Top 10 Warren Zevon Songs That Deserve a Revisit

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Though it took him a bit to get up to speed, by the time Warren Zevon released his self-titled album in 1976, his sharp wit and scathing lyrics made him an inimitable songwriter. He kept that reputation for the better part of his three decades in the music industry before dying of cancer in 2003.

His hits have gone on to inspire a whole new generation of artists who lean into the same off-kilter sensibilities while his lesser-known tracks have become cult classic tunes. Below, we’re going through just 10 of Zevon’s best and brightest that you should revisit sooner rather than later.

10. “Detox Mansion”

After Excitable Boy garnered some fame for Zevon, he had a few years that found him lost in a string of uninspired albums. His LP Sentimental Hygiene finally put him back on the map—this time as a tough rocker who didn’t shy away from the less digestible parts of his life. In “Detox Mansion,” Zevon sings about addiction recovery with lines like, It’s tough to be somebody / It’s hard to keep from fallin’ apart.

9. “Carmelita”

Zevon had been toying around with “Carmelita” for years before it landed on his self-titled album in 1976. This shuffling groove has been covered a number of times with Linda Ronstadt’s rendition being a memorable one, but Zevon’s wistful version is undoubtedly the definitive one.

8. “Frank and Jesse James”

Zevon opens his self-titled LP with “Frank and Jesse James,” an ode to the notorious outlaw brothers. Like many of Zevon’s songs, the track is also imbued with images of Los Angeles circa the ’70s. Featuring support from some of L.A.’s best session musicians, he sings, On a small Missouri farm / Back when the west was young / Two boys learned to rope and ride / And be handy with a gun.

7. “Splendid Isolation”

As the follow-up to his 1987 comeback album, Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon released a sci-fi concept album titled Transverse City. One track, “Splendid Isolation,” is undoubtedly the gem of the record, and is also a strong contender for being one of Zevon’s best latter-day songs.

6. “Accidentally Like a Martyr”

Zevon didn’t write many straightforward love songs. If there is one thing he loved it was telling the story of two troubled individuals finding a troubled love. But in “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” he does leave things simple with a narrator that is looking back on a break-up. He’s dejected, he’s yearning, and there is nary a caustic metaphor in sight.

5. “Excitable Boy”

“Excitable Boy” can be taken as the wild story of Zevon’s life – save a few deeply contemptible bits, we hope. The track encompasses all of Zevon’s trademarks like a catchy melody, polarizing lyrics, and a sense of fatalism that quickly turns hedonistic.

4. “Keep Me in Your Heart”

As he was recording what would be his final album, Zevon knew he was dying of cancer. The Wind was released two weeks after he died on Sept. 7 of 2003. The centerpiece of the album, “Keep Me in Your Heart,” has a poignant air about it that seems like a eulogy for the late singer-songwriter.

3. “Lawyers, Guns and Money”

“Lawyers, Guns and Money” closes out Zevon’s best, and subsequently most popular, album—Excitable Boy. As Zevon tells the story, this track was inspired by a time he was in a taxi in Cuba. As they rode along, the driver “made a quick stop” and pulled into a house. A few minutes later, the driver came running out with his sister, who had apparently been kidnapped.

They both jumped in the front seat of the taxi and took off while being chased by the kidnappers. From the backseat, Zevon’s manager said, “Call my Dad and tell him to send some lawyers,” to which Zevon replied, “Yeah, and some guns and Money.”

2. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”

“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” is reputed to have originally been written as a friendly swipe at his pal Jackson Browne’s songwriting, which could often be quite depressing. At times, Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album can play like a demo collection intended for more well-known artists to sing, with “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” being no exception. It was made a hit twice by other artists—first by Linda Rondstadt and then later by Terri Clark.

1. “Werewolves of London”

You knew what it was going to be. We couldn’t put anything else at No. 1 besides “Werewolves of London.” Zevon’s only Top 40 hit, this left-field classic was written in only 15 minutes. Zevon interpreted the song as “about a really well-dressed, ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies. In a way, it’s the Victorian nightmare, the gigolo thing. The idea behind all those references is the idea of the ne’er do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman.”

Though the song was mostly an in-joke for his close circle, underneath it all, “Werewolves of London” is powered by one of Zevon’s most memorable hooks.

(Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

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