Listen To The Band: Warren Zevon

I follow a page on Facebook called Induct Warren Zevon Into The Hall Of Fame. I think I have commented before on my view of this so-called ‘Rock and Roll’ entity, which seems to constantly ignore deserving cases like Warren while allowing entry to pop, (c)rap, and RnB artists who should be elsewhere, if anywhere. But the page did remind me that this week saw the 19th anniversary of Warren’s passing and, as I had been thinking about resuming my Listen To The Band series again – it has only been a year since the most recent post, after all – this seemed as good a time as any. So here we are.

This paragraph from Wikipedia describes his colourful background: “Zevon was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Beverly Cope (née Simmons) and William Zevon. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, whose original surname was Zivotofsky. William Zevon worked as a bookie who handled volume bets and dice games for the notorious Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen. He worked for years in the Cohen crime family, in which he was known as Stumpy Zevon, and was best man at Cohen’s first wedding. Warren’s mother was from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints family and was of English descent. They moved to Fresno, California. By the age of 13, Zevon was an occasional visitor to the home of Igor Stravinsky, where he briefly studied modern classical music. His parents divorced when he was 16 years old, and he soon quit high school and moved from Los Angeles to New York City to become a folk singer.”

Coming from a family that mixed mobsters and Mormons is fairly uncommon, but it probably explains his wry take on life in so many of his songs. From those beginnings he developed a musical career which saw him release twelve albums, which have somehow been turned into six compilation albums by his record companies. He achieved some chart success in the US and Australia, and a couple of his albums also made the UK chart. He was taken from us at the ridiculously early age of 56 by mesothelioma, a virulent form of cancer, and as was so typical of him he took this on head first and called in favours from a stellar cast of musical friends to help him make one final album. He was held in high regard by his peers, and was a great friend of David Letterman, on whose show he made a number of appearances. Many covered his songs, and I’m going to play you some of his own, plus a cover, in his memory. The obvious place to start is the one that, if you know any of his songs, it is probably this one:

I’ve played this one a couple of times before in my posts for Halloween, but I never tire of hearing it and it is a really good place to start today’s music. It was a track on Warren’s third album, Excitable Boy, which was released in January 1978 and gave him his breakthrough, reaching #8 in the US and #9 in Australia. The song was released as a single and got a fair bit of airplay here: it peaked at #21 in the US, #8 in Australia, and squeaked into the UK chart at #87.

Another track on that album has become a firm fan favourite, and was much beloved by Letterman, as you can see from this:

That one wasn’t released as a single: I’m not sure how most singles buyers would have reacted to it, anyway! I’ve always loved the song, though, and like the first one it is typical of the humour to be found in many of his songs.

He didn’t just write on his own. This one was a collaborative effort with Kenny Edwards, previously a member of the Stone Poneys and a regular collaborator with Linda Ronstadt:

That was a track on Warren’s fifth album, The Envoy, released in July 1982. It wasn’t a massive seller, reaching #93 in the US and #100 in Australia, but there are some good songs on it. The cast list of those involved is a real who’s who of rock music at that time, including the likes of Graham Nash, who was among the harmony vocalists on this one.

I mentioned that there would be a cover version here, and I’ve just name checked Linda Ronstadt. This next one was originally included on Warren’s self-titled second album, released in May 1976, but you may know this version better:

With Warren’s blessing, Linda re-gendered some of the lyrics for Poor Poor Pitiful Me and recorded it for her album Simple Dreams, which was released in September 1977 and reached #1 in the US and #15 in the UK. It also included Warren’s song Carmelita, and her version of the Rolling Stones’ Tumbling Dice. She knew how to pick a good song!

I said earlier that Warren was held in high regard by his peers. Here is an example of one of them:

Splendid Isolation was a track on Warren’s album Transverse City, released in October 1989. Neil Young is credited with playing lead guitar on one of the tracks and with harmony vocal for this one, but Wikipedia doesn’t say if he played harmonica on the record. As Warren also played it, I guess it could have been either of them. This is taken at a slightly slower pace than the recorded version, and I rather like it.

I’m following that up with another from the same concert:

Searching For A Heart was a track on Warren’s eighth album, Mr Bad Example, which was released in October 1991. This was taken as a single from it, but neither record troubled the chart compilers. It is a typical example of his softer, more thoughtful side, and is another that I have always liked.

By way of contrast, this next one is Warren rocking out. I thought I would play it as it ticks a couple of boxes:

Which boxes does it tick? Well, it is Warren covering someone else’s song, which he did on occasion. This was originally by Prince, of course. And it shows him in a collaboration with some of his peers. He enlisted the help of three guys by the names of Berry, Buck and Mills to play on his Sentimental Hygiene album, and they spent some of their time together playing songs that they liked. Out of that came the album they released in October 1990 under the name of The Hindu Love Gods (no, I don’t have a Scooby either), which was a set of covers, including this one. They clearly had a lot of fun doing it, and managed to sell enough copies to reach #182 in the US Albums chart.

I thought I would close this piece with a couple of tracks from that final album Warren set out to make after his cancer had been diagnosed, and he had been given three months to live. This first one is well known, and there have been many versions: by Bob Dylan, who wrote it, Eric Clapton, Guns ‘n’ Roses amongst others. But I don’t think any of them have the sense of meaning and poignancy of this:

And this is the final track on the album. Nineteen years on and it still brings a tear to my eye whenever I listen to it:

Keep Me In Your Heart was written by Warren and his long time friend Jorge Calderón, who has worked with many artists, including the likes of Jackson Browne. The video is taken from a documentary that was made about the making of this final album which is, as you might expect, full of joy, laughter and tears. I won’t show the whole piece – it runs to around 43 minutes – but you can find it here if you wish to see more. This a perfect way to close what he knew would be his final record. The album, The Wind, was one of his most successful, reaching #12 in the US and #57 here in the UK. It was released on 26 August 2003. Warren died on 7 September, just twelve days later. This final album won him two posthumous Grammy Awards, plus a further three nominations. R.I.P. Warren. Thank you for the music you have left for us.

10 thoughts on “Listen To The Band: Warren Zevon

  1. Pingback: When September Ends | Take It Easy

  2. I’ve followed you long enough to know that Warren Zevon is one of your favorites. His music has made several appearances on your blog. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes no sense. I look at some of the performers who are already in, and I’m left scratching my head.

    One of my favorite performers is finally getting in this year—Pat Benatar. I have no idea why it took this long

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t understand the Hall Of Fame either – it tends to make me think that money has changed hands for many of the previous nominations. As you say, Pat Benatar is long overdue her inclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. what a wonderful tribute to one of my favorite singer-songwriters. I also enjoyed his sense of humor.

    I recognized many of these songs, but there were a few that were new to me: Looking for the Next Big Thing, Splendid Isolation, Searching for a Heart, and Raspberry Beret.

    Liked by 1 person

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