My Top 10 Warren Zevon Songs

Warren Zevon was a rocker’s rocker. A musician’s musician. An artist’s artist. He never quite broke through to the mainstream, outside his perennial favourite “Werewolves of London” (which I’ve intentionally left off this list), and he wields little in the way of “casual” fans. But the man’s mark on music looms large, and though he tragically passed away 17 years ago due to complications from mesothelioma, he continues to gain new fans through his witty, sardonic lyrics. No one told a tale through song quite like Zevon, rock & roll’s bard.

On what would have been his 74th birthday, I present to you my 10 personal favourite Warren Zevon songs. Songs that I think could lead you into the greatness that is Warren Zevon, should you not be familiar yet.

10. Heartache Spoken Here

Album: Mr. Bad Example – 1991
I became a Zevon fan in high school, more on that later. But it wasn’t until 2008 that I started listening to country music in earnest, and I put on a Dwight Yoakam CD I found in our studios, immediately recognizing his voice. Sure it could have been from his numerous pop culture appearances, particularly “Guitars, Cadillacs” in Terminator 2: Judgement Day and “Let’s Work Together” in D2: The Mighty Ducks. But it was his backing vocals on this Zevon track I was recognizing. Knowing his association with Zevon, that sent me on the path of discovering Dwight, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

9. Accidentally Like a Martyr

Album: Excitable Boy – 1978
Excitable Boy is one of my favourite albums of all time, definitely a Top 10 for me. I had to cap myself at three songs from the album. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” showcases is his more reflective tendencies in his romantic ballads. There’s a mournful sadness to the track, without dropping fully into a sad sappy territory. There’s a twinge of regret.

8. Boom Boom Mancini

Album: Sentimental Hygiene – 1987
Truth be told, this isn’t even his best sports centric song, that would go to “Hit Somebody!” from My Ride’s Here. But I have a special fondness for Boom Boom Mancini. Overall, it showcases how great a lyrical storyteller Zevon really is. But this is on my own personal workout list, and always seems to hit right when I need it to.

7. Mohammed’s Radio

Album: Warren Zevon – 1976
The song is morose and cynical through much of the first verse, but takes on a strange optimistic turn as Zevon sings of the power rock music has to inspire.

6. Carmelita

Album: Warren Zevon – 1976
This track is was written by Zevon in the early 70s, recorded by Murray McLaughlin in ’72, but Zevon himself didn’t record until his self-titled album in ’76, and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists including Linda Ronstadt, Dwight Yoakam & Flaco Jimenez, Willy DeVille, and Social Distortion, to name a few. I’ve yet to hear a bad version of this song.

5. Desperados Under The Eaves

Album: Warren Zevon – 1976
A morose descent into alcoholism, Desperados deftly handles the complexities of substance abuse in a hard hitting but not depressing way, which is a running theme through out Zevon’s songwriting. He deals with the heavy, depressing content, but never in a sad, depressing manner. He always manages to keep you engaged and ot spiral you out into an existential crisis.

4. Mutineer

Album: Mutineer – 1995
My love of pirates aside, this feels like Zevon commenting on his status as an outsider in the rock world, and being perfectly comfortable with it. He’s not the glitzy rock star on MTV or at the Grammys, and he’s long overdue inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (becoming eligible in 1994), but he’s OK with that. He prefers his status as the outsider, the boat rocker, the disruption, the mutineer. Zevon had a fan and friend in David Letterman, and when Letterman retired from the Late Show in 2015, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires performed this during his farewell week. Definitely worth a listen, check it out here.

3. Keep Me In Your Heart

Album: The Wind – 2003
It’s not often people get a literal swan song. A chance to say goodbye. Warren Zevon, diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma, headed into the studio to record his final album, The Wind, released mere weeks before his death, and share one last message with his family, friends, and fans: “Keep me in your heart for a while.”

2. Lawyers, Guns and Money

Album: Excitable Boy – 1978
This was the song that introduced me to Warren Zevon. And it actually came in the form of the TV show Boomtown. Neal McDonough’s character was driving around listening to it, and I really dug the sound of it. My dad, who I always turned to with my music questions, didn’t immediately recognize it, as I later found out he wasn’t a big Zevon fan. But as this was pre-social media and Shazam and all that, I had to turn to web forums to see if anyone mentioned it. Luckily I was able to find the song, found it and other Zevon songs at the library, and the rest is history.

1. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

Album: Excitable Boy – 1978
From the opening bars on the piano to the closing, drawn out “bought iiiiiiittttt,” there’s nothing I don’t like about this song. It’s entire exciting film neatly contained inside a 3 minute song. It’s the best lyrical storytelling Zevon has to offer, and is just a delightfully fun, dark, twisted song.

Honourable Mention Songs: “Follow Me” by lyme & cybelle; Poor Poor Pitiful Me; My Shit’s Fucked Up; I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

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