Bob Dylan once said he only ever wrote four songs, he just wrote those songs over and over. Now, that might seem self deprecating, and Lord knows Bob likes a wind up, but really, four songs is quite a lot. Most people have one, maybe two. Scouting For Girls have half a song that they’ve managed to convince teenage girls is ok.
Alongside Bob and his four, I’d put Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and right up there too, Warren Zevon, who 10 years ago lost his battle with lung cancer at the appallingly young age of 56.
Zevon’s music might not be as familiar to audiences as the names above, but typically, ask any of those folks and they’ll hold him in high regard – Dylan covered Zevon’s beautiful Mutineer live many times, Springsteen played guitar on Zevon’s last record My Ride’s Here. Listening back to Zevon, and watching videos of him live – I, unfortunately, never had the chance to see him myself – there’s a kind of mania at play, an eccentricity that at first is quite jarring but, make no mistake, can elicit moments of unbridled genius. For the uninitiated, I think these 5 songs should sum up everything that’s great about him.
Play It All Night Long
“Grandpa pissed his pants again / he don’t give a damn / brother Billy’s got both guns drawn / he ain’t been right since Vietnam” – to this day, I think that’s probably the best opening line to any song. Zevon isn’t afraid to go for the jugular, to use whatever language and whatever delivery best suits the song. Play It All Night Long is a sordid, depraved chronicle of a particular version of the Deep South, replete with dying cattle, inbreeding and dirty country. “There ain’t much to country living / sweat, piss, jizz, blood” sums it up rather well. Plus, it rocks. Like, really rocks. Drive By Truckers do an excellent version.
Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner
Probably Zevon’s most anthemic, cinematic and high-concept song, a sprawling war story about a mercenary , Roland, who becomes embroiled in an African civil war, only to be betrayed and decapitated by a fellow mercenary Van Owen. He then returns as the titular phantom headless Thompson gunner to see off Van Owen and continue walking the world haunting the scenes of other violent conflicts...yeah, there’s a lot to take in, but it’s such a great story, so brilliantly written, that you can’t help be swept up by it.
If you read the lyrics to Excitable Boy you’d be forgiven for thinking the song was a dark, minor driven dirge, or blues song. “He took little Susie to the junior prom / Excitable boy, they all said / and he raped her and killed her and took her home / Excitable boy they all said”...doesn’t exactly scream “cheesy saxophone pop banger” does it? Well, that’s pretty much what it is. Doo-wopping backing vocalists, a big piano riff, and one of the darkest, most grim stories ever committed to rock and roll. If you thought that line was bad, the final verse is utterly macabre.
Keep Me In Your Heart
A song from Warren’s last album, made whilst he knew his time was up, knowledge of which loads every word in every line with an extra degree of poignancy. I think what’s the most striking about this song, and indeed the record, is how accepting it is. This is a man who knows he’s about to die, and he’s singing with such joy and such beauty. It’s a very intimate song too, you feel this song is directed at one person, whoever that may be. Lyrics like “Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house / maybe you’ll think of me and smile / you know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse / keep me in your heart for a while” just break my heart.
Don’t Let Us Get Sick
Finally, my favourite song from my favourite Zevon album, the prophetically named Life’ll Kill Ya. That’s the thing about Zevon, there’s a morbidity underpinning much of his work, not least on this record, made before he was diagnosed. From the tongue-in-cheek My Shit’s Fucked Up to this, one of the most perfect and beautiful love songs ever written, with its simple, staggering finger-picked guitar and short, almost hymn-like lines. It’s a prayer. It’s a prayer for a couple more years, maybe another record, and listening to it now still puts a lump in my throat. “The sky was on fire when I walked to the mill / to take up the slack in the line / I thought of my friends and the troubles they’ve had / to keep me from thinking of mine”
RIP Warren, sorely missed.