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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.


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'.

As usual, you can find the basics at The Other Wiki.


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 (1999)
  • My Ride's Here (2001)
  • The Wind (2003)

"Dirty Life and Tropes":

  • 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?
  • 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 '66 and 7, 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.
  • 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)".
  • 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 Breakdown/Real Life Writes the Plot: Zevon was a very personal songwriter. Many of his songs reflect his romantic feelings ("Reconsider Me", "Searching for a Heart"), his issues with drugs and alcohol ("Desperados Under the Eaves", "Trouble Waiting To Happen"), his experiences with Los Angeles and California in general ("Carmelita", most of Transverse City possibly). Of course, the man had a sense of humor, so this is lampshaded frequently (see "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", "Bad Karma", "Mr. Bad Example", etc.).
  • Dead Artists Are Better: His only Grammys were awarded after his death.
  • Death Song: "Something Bad Happened to a Clown," among others.
  • Deep South: "Renegade".
  • Downer Ending: Many of his songs and his death at 56.
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Carmelita".
  • 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
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: "Gorilla, You're a Desperado".
    • Also, "Leave My Monkey Alone" and "Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse". Sorta.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Heavy Meta: "Mohammed's Radio", "Johnny Strikes Up the Band", "Piano Fighter".
  • The Hermit: The goal in "Splendid Isolation."
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: "She's Too Good For Me".
  • Ice Hockey: "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)".
  • 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.
  • Long Title:
    • "Backs Turned, Looking Down the Path"
    • "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School"
    • "For My Next Trick, I'll Need a Volunteer"
    • "Looking for the Next Best Thing"
    • "Even a Dog Can Shake Hands"
    • "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner"
    • "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead"
    • "Something Bad Happened to a Clown"
    • "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down"
    • "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared"
  • Los Angeles: "Join Me in L.A." is just the start.
  • 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.
  • No Export for You : For many years, many of Zevon's albums were unavaliable in different parts of the world, particularly Europe, for different reasons. Thankfully, this was largely changed in the 2000s when previously rare albums were finally released... with bonus tracks.
  • 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"
  • Production Posse: They didn't all show up on every album, but you can reasonably expect the following names to show up in the credits: Jackson Browne, Waddy Wachtel, Jorge Calderón, David Lindley, J.D. Souther, at least one Eagle (usually Glenn Frey, but sometimes almost the entire band), at least one member of Fleetwood Mac, and, in the later ones, his son Jordan Zevon.
    • Also could apply to his friend David Letterman who always had him on to promote his albums and he was the usual fill in bandleader when Paul Shaffer was sick.
    • Oddly enough, a few of the Beach Boys. Most famously his duet with Carl Wilson on "Desperados Under the Eaves", but David Marks and Bruce Johnston also played with him from time to time.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Johnny Strikes Up the Band" is reportedly a tribute to Elton John.
    • "Werewolves of London" is ultimately one to Werewolf of London, via Phil Everly telling Zevon about the movie and suggesting that he do a Dance Sensation song called "Werewolves of London".
      • The Stand in the Fire live version of "Werewolves of London" has a couple, if only in passing. Some of these are quotable in Zevon fan communities.
      "You'd better stay from him, he'll rip your lungs out Jim, AND HE'S LOOKING FOR JAMES TAYLOR."
    • "Excitable Boy" has a disturbing one. The name of the eponymous boy's victim is "Little Susie." Zevon had previously been in The Everly Brothers' road band.
    • "Boom Boom Mancini"
    • The "So I pawned my Smith-Coronanote " in "Carmelita" is a reference to The Lost Weekend.
    • The "Norman" mentioned at the end of "The French Inhaler" is Norman Mailer.
  • 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."
    • “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: Inverted with the Hindu Love Gods - the normally-solo Zevon fronting R.E.M. (who also backed him on his own Sentimental Hygeine album) on an album of blues standards.
  • Something Blues: "Tule's Blues", "Rottweiler Blues".
  • 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"
  • Technology Marches On: From "Networking" on 1989's Transverse City:
    "Networking, I am user friendly
    Networking, I install with ease
    Data processed, truly Basic
    I will upload you, you can download me"
  • 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"
  • Villain Song: "Mr. Bad Example".
  • Villain with Good Publicity: "Model Citizen".


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