January 24th is the anniversary of Warren Zevon's birth. Instead of wishing him a happy 61st birthday, however, it's time to remember the remarkable talent we lost all too soon.
There's no middle ground on Warren Zevon. You either find him to be the eighth wonder of the musical world, or you find him repulsive. His songs were brutally frank, much the same way a great movie (think The Godfather or Schindler's List) can be to tell the story. While he could be popular (he wrote a few songs for the Turtles in the 60s), most of his songs explored a side of life wilder than Hank Thompson ever sang about.
He was pigeonholed as "the Sam Peckinpah of rock and roll" following the release of 1978's Excitable Boy, but that was an unfair assessment. Yes, there was violence and murder in some songs, but the Beatles gave us that jovial murder ditty "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and no one pigeonholed them because of that. Excitable Boy also produced two of Zevon's best songs ever: the doting dad looking at a little girl and seeing her as a grown woman in "Tenderness on the Block," and the pain of a marriage falling apart in "Accidentally Like a Martyr."
And, honestly, therein lies the beauty of Warren Zevon. Anyone can make an album of violence. Anyone can make an album of love songs. It's hard to find one artist who can do both.
In honor of what would've been Warren's 61st birthday, here are a few Zevon songs to enjoy:
Charlie's Medicine (from The Envoy, 1982). An ode to a dealer who was gunned down by "some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills," this powerful song is even more haunting after reading Crystal Zevon's account in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon that Warren, thought to be "clean and sober" in 1982 following a long, painful climb out of the vodka bottle in 1979, was actually using heroin during the time this song was written.
Searching for a Heart (from Mr. Bad Example, 1992). This song contains one of David Letterman's favorite lines; indeed, one of Zevon's best lines: "They say love conquers all, you can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun." This song is proof positive that Zevon could write a love song as well as anyone.
Bed of Coals (from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, 1980). Co-written with T-Bone Burnett, this is a powerful song with an eerily prophetic line: "I'm too old to die young and too young to die now."
Mr. Bad Example (from Mr. Bad Example, 1992). One critic offered an interesting comment about this polka-flavored tale of debauchery to the nth degree: the reviewer wondered why "no one thought to ask Zevon if it was autobiographical."
Desperadoes Under the Eaves (from Warren Zevon, 1976). Zevon has recorded gems, classics, and marvelous songs, but the crowning achievement of his career. If Warren Zevon's entire career can be summed up in one song, it's this masterpiece. Funny, sad, desperate -- all in the same song. Just as Zevon is ready to drink up "all the salty margaritas in Los Angeles," the air conditioner begins to hum -- complete with orchestration and backing vocals. What more could you want out of a song?
As with most Zevon fans, I'd much rather be celebrating than remembering. However, like most Zevon fans, I'm certainly thankful for the recordings he left us with. And, thanks to the recent release of the remaining two albums on CD that had previously been out of print for decades (1980's Stand in the Fire -- once hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as "one of the best live albums ever" -- and 1982's The Envoy), the catalog is complete and available on CD.