Warren Zevon (1947 -2003)
9 years ago, the great Warren Zevon died of lung cancer. And a few days later, Johnny Cash died. While the impact Warren Zevon had on music can certainly not be compared to the man in black, he deserves to be more well-known than he is today.
If you had to look up his music in a store, you’d be most likely to find his albums (excitable boy, warren zevon and the wind are recommended) in the singer-songwriter section. But there was a lot more going on than that. You might argue he was one of the great unknown heroes of Rock’n’Roll as David Letterman said and you’d have a point.
Songs like Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me and I’ll sleep when I’m dead or I was in the house (when the house burned down) certainly showed he was one of the great rockers when he wanted to. And Stand in the Fire, a live album he recorded in the 70’s is even more proof of that, with renditions of classic songs like werewolves of london, excitable boy and jeannie needs a shooter bristling with life and crackling with energy.
But if you only thought of Warren as an unruly, joyful madman, you’d have an incomplete picture. Some of his best songs are tender, heartfelt ballads. Hasten wown the wind, Accidentally like a martyr and searching for a heart are deeply affecting songs that have become classics in their own right. And the stripped down live album learning to flinch shows that along with being a great guitar player he was just as much at ease in front of a piano.
Maybe one of the reasons he isn’t as well-known as he should be, is his sometimes unusual choice of themes for his songs. Jackson Browne referred to him as a song noir singer and excitable boy, a song about a serial killer is certainly one of the reasons why. But this also links him to one of the reasons many still revere him: He reached his commercial peak in 1978, with his best-known song ‘werewolves of london’ and after that he didn’t seem to care much for commercial success and was happier writing songs he could stand behind.
If there is something all his songs have in common, it’s their unpolished, raw feel and the great dark humor he was also well-known for. Maybe it’s this dark sense of humour that made him record ‘knocking on heaven’s door’ on his last album, when he knew he was fatally ill.
The biggest surprise though, the one thing even die-hard fans couldn’t have foreseen, was that his most affecting tune would be a spare, stripped down song with a simple message: ‘keep me in your heart’. This wasn’t the guy who made an oath to sleep when he’d be dead. This wasn’t the guy who wrote ‘hasten down the wind either’. This was a guy who knew he was doommed, had made peace with it and hoped we would too. Even though it wasn’t exactly a well-hidden fact that the man could write ballads with the best of them, it still was arresting, considering this was a man whit the reputation of a charming class clown.
Coming back to Johnny Cash, when Johnny Cash covered Hurt, he eclipsed the original song, but it wasn’t surprising. He had done so many times before already. And he had the gravitas of a long, well-documented career in his favour. Even when Warren Zevon wrote serious songs, he still had this twinkle in his eye. Keep me in your heart suggests that had he not been taken away so soon, he stil had a lot to give.
At his last televised interview, on the Letterman Show, David Letterman wanted to know if Warren, given his borrowed time, had gained any insight he would like to share with the viewers. In typical Warren fashion, he quipped that we should enjoy every sandwich. As such, I would also suggest to people who happen on this post: enjoy every sandwich. And enjoy the music!
And Warren, you’ll never be forgotten.