The 10 Best Warren Zevon Songs You May Have Never Heard

warren zevon

Of all the great artists to come out of the West Coast scene in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Warren Zevon may have been the most versatile. He could melt your heart with a love song, rock convincingly and acerbically, and pretty much handle everything in between — with ease. Most impressive of all was the way that his songwriting could incorporate his famously hard-living ways into tunes that were funny, sad, topical, and even morbid, yet always original and relatable. His catalog took many intriguing twists and turns following his late 70s peak, leaving room for many hidden gems just waiting to be found by casual fans.

1. “Desperados Under the Eaves” (1976)

It wasn’t quite his debut album — 1969’s largely forgotten Wanted Dead or Alive holds that distinction — but Zevon’s self-titled LP in 1976 is the one that cemented his reputation as an unparalleled chronicler of West Coast beauty and excess. This closing track sums it all up: A drunken wretch waits for his bill to come due and for the whole state to sink, only to be redeemed by a stirring string arrangement and some of the finest voices within a stone’s throw; Carl Wilson, JD Souther and Jackson Browne all join in the ironic refrain of “Look away down Gower Avenue.”

2. “Tenderness On The Block” (1978)

Zevon was never shy about availing himself of the finest talent on the West Coast rock scene, and they seemed to love working with him. Browne collaborated with him often, co-producing his first couple albums and even co-writing this perfectly-pitched character sketch about a girl headed to womanhood. The narrator essentially offers sobering advice to the girl’s saddened parents that, while she may return, she’ll never really come home again.

3. “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” (1980)

Zevon found a kindred songwriting spirit in Bruce Springsteen on this ringing rocker from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. The girl’s name in the title and the theme of lovers on the run sound like The Boss, but the darker twists and turns in the song seem more like the creation of Zevon. Regardless of what the division of labor might have been, this song is so fine one wishes the two hadn’t waited till Zevon’s final album to come together again.

4. “Trouble Waiting to Happen” (1987)

Zevon took a five-year recording hiatus from 1982 to 1987, which, in the midst of a decade where many ‘70s stars seemed at sea, might have been a wise career move. When he returned with Sentimental Hygiene, he seemed re-energized. He invites a boatload of guest stars to this crystalline rocker, with Souther as co-writer, Don Henley on backing vocals, and Brian Setzer on guitar. But the sensibility is pure Zevon, beset on all sides by rough circumstances and his own bad reputation.

5. “Nobody in Love This Year” (1989)

The overbearing synths and the overdone concept hampered 1989’s Transverse City somewhat, but individual songs rose to the fore nonetheless. Mike Campbell’s guitar and Mark Isham’s horn add just the right touches to this country-tinged weeper. Zevon always had a knack for writing songs about how love is practically an impossibility considering how individually screwed up people tend to be, and this beauty sits near the top of that distinguished list.

6. “Susie Lightning” (1991)

With its psychedelic touches, this song from Mr. Bad Example really doesn’t sound like much else in the Zevon catalog. The song details the far-flung exploits of a globetrotting actress and the sad sap at home forever waiting for her return. You can sense the guy’s admiration for her, even as he concedes that she’s tearing him apart. Zevon gives one his most touching vocal performances on this one, which is likely known by only his most ardent fans.

7. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” (2000)

On the album Life’ll Kill Ya, Zevon began meditating on the ramifications of human beings knowing that their demise is inevitable, two years before he was diagnosed with the disease that would claim his own life. The closing track leaves all the false bravado and sneering behind, instead making a gentle acoustic plea for tenderness between loved ones while there’s still time to partake in such endeavors. Try not tearing up at this one.

8. “My Ride’s Here” (2002)

Zevon’s death came at a time when he seemed to be once again hitting his artistic stride, an irony he likely savored. My Ride’s Here is an album where he used a wide variety of co-writers to help bring his vision to life. The elegiac title track enjoys some Dylanesque fun by playing with the mythic qualities of historical figures ranging from John Keats to Charlton Heston. Zevon sings the tripping lyrics, written with Paul Muldoon, with a beguiling mixture of wistfulness and wisecracking.

9. “She’s Too Good for Me” (2003)

The Wind, Zevon’s final album which was recorded while he faced down a terminal illness and released just weeks before his death, features many meditations on his fate along with some touching farewells. But it also left us with one more song of interrupted love, as the narrator locates enough nobility amidst his heartbreak to set free a girl who’s better off without him. Old buddies Don Henley and Timothy Schmit provide comforting backing vocals, but it’s Zevon, wounded and vulnerable, who steals your heart.

10. “Tule’s Blues” (2006)

The end of this list takes us back to the start of Zevon’s career with a song from his debut album. He overdid the arrangement on that studio take, but the version unearthed on the 2006 release Preludes: Rare And Unreleased Recordings, is gorgeous. Here he is, for one of the first times, singing about the frustration and futility of longing hearts undone by stubborn heads. It’s just him and the piano, and, with a performer this charismatic, that’s all you need to be sufficiently mesmerized.

Jim Beviglia

PS. He influenced Zevon — here are our 10 best Springsteen songs you may have never heard.  And our tribute to Tom Petty, another artist we lost too soon.

Photo of Warren Zevon (public domain)

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Jim Beviglia is a freelance journalist and author who lives in Old Forge, PA with his wife, Marie, and daughter, Daniele. Since they've long since tuned out his long-winded opinions about the greatest songs in music history, he writes about them instead. Twitter: @JimBeviglia 

7 comments on “The 10 Best Warren Zevon Songs You May Have Never Heard

  1. Pumblechook

    Thanks for the list Jim. Always a brave undertaking. I’ve been playing a bit of Warren lately and it’s only just dawning on me what a mighty songwriter he was for other artists to cover. Great in his own performances, but he had the sort of songs that other artists really responded to (similar to Tom Waits). I’ve been listening to a Zevon tribute album called “Enjoy Every Sandwich”, and just loving it. The standout track for me is Jorge Calderon’s version of “Keep Me In Your Heart”.

  2. don’t really agree with this list but at least it’s taking about the Zeev.

    Charlie’s Medicine belongs on this list.

  3. Missing Gorilla, you’re a desperado, numb as a statue, sentimental Hygiene, & Carmilta should have been there instead, but hey, maybe it should be top 15… or 50. – sick mo fo’ rocked & always talks to me in his work

  4. Joanne Brebes

    “Tú Eres el Amor de Mi Vida” one of his beautiful songs, in every way. Possibly my favorite love song of all time. Also on “The Wind.” His voice, changed from treatment, is almost unrecognizable, but inflection and pronunciations unmistakeable Warren. So loved, and missed dearly.

    • I’m with you, one of his best, and poignant among the treasures on The Wind.

  5. A slightly different piano version of Tule’s Blues is also available on the expanded CD for Excitable Boy/ There are also a couple of promo 45s (not of Zevon but other groups for anyone interested)
    In one sense, this is hard list to compile. Most Zevon songs are obscure to non-Zevon fans, so I can understand putting Desperados Under the Eaves at number one. On the other hand, that’s probably the song Zevon fans would select as his best. This seems more like a list for Zevon fans, so, I do really like Susie Lightning and My Rides here on this list (“She only sleeps on planes” seems to say everything about that relationship doesn’t it? she’s always flying away and she is more home on planes than at home). Nobody’s in Love and Tenderness are good choices too (might not make my top ten obscure list, but close). If I’m thinking of the “oh yeah, I forgot about that song” category for Zevon fans,
    I’d add Empty-Handed Heart, which never seems to get much attention, and Please Stay, which sounds like to me, the last song he ever recorded (can’t even think of it as singing anymore). Maybe Something Bad Happened to a Clown, the Heartache and They Moved the Moon. The only thing stopping me from Verazruz, Jesus Mentioned, Genius and Roll With the Punches is that I’ve been surprised by how many Zevon fans seem to know and love these three (maybe I just know too many Zevon fans)

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