5 Times Warren Zevon Made Us Belly-Laugh and Ugly-Cry—in the Same Song

Good songwriters can conjure different types of emotions with each new song they release. Great songwriters can pull that off within the course of a single album. And then there are those like Warren Zevon, who can give you the whole gamut of feelings in one single, solitary song.

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Zevon could deliver a one-liner as good as any stand-up, and then pull the rug out from under you with some stuff that’ll break your heart. And he could put it all together naturally without making it seem disjointed in the least. Here are five examples where Warren had us belly-laughing and ugly-crying, all at once.

1. ”My Ride’s Here” (from the album My Ride’s Here, 2002)

Zevon was writing songs about mortality well before he was diagnosed with the terminal cancer that would eventually claim his life in 2003. On this far-reaching track, he collaborated with well-known poet Paul Muldoon to imagine a surreal tapestry where poets, actors, and religious figures weave in and out of the narrator’s efforts to leave East Texas. It’s reminiscent of Bob Dylan songs like “Desolation Row,” where the names are used to misdirect and provide knowing chuckles.

Behind that, there is an undercurrent of sorrow. We can tell where this “ride” is going to take him, and his stoic way of staring down this final journey without fear or regret is moving. It’s part elegy, part comedy, and full-on brilliant.

2. “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” from the album My Ride’s Here, 2002)

This is another Zevon collaboration, in this case with an unlikely person: sportswriter Mitch Albom. The two men apparently had never heard a song about hockey, and decided to rectify that. They concocted a story about a “goon,” which is another term for a player who doesn’t worry about scoring goals, instead focusing on delivering big hits and starting fights with the other team.

[RELATED: Behind the 2003 Death of Sardonic Songwriter Warren Zevon]

Zevon and Albom tease out the story beautifully, and they get help from David Letterman, who hollers out the refrain. But somehow, they turn the song into a heart-rending story, as the hero wants more than a career as a glorified thug. He finally gets the chance to score in his final game, but a twist ending makes this one a tragicomedy.

3. “For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer” (from the album Life’ll Kill Ya, 2000)

On this mid-tempo number, Zevon takes hold of a metaphor and rides it all the way to both smirks and sadness. The title comes from the typical patter you might hear a second-rate magician give at a run-down little nightclub on the outskirts of town. But Zevon’s narrator is actually talking about his love life and the way that he tends to tear apart every relationship he encounters.

There’s certainly some gallows humor at play as he goes through every hacky trick and bit of stagecraft. But then he hits you with the sadness that such a life engenders. It’s lonely as hell and there’s no magic spell for a broken heart, Zevon sings, as the humor gives way to pathos.

4. “The French Inhaler” (from the album Warren Zevon, 1976)

Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album wasn’t technically his debut (he had released an album back in 1969 that went nowhere), but it might as well have been, considering how it introduced his brilliance to the world. On this beautiful ballad that closed out the album’s first side, the narrator earns guffaws for the way he describes his surroundings: Yes, I drank up all the money / With these phonies in this Hollywood bar / These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.

That doesn’t prepare us for the sad fate of the girl he’s describing, or for the subtle heartbreak he himself suffers when he realizes he won’t be the one to save her from that fate. The song’s final line (She said, So long Norman) is a gut punch at the end of a multi-layered track.

5. “Desperados Under the Eaves” (from the album Warren Zevon, 1976)

Zevon closed out that 1976 record with a tour de force of a song that manages to be both a harrowing character sketch and a snapshot of the entire West Coast scene. His location on the coast is the impetus for one of the song’s funniest stanzas: 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.

Yet his main character is laughing through his tears, as he surveys his picturesque environs through the lens of his stoned loneliness: Don’t the sun look angry through the trees / Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves. See if you don’t get a little misty-eyed in the final closing moments, when the string section sweeps this guy off into an unforgiving sunset.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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