This series examines the best lyrical snippets from the greatest songwriters of all time.
Videos by American Songwriter
Few songwriters have ever possessed the versatility that Warren Zevon so effortlessly displayed throughout his mercurial career. He could be raunchy and raucous one moment, tender and heartfelt the next. His subject matter was also much more varied than the average troubadour. Choosing the best of his witticisms and wisdom from within his ever-quotable songs wasn’t easy. But here it goes anyway.
10. “Well, I pawned my Smith Corona/And I went to meet my man/He hangs out down on Alvarado Street/By the Pioneer Chicken Stand” (from “Carmelita”)
The details here make this addict’s lament feel lived-in and honest. Out goes the typewriter in exchange for money that will be used for a score. And that chicken stand, which was a real location, feels like the kind of low-key location where such deals would go down. “Carmelita” is rife with specifics such as this that cause the song to hit that much harder.
9. “All the worms and the gnomes are having lunch at Le Dome/They’re all living off the fat of the land/Everybody’s trying to be a friend of mine/Even a dog can shake hands” (from “Even A Dog Can Shake Hands”)
The California that Zevon detailed back in the mid-70s had clearly transformed by the time he recorded this searing critique of yuppie upward mobility. His own dealings with record execs likely colored his take here as well. To reduce all their moving and shaking down to something that a canine could do is the kind of withering insult in which Zevon specialized.
8.“There ain’t much to country living/Sweat, piss, jizz, blood” (from “Play It All Night Long”)
Zevon settles into a groove here that is somewhere between insult of and homage to bucolic existence. He even calls out for a rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” from that “dead band,” while also name- checking cattle diseases to prove his authenticity. There is nothing artificially sweetened in his description of this way of life, which somehow lends it more dignity than any sepia-toned praise might.
7. “We contemplate eternity/Beneath the vast indifference of heaven” (from “The Indifference Of Heaven”)
This is an example of how Zevon could undermine his “Mr. Bad Example” persona. We don’t expect him to be the one pondering the meaning of life in song; we expect him to be the one laughing it all off with a defiant sneer. Yet these lines are as unforcedly poetic as they come, a meditation on what it means to have faith in the absence of any evidence that you should.
6. “Send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this” (from “Lawyers, Guns And Money”)
Again, the believability factor is the key here. Partly due to his image, and partly due to the authenticity that he achieved with his lyrics, we can believe that Zevon, or at least his stand-in within the song, would get mixed up in the kind of business that requires the cavalry to come. That title phrase has stuck in the culture because of the way it boils it all down.
5. “So he’s hanging on to half a heart/But he can’t have the restless part/So he tells her to hasten down the wind” (from “Hasten Down The Wind”)
As caustic as he could be, Zevon possessed an affecting soft side in song, especially when it came to bittersweet ballads. “Hasten Down The Wind” was one of his first and, when all is said and done, just might be his best of this type of song. These lines, and the whole song, talks about a relationship on life support where neither party has the courage to step up and pull the plug.
4. “Will you stay with me to the end/When there’s nothing left but you and me and the wind/We’ll never know till we try/To find the other side of goodbye” (from “Please Stay”)
Zevon’s final artistic statement proved to be one his greatest, as The Wind found him mustering whatever strength his terminal illness would allow him to write a truly compelling set of songs. He doesn’t quite rage against the dying of the light here so much as plead for someone to accompany him through the darkness. The hope is that there will be something benevolent waiting at the end of the journey.
3. “Albert Einstein was a ladies man/When he was working on his universal plan/He was making out like Charlie Sheen/He was a genius” (from “Genius”)
The contrast between the names he drops here illustrates the songwriter’s wicked sense of humor. You could see Zevon in mixed company with either man and, in his way, holding his own. “Genius,” as a whole, features him flexing his songwriting muscles with acrobatic rhyming that nestles snugly amidst the swirling unease of co-songwriter Larry Klein’s music.
2. “Don’t let us get sick/Don’t let us get old/Don’t let us get stupid, all right?” (from “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”)
Throughout these examples, we’ve seen many examples of Zevon’s dexterity and cleverness. But this song from toward the tail end of his career is as direct as they come. That fate would deny him this simple plean when his cancer diagnosis came up a few years after this song was written, doesn’t deny its poignance or potency.
1.“And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standing until I play my bill” (from “Desperados Under The Eaves”)
This was the closing salvo from Zevon’s perfect self-titled album from 1976. The ne’er do-well protagonist surveys his surroundings and his own sorry state, drinking all the while to ease the sting of it all. He manages some gallows humor in these lines that would serve as a kind of misdirection for what was to come. In the chorus, when the sun and the trees, usually signifiers of California dreaming, turn into nightmares, the unpaid bill seems like the least of his problems.