Storytelling in Song: Warren Zevon

This is the first in a series of pieces about storytelling in song. I’ll kick things off with a piece about Warren Zevon.

Warren Zevon was a complicated person. A raging addict, depressive, domestic abuser and sufferer of OCD, Zevon could be petty, destructive and vengeful. (You can read all about those things in the biography I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.) When he was sober, he was more agreeable and, from the sounds of it, a fun travel companion.

Zevon was also a brilliant songwriter and, especially, lyricist. He’s not a household name, although he should be. He did have some hits, though. While he’s better known for crowd-pleasers like “Werewolves of London” and “Excitable Boy,” he also wrote many gorgeous, quieter ballads such as “Veracruz,” “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Reconsider Me.”

I love his lyrics for their intelligence, literacy, tenderness and dark wit. These things are only enhanced by the fact that most of his stronger pieces (and there are many competing for that rank) feature interesting characters and, in some cases, a compelling storyline. They often sweep you through geography, history and intimate events, all in just a few verses and choruses. You always come away with a sense of the character, whether it be the subject of the song or the narrator. It’s remarkable to me how much he could do with just a few words and chords.

Someone called Maria’s name
I swear it was my father’s voice
Saying, “If you stay you’ll all be slain
You must leave now – you have no choice
Take the servants and ride west
Keep the child close to your chest
When the American troops withdraw
Let Zapata take the rest”
– “Veracruz”

You always say you know me
Somehow I don’t think you do 
Maybe you should buy another vowel
– “I’ll Just Slow You Down”

Through sixty-six and seven they fought the Congo war 
With their fingers on their triggers, knee-deep in gore 
For days and nights they battled the Bantu to their knees 
They killed to earn their living and to help out the Congolese
– “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing
Until I pay my bill
– “Desperados Under the Eaves”

Well, I’m gone to Detox Mansion
Way down on Last Breath Farm
I’ve been rakin’ leaves with Liza
Me and Liz clean up the yard
– “Detox Mansion”

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
“I’ll take the mazuma”
Said Jesus to Marion
“That’s the 3:10 to Yuma
My ride’s here…”
– “My Ride’s Here”

Daddy’s doing Sister Sally
Grandma’s dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We’ll get through somehow
“Sweet home Alabama”
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long
– “Play It All Night Long”

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this
– “Lawyers, Guns and Money”

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
– “Splendid Isolation”

We keep walking away for no reason at all
For the sake of being free
No one’s invested enough of themselves
To yield to maturity
And the rate of attrition for lovers like us
Is steadily on the rise
– “Nobody’s In Love This Year”

They say love conquers all
You can’t start it like a car
You can’t stop it with a gun
– “Searching For A Heart”

Everybody’s restless and they’ve got no place to go
Someone’s always trying to tell them
Something they already know
So their anger and resentment flow
– “Mohammed’s Radio”

Here’s a good piece from the AV Club a few years back that talks in more detail about some of Zevon’s story songs. Lots of good videos in that one. And here’s a link to all of his lyrics. Here are videos (well, audio, mostly) for the ones mentioned above.

Incidentally, my favorite guitar solo of all time is featured in Zevon’s song “Looking For The Next Best Thing.” It’s played by the great Waddy Wachtel.

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