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Warren Zevon Appreciation

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I was so surprised today when I saw over at First Things an article on the rock composer and performer, Warren Zevon. First Things is a rather high brow religious magazine (mostly traditional Christian and to my perception with a Roman Catholic emphasis, though dedicated to ecumenism) and their internet site allows access to some of their articles. I love Warren Zevon’s music, but I found it odd that they would have an article on him.

Some bare facts about Zevon. You can also read his Wikipedia entry. His parents were friends with Igor Stravinsky and he visited him and inspired Warren to be a musician. But his parents would divorce, making Warren the product of a broken home. He was a prodigy. He was composing folk and rock songs while still in his teens and by his early twenties was composing for movies and other performers. He produced his first album by the mid seventies and went on to have an up and down career, mostly because of the quirky nature of his songs (they weren’t exactly pop oriented) and because of his drug and alcohol problems. I have to say I think his music is more than quirky; it’s distinct, polished, and innovative. He’s always had the respect of major musicians. Unfortunately Zevon acquired cancer and died prematurely at the age of 56 in September of 2003.

Some of his songs you regularly hear on the radio today are “Werewolves of London” (his one big hit), “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and “Excitable Boy.”

The focus of the Zevon article at First Things was on the one hand a ten year anniversary retrospective of his passing, but also how he had secretly held on to his religious faith. From the article:

For all his talent, however, Zevon had a dark side. For much of his life, he was a serious alcoholic and suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. He wrecked his marriage with frequent affairs. At times, he was better known for his flights of rage than his music. And yet, as terrible and inexcusable as his behavior could be, Zevon’s relatives and friends still remember him with much affection. There are many reasons for this, but one of them may be that Warren Zevon was a man of quiet, resilient faith.

Faith is not something usually associated with the rocker who belted out “Werewolves” and wrote the even more macabre “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” But faith there was.

In 2002, after he was stricken with terminal cancer, and given just three months to live, Zevon was asked whether his illness had changed his spiritual outlook. “No,” he said without hesitation, “I’ve always been a Christian.” Testifying to that is the cross Warren wore around his neck during the last year of his life. Everywhere he was seen during that period—on a VH-1 documentary, on the David Letterman Show, in his recording studio—it was seen, too.

Zevon said, “I’ve always been a Graham Greene guy, haven’t I? It’s alluded to in many albums.”
Graham Greene is the British Roman Catholic writer of some of the best novels of the 20th century. It’s not clear from anything I read why Zevon would be attracted to Catholicism, or even Christianity. His father was Jewish and his mother Mormon. His ex-wife in a memoir described how when in Spain they would attend a Catholic church:

We went there often and just sat and held hands. It was Catholic, and he decided we should convert. He meant it. . . . He bought me a little gold cross to wear around my neck and told me we’d have a dozen babies and he’d play whatever music suited him and life would be grand. I wasn’t too enamored of the Catholic part, but I did love the reverence it brought up in him.
There’s more in the article on how he almost went through with the conversion, and perhaps he did for all we know. I don’t know why pop stars have to hide their religion—I guess I do, there’s a public animosity out there that would characterize and therefore limit an entertainer’s appeal—but it warms my Catholic heart that Zevon was attracted to the spirituality and beauty of Catholicism. I didn’t know that about him.

In my appreciation post here, I want to highlight a few of my favorite Zevon songs. I was knocked out with “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” the minute I first heard it. Quirky for sure, but an odd take on the Cold War of the time, taking on a sort anti-heroic James Bond character.

Quirky is one aspect of Zevon’s songs, and that’s what seems to be highlighted, but what I think is the other major aspect is a melancholy self pity from his inability to overcome his dysfunctions. Here is his beautiful song of addiction and love, “Carmelita.” Lit Net only allows one embedded video, so I'll just have to provide the links to these other videos.

Here are the first stanza and chorus.

I hear Mariachi static on my radio
And the tubes they glow in the dark
And I'm there with her in Ensenada
And I'm here in Echo Park

Carmelita hold me tighter
I think I'm sinking down
And I'm all strung out on heroin
On the outskirts of town
There are several elements to Zevon’s music I find innovative. The way he fills the background sound space with vocals and accompaniment is one. It sounds closer to classical vocal accompaniment to my ear than pop songs. Listen how arranges the backing vocals on “Accidently Like A Martyr” while the piano and electric guitar weave a sad melody around it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the amazing lyrical brilliance in that song’s chorus:

We made mad love
Shadow love
Random love
And abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder
In one little stanza he yokes together the effervescence of true love with a self destructive fateful end.

And finally I want to post what I think is his best composition, a song that combines the quirkiness, melancholy, the innovative arrangement, and the self pity at his self destructiveness, “Desperadoes Under The Eaves.” I’m going to quote all lyrics on this one. And that sad violin intro is absolutely perfection.

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn't lyin'
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I'm gonna drink 'em up

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

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

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I'm trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you're never really free
Don't the sun look angry at me

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mmm, mmm, mmm…
........................... Look
(Look away down Gower Avenue, Look away....)
Of course what he sees as he drinks his margaritas (the angry sun, the trees that look like crucifixes) is a projection of what he feels, his brokenness, which leads to his realization that he’s locked into the prison of his addiction, that one is “never really free.” If that isn’t brilliant enough, then the song becomes pure sublime when he hears the humming of the air conditioner and he transforms the mechanical hum to the melody, only now accentuated to sound like a heroic melody. The ending of the song is one long coda, almost half the song, to that heroically accentuated melody. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m in this prison of myself, and I’m broken, but there is beauty here too.”

That is one of the most remarkable songs of any genre, let alone pop songs. Rest in peace Mr. Zevon. May you be in a better place, arranging songs for choirs of angels.


  1. Virgil's Avatar
    Qimi, I'm just seeing this now. For some reason zero comments are showing up on the blog list. So I thought no one had commented. Thanks for you comment. Yes, I adore "Mohammed's Radio" too.