón said that Zevon’s character was often misunderstood. “Warren was a very sensitive guy, a very loving guy… and he was a true artist,” he said.

9: Poor Poor Pitiful Me (1976)

Zevon certainly lived a wild, tempestuous life, once saying, “I got to be the most fucked-up rock star on the block, at least on my block, and then I got to be a sober dad for 18 years… I’ve had two very full lives.” One of the greatest Warren Zevon songs from the first of those lives, the gritty, risqué Poor Poor Pitiful Me deals with a character who has a failed suicide attempt – he puts his head on the railroad tracks of a line where the train no longer runs – and later engages in sadomasochism, suffering a beating from someone “who really worked me over good”. Zevon’s gravelly baritone version, which was set against some stirring saxophone from Bobby Keys, was a Top 40 Billboard hit in 1976. The song has since proved popular with female singers: with the sexes reversed in the lyrics, it was a hit for Linda Ronstadt and Canadian singer Terri Clark, and has also been recorded by Bonnie Raitt.

8: Werewolves Of London (1978)

Zevon conceded that Werewolves Of London was a novelty song, though “not a novelty the way, say, Steve Martin’s King Tut is a novelty”, as he reflected on a single that became one of his most popular works and a surprise chart hit that more than earns its place among the best Warren Zevon songs. The idea for a song about werewolves initially came from Phil Everly; Zevon pulled together the words and music with Roy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel, and Asylum issued it as the lead single from Excitable Boy. The track was produced by Browne and featured John McVie and Mick Fleetwood as backing musicians. In 2000, a fight broke out while Zevon was performing Werewolves Of London at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Zevon halted the song, waited for the brawl to end, and quipped, “I bet this never happens at Sting concerts,” before finishing the song with a loud howl.

7: My Ride’s Here (2002)

“I keep asking myself how I suddenly was thrust into the position of travel agent for death,” Zevon quipped with characteristic sardonic humour after being diagnosed with inoperable pleural mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the lung). My Ride’s Here was co-written with the Irish Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon (as was Macgillicuddy’s Reeks, which also appeared on the My Ride’s Here album). The song, which references John Wayne, Jesus, Charlton Heston and the 3.10 to Yuma train, was a favourite of Bruce Springsteen’s, who recorded a superb version on the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. Springsteen, who described Zevon as “one of the great, great American songwriters”, also occasionally co-wrote with Zevon. The pair penned the song Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, from the album of the same name, in 1980.

6: Play It All Night Long (1980)

The cast of Play It All Night Long are a weird bunch: a grandfather who keeps pissing his pants, a disturbed Vietnam vet, a drunken son; even the cattle are infected with brucellosis (a funny-sounding disease Zevon had read about in a novel by Newton Thornburg). The family take comfort in the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd: “Sweet home Alabama/Play that dead band’s song/Turn those speakers up full blast/Play it all night long.” “The song is funny, but it’s also not funny,” said Zevon. “Like it’s not intended as a ridicule of Lynyrd Skynyrd – I don’t think it’s funny that rock bands get killed in plane crashes – but then the grim, crazy stuff is funny and the overall effect is scary. It’s ambivalent.” Zevon believed that, despite its bad taste, Play It All Night Long had a redemptive message. He also said he loved the lap steel parts played by Lindley. One of the best Warren Zevon songs of the 80s, it appeared on the Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School album.

5: Mutineer (1995)

Zevon made some changes in direction in the 90s, including appearing as himself in a couple of episodes of the Brooke Shields NBC sitcom, Suddenly Susan. In 1995 he issued the album Mutineer on the fledgling Warner imprint Giant Records. One of the best Warren Zevon songs of later years, the contemplative title track overflows with longing, melancholy and vulnerability – with none of Zevon’s usual wisecracking – and yet is also full of the songwriter’s characteristic truth-telling, as he sings, “Ain’t no room on board for the insincere.” The mellow melody, featuring flute and the backing singing of Rosemary Butler, add to the wistful feeling. The song has been covered by Bob Dylan and, as a duet, by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.

4: Excitable Boy (1978)

“We had to be truly twisted to get Warren, and I mean that in a good way,” said singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt. She could easily have been talking about his dark masterpiece Excitable Boy. The greatest Warren Zevon songs often found him concealing razor-sharp observations about the hypocrisy of society in the folds of his witty, satirical asides. Though the song starts off humorously, with a jokey verse about a boy rubbing himself in pot roast, the sly humour and jaunty music – there is a bright, piano-driven melody infused with some saxophone from Jim Horn and the sweet singing of Jennifer Warnes – initially conceal a biting, subversive tale about a sociopath. The young man ends up raping and murdering his prom date, and yet is still referred to as merely “an excitable boy”. Zevon is being deliberately deadpan by employing the sort of euphemistic language that is often used to cover up the horrors of everyday life.

3: Accidentally Like A Martyr (1978)

Zevon’s ex-wife Crystal said that when she was compiling the book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, she was shocked by “the degree of excess, the degree of torment, the degree of obsession” revealed in the story of the musician’s personal life. One of Zevon’s most passionate songs about a love affair gone bad is Accidentally Like A Martyr, from Excitable Boy. Maudlin without being self-indulgent, it is a song of insight and remarkable depth of feeling, which uses religious metaphors for the pain of love. “The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder,” sings Zevon on the song, which was a favourite of Bob Dylan’s, who performed it regularly in concert. The song was also covered by Jimmy Webb.

2: Keep Me In Your Heart (2003)

As Zevon was dying he spent a lot of time during his illness working in a home studio on his final album, The Wind. Its closing song, Keep Me In Your Heart, was co-written with Jorge Calderón and featured the brilliant veteran drummer Jim Keltner, who remembered the emotionally-charged atmosphere when it came to recording the song. “Warren had a bad day, and he couldn’t make it in, so we laid down the music without the vocals, and I’ll tell you, we were all choked up,” Keltner said. “It’s a beautiful song.” Zevon’s hugely moving song, which is as much a promise to remain a guiding spirit for those left behind as it is a plea to be remembered by his loved ones, earned him a posthumous Grammy nomination. There have been beautiful cover versions of Keep Me In Your Heart by folk band The Wailin’ Jennies, and by Jorge Calderón and Jennifer Warnes.

1: Desperadoes Under The Eaves (1976)

Zevon’s songs were usually drawn from his own life and observations. “I realise how personal what I’m saying is, but I don’t know any other way of doing it. I always took to heart Hemingway’s advice: ‘You write what you know.’ That’s all you can write.” Topping our list of the best Warren Zevon songs, his reflective masterpiece Desperadoes Under The Eaves is an achingly vulnerable alcoholic ballad set in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. The song, from Zevon’ eponymous second album, features background vocals from Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys. Zevon oversaw the string arrangements, while the song also showed off Zevon’s gift for imaginative similes (“Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves”) and earned praise from his peers. “Warren’s musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected,” said Dylan. “Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. Desperado Under The Eaves. It’s all in there.”

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