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Music / Warren Zevon

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Just an excitable boy.

"I'm insane. I'm fucked up. I have problems. But I don't get depressed and I don't get bored."

Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003) was a Southern California singer-songwriter who had one big hit in the late 1970s with "Werewolves of London" and a cult following. Friend to Hunter S. Thompson, he was the only known student of Igor Stravinsky ever to break the top forty.

The list of songs he wrote for other artists is long, and may contain surprises. He wrote songs for artists ranging from The Turtles to Prince to Linda Ronstadt to Bruce Springsteen, in styles from rock to country to punk. In interviews he often described himself as a "heavy metal folk singer."

In 2002, just as he was in the middle of a commercial and critical comeback while touring for his album My Ride's Here, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and was given months to live. He recorded the critically acclaimed album The Wind in 2003, and died a month after its release, at the age of 56. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.

He's often described as a One-Hit Wonder, though this isn't actually true. Two of his songs ("Werewolves of London" and a cover of "A Certain Girl") made the Billboard Hot 100 (and "Leave My Monkey Alone" got up to #12 on the Dance/Club list), two of his albums (A Quiet Normal Life and The Wind) went gold, and another (Excitable Boy) went platinum. He also won two Grammy Awards posthumously, and several of his songs were Covered Up by other artists. These days, though, "Werewolves" is all anybody remembers. He is a reliable feature on lists of 'most underrated artists' or 'artists who died too young'.

Studio Discography:

  • Wanted Dead or Alive (as Zevon; 1969)
  • Warren Zevon (1976)
  • Excitable Boy (1978)
  • Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)
  • The Envoy (1982)
  • Sentimental Hygiene (1987)
  • Transverse City (1989)
  • Mr. Bad Example (1991)
  • Mutineer (1995)
  • Life'll Kill Ya (2000)
  • My Ride's Here (2002)
  • The Wind (2003)

"Dirty Life and Tropes":

  • Actor/Role Confusion: Invoked in "My Ride's Here."
    I was staying at the Westin;
    I was playing to a draw.
    In walked Charlton Heston
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: Several of his songs have alliterative lines.
    • "Werewolves of London:"
      Little old lady got mutilated late last night
      Werewolves of London again
    • "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner:"
      The deal was made in Denmark
      On a dark and stormy day
    • "The French Inhaler:"
      How you gonna make your way in the world, woman,
      When you weren't cut out for working?
    • "Porcelain Monkey:"
      It's a rockabilly ride from the glitter to the gloom.
    • "Hit Somebody:"
      He was born in Big Beaver by the border line . . .
  • The Alleged Car: "Studebaker" is about a road trip in a car that keeps breaking down.
  • all lowercase letters: Early in his career, he was in a duo called lyme and cybelle, billing himself as stephen lyme.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: The backstabbing "son-of-a-bitch Van Owen" from "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" is heavily implied to be one; he's a mercenary involved in the Congolese Civil Warnote  with a stereotypically Dutch South African surname. Once Roland comes back as a headless Revenant Zombie, he gets his revenge by blasting Van Owen's body "from there [Mombasa] to Johannesburg" with his Tommy gun.
  • Anti-Love Song: "Looking for the Next Best Thing", "Nobody's In Love This Year", "Finishing Touches", "Angel Dressed in Black"... Zevon wrote quite a few of these.
  • Anti-Role Model: "Mr Bad Example", who doesn't have time for Sloth because he's too busy committing the other six deadly sins.
  • Artistic License – History: A very mild case in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." The lyrics state, "through sixty-six and seven, they fought the Congo War" and describes Roland and his comrades battling the Bantu, but the Congolese Civil War was officially over by 1965. The fighting of the subsequent few years in Stanleyville was a mercenary-led uprising by the former Katangese Gendarmerie, which was made up primarily of the Bazela and Luba peoples. Since the song is more about the general mercenary experience and the bloody results of early Western intervention in Central Africa the dates don't matter very much.
  • Auto-Tune: Used on "Genius." Since he was a decent singer on his own, it seems to have been an artistic choice. It works surprisingly well, showing once again that Tropes Are Not Bad.
  • Becoming the Mask: The title simian in "Gorilla, You're a Desperado" yanks Zevon into his cage at the zoo, then steals his glasses and his life. After that he gets caught up in the minutiae of human existence. The lyrics leave it ambiguous who got the better end of the deal.
  • Black Comedy: Which could sum up a lot of Zevon's career in general. See such classics as "Excitable Boy," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Mr. Bad Example," and others.
    • Discussing his inoperable, fatal cancer: "I may have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years."
  • Celebrity Cameo: David Letterman says "Hit somebody" in the chorus of "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)".
  • Card-Carrying Villain: "Mr Bad Example" is this trope incarnate, enough that the trope could plausibly even be renamed after it.
  • Censored Title: The song "My Shit's Fucked Up" wasn't listed on the back of the CD case for Life'll Kill Ya.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: "My Shit's Fucked Up," off of Life'll Kill Ya.
  • Concept Album: Transverse City, a Cyberpunk vision set about 20 Minutes into the Future.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The junk bond king in "Seminole Bingo"
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning/Softer and Slower Cover: His cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again" is slower and more melancholy than the original.
  • Crapsack World: "The Indifference of Heaven," Transverse City, Life'll Kill Ya,... a recurring theme in his work, especially on his last few albums.
  • Creator Thumbprint: Had a habit of making phrases rhyme by addressing them to a name. Examples include:
    • "Werewolves of London:
      "You better stay away from him,
      He'll rip your lungs out, Jim."
    • "Lord Byron's Luggage:"
      "Looking for a needle in a haystack,
      Every dog has his day, Jack;
      I'm still waiting on mine."
    • "My Ride's Here:"
      "You said 'I believe the Seraphim will gather up my Pinto,
      And carry me away, Jim, across the San Jacinto.'"
  • Cyberpunk: Transverse City is an acoustic guitar version of this genre, starting with the titular song.
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Carmelita," which deals very frankly with heroin addiction.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: At the end of "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)", Buddy is checked so hard that he dies... but the last thing he sees is the light go off, signalling that he scored the goal he always wanted.
  • Escape Artist: From "For My Next Trick, I'll Need a Volunteer":
    "Put me in chains and I will escape"
  • Even the Lhasa Apso Seems To Be Ashamed: On "Disorder in the House."
  • Evil Virtues: The protagonist of "Mr. Bad Example" laments that he can't commit all the deadly sins, because his actions (going to law school, founding crooked businesses, etc.) keep him too busy for sloth, at least until the final verse when he's thinking of retiring and wants to be woken up for meals.
  • Fragile Speedster: Deconstructed in "Boom Boom Mancini."
    Some have the speed and the right combinations;
    If you can't take the punches, it don't mean a thing.
  • The Gambler: The title character in "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" is discouraged from marrying one, but does anyway. It doesn't turn out well. Also, "Seminole Bingo" and "Lawyers, Guns, and Money".
  • Hockey Fight: The focus of "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)," unsurprisingly.
  • Irony: "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)" is about a hockey player who's drafted to be a goon, but dreams of shooting just one goal. Finally, he gets the chance, and lines up a shot... and is promptly checked so hard by another goon that he dies on the ice. He makes the shot, though.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: "Bad Karma".
  • Life Will Kill You: Well, yes. His 2000 album was even called Life'll Kill Ya.
  • Live Album: Stand in the Fire and Learning to Flinch.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Zevon frequently employed Black Comedy in his songs, and speciality was making happy, upbeat-sounding songs, but usually with a sarcastic undertone and/or quite macabre content.
    • "Excitable Boy" sounds like a peppy piece of semi-nostalgic 70's pop-rock, but features the subject of the song engaging in somewhat unpredictable and socially unacceptable acts, which eventually escalates to him raping and killing his date after the junior prom, getting incarcerated in an psychiatric hospital for a decade, and — upon his release — proceeding to digging up his victim's grave and building a cage with her bones. All the while, Zevon never once drops his completely straight-faced, matter-of-factly narration despite the increasingly disturbing events being depicted in the song.
    • "Carmelita" is musically very zippy, even though it's written from the POV of a desperate junkie.
  • Magic Pants: In "Werewolves of London":
    Huh, I'd like to meet his tailor
  • The Mexican Revolution: The subject of "Veracruz".
  • Mistaken Nationality: Often mistaken for being a Brit due to his hit song's subject matter.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: "The Envoy" sings about a diplomat in a way that makes him sound like the main character of an action movie.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Utterly averted by I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, his official biography. An oral history compiled by his ex-wife, it includes grievances from former coworkers and collaborators, as well as stories of abuse from his family. Unusually, it done at his request, and with his blessing.
  • No Ending: "Life'll Kill Ya" doesn't end so much as abruptly stop.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: "Hostage-O." "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" almost veers into this, but the narrator abruptly cuts off and says he doesn't want to talk about it.
  • Ode to Sobriety: "Detox Mansion".
  • One-Woman Song:
    • "A Bullet for Ramona"
    • "Carmelita"
    • "Suzie Lightning"
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: In "Werewolves of London" they satisfy some of their meat cravings at Chinese restaurants. However, they still mutilate little old ladies and will rip your lungs out if they get the chance. More a matter of a somewhat broader diet than a human-friendly one.
    • Also, Lee Ho Fook's doesn't sell beef chow mein, so some think it is people after all.
  • Outlaw: "Frank and Jesse James".
  • Persona Non Grata: In "Lord Byrons Luggage":
    "They pronounced me persona non grata
    Goes to show that you can't come and go as you please"
  • Precision S Strike:
    Send lawyers, guns, and money
    The shit has hit the fan
  • Private Military Contractors: "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner", "Jungle Work"
  • Pull a Rabbit out of My Hat: Mentioned in "For My Next Trick, I'll Need a Volunteer".
  • Revenant Zombie: The titular character of "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" returns from the grave to take revenge on "that son-of-a-bitch Van Owen" who took his head, and continues to wander through war-torn places for years afterward.
  • Run for the Border: "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" sees the protagonist flee from Havana into Honduras to escape the laundry list of problems that he's racked up... but now he's stuck, and is begging his father for the titular legal aid, money, and weapons so he can go home.
  • Sanity Slippage: "Basket Case".
  • Saw a Woman in Half: Mentioned in "For My Next Trick, I'll Need a Volunteer"
  • Self-Titled Album: His 1976 album, in which he successfully relaunched his performing career.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: A complete list of the polysyllabics found in his lyrics would overwhelm the page, but just as an example, "Porcelain Monkey" managed to include the words "Pentecostal," "sobriquet," "Rockabilly," "regicidal," and "velveteen."
  • Shout-Out:
  • The Snark Knight:
    • Of heroic proportions. In his final appearance on Letterman, having discussed the cancer diagnosis, the host said "To me, you look and seem remarkably healthy." Zevon's reply: "Well, don't be fooled by cosmetics."
    • “I might have made a tactical error not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn't pay off.”
  • Solo Side Project: Normally a solo act, Zevon inverted this twice:
    • First there were the Hindu Love Gods - Zevon fronting R.E.M. (who also backed him on his own Sentimental Hygeine album) on an album of blues standards.
    • He later toured with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a group otherwise comprised of professional authors, as their token "real musician."note 
  • Something Blues: "Tule's Blues", "Rottweiler Blues".
  • Studio Chatter: On a couple tracks of The Wind.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: Subverted in "Genius:"
    "There's a face in every window of the songwriters' neighborhood.
    Everyone's your best friend when you're doing well - I mean good."
  • Surreal Music Video: Leave My Monkey Alone.
  • Take That!:
    • Zevon may have had a grudge against Talking Heads. Not only did he title a song "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down", but in his song "The Overdraft" (mocking the Talking Heads's gloomy "The Overload"), the singer is paranoid and on the run much like in the Heads' "Life During Wartime" — except in Zevon's song, the guy is on the lam because of a bounced check.
    • The entirety of "Porcelain Monkey" is one against Elvis Presley.
    • "Play It All Night Long" is one to the Deep South (though it may be a Stealth Parody) and also references Lynyrd Skynyrd.
      "Sweet home Alabama
      Play that dead band's song
      Turn those speakers up full blast
      Play it all night long"
    • "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" ends with a very memorable one.
      "Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it"
  • Theremin: He plays one on "Porcelain Monkey"
  • Uncommon Time: "Accidentally Like a Martyr" alternates between 4/4 in the verses and 7/4 in the instrumentals.
  • Unwanted Harem: "Poor Poor Pitiful Me"
    These young girls won't let me be
    Lord have mercy on me
    Woe is me
  • Villain Song: "Mr. Bad Example".
  • Villain with Good Publicity: "Model Citizen".