ROLAND THE HEADLESS THOMPSON GUNNER
Surreal, darkly comic tale of revenge from the 1978 album Excitable Boy and the last song Warren Zevon played live, on The Late Show with uber fan David Letterman. Co-written with ex-mercenary David Lindell, it features a Magrittesque decapitated dog of war and plays neatly on ‘bought’ at its climax.
Now it’s 10 years later, but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland and Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun
And bought it
From 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon bares his soul while implicitly acknowledging his failings. An appeal to Crystal, his then wife, whose book recalls his serenading her with it during another alcohol-fuelled domestic disaster. Covered by Stevie Nicks and Steve Earle but the original wins out.
And I’ll never make you sad again
Cos I swear I’ve changed since then
And I promise that I’ll never make you cry
PLAY IT ALL NIGHT LONG
Jackson Browne, four Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and JD Souther couldn’t quite redeem 1980’s Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. Yet it contained this gem, surely the only lyric with the word ‘brucellosis’ (and ‘jiz’). Lynyrd Skynyrd, who replied in song to Neil Young’s Southern Man, were cool with Zevon.
Sweet home Alabama
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full-blast
Play it all night long
SEARCHING FOR A HEART
On the underrated 1991 album Mr Bad Example and 1993’s live Learning To Flinch. Don Henley cut a superb version on the Zevon tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. Also on the Reconsider Me: The Love Songs compilation, which ignores some of his most beautiful ballads and is not recommended.
They say love conquers all
You can’t start it like a car
You can’t stop it with a gun
LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY
A song about US foreign policy, a rich kid out of his depth overseas… or just an acerbic comment on the staples of American life? Whatever this track from Excitable Boy is about, it is driven by a great guitar riff. And we hear the first verse anew after Moscow’s alleged interference in the US election.
I went home with the waitress, the way I always do
How was I to know she was with the Russians too
HASTEN DOWN THE WIND
Linda Ronstadt liked this song of a fading love affair so much that she made it the title track of a Grammy-winning album in 1977 after it had first appeared on Zevon’s self-titled debut. Phil Everly harmonises with him to gorgeous effect, while David Lindley contributes a typically deft guitar part.
She’s so many women
He can’t find the one who was his friend
So he’s hanging on to half her heart
He can’t have the restless part
BOOM BOOM MANCINI
Zevon often sang about real-life characters, eg Bruce (Springsteen) and Patti (Scialfa), John Wayne and Georgia O’Keefe. Ray Mancini was a 1980s boxer he felt was wrongly vilified after an opponent’s death. Marred only by lumpy rock backing – he wanted it to sound like the Stones’ Start Me Up.
They made hypocrite judgments after the fact
But the name of the game is be hit and hit back
TENDERNESS ON THE BLOCK
Scared by one of Warren’s drunken rages, Crystal called Jackson Browne who arrived to find he’d wrecked a bannister. To calm things down, Browne suggested they write together. Amazingly, the result was this pretty coming-of-age song, with Zevon’s daughter Ariel in mind, for Excitable Boy.
Wide eyes, she’ll be streetwise
To the lies and the jive talk
But she’ll find true love
And tenderness on the block
Transverse City (1989) is arguably Zevon’s patchiest album, but it gave up this nugget. Neil Young adored the song, played on the studio version and would turn up at Zevon gigs to hep him to perform it. A clever, sarcastic first-person commentary on the ‘no-such-thing-as-society’ decade.
Michael Jackson in Disneyland
Don’t have to share it with nobody else
Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand
And lead me through the world of self
KEEP ME IN YOUR HEART
Dying of stomach cancer, Zevon wrote this as he strove to complete his final album, 2003’s The Wind. It would be the last song he recorded and he wanted to leave his family, friends and fans on good terms. Cheesy if you didn’t know the context but a poignant and classy way to bid farewell.
When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called ‘When all is said and done’
Keep me in your heart for a while
Phil Shaw on Warren Zevon's Desperados Under The Eaves