This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #266: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon.
Since I have started blogging, I estimate that I have written almost 500 pieces of writing that I felt confident enough in to hit that Done/Send/Submit button and release them to the world. For a variety of reasons, every now and again, I go back and re-read some of my writing and, when I do, there are times when I find myself thinking that what I wrote was actually pretty good. I don’t get that feeling with every piece of writing I’ve published but, with some, I do feel a sense of pride. As a writer, I think that it is important to feel comfortable with what you publish for others to read. For at the end of the day, what you write is a reflection on you and the type of person you believe yourself to be so, if you want people to think of you a certain way then, always send out your best work to act as your representative. That’s what I try to do.
Warren Zevon got his start in the music business as a session player in Los Angeles. But, what really opened doors for him was his ability to write interesting and original sounding songs. Zevon was defintely a wordsmith. He began selling his own songs to singers; the most famous one being “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, which he sold to Linda Ronstadt. Over the course of several years in the 1970s, Zevon wrote for and, played with, many of the LA music scene’s heavyweights such as Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Ronstadt, of course and, The Eagles. Over time, he started putting together his own collection of songs and, along with his fellow session player buddies, he started releasing albums of his own, original work. None of his initial albums sold really well but all were rated as being “critical” successes due to the poetic nature of his songwriting. Warren Zevon gained a reputation as being a “songwriter’s songwriter”.
For subject matter, Zevon tended to be drawn to characters and themes that resided on the darker side of life and, as such, he unwittingly became a champion of the anti-hero character. A really good example of this comes from a song called, “Desperado Under the Eaves”. In this song, which was never a best seller, he wrote about his own battles with alcoholism. For me, his writing reminds me a bit of folks like Hunter S. Thomson.
“I’m sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel.
I was staring in my empty coffee cup.
I was thinkin’ that the Gypsy wasn’t lyin’
All the salty maragaritas in Los Angeles
I’m gonna drink ’em all.
And, if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will,
I predict this motel will still be standing
Until I fully pay my bill.”
Warren Zevon produced a slew of songs of this calibre; none of which sold well but, all of which drew praise for their poetry. His list of admired songs includes “Veracruz”, “Renegade”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, “Reconsider Me” and one of my favourite song titles of all-time, “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner”. For someone who regarded himself as possessing a certain level of skill as a writer, it ended up galling him that his most successful and popular song was the one he liked the least and considered to be something of a joke and a novelty song. That song was, of course, “Werewolves of London”.
“Werewolves of London” was written after Zevon accepted a challenge by singer, Don Everly (of “The Everly Brothers” fame) to write a song based upon the 1931 original movie starring Lon Chaney called, “The Werewolf of London”. Zevon sat down with fellow session players, Waddy Wachtel and LeRoy Marinell and wrote the lyrics fairly quickly. When the track was recorded, Mick Fleetwood played drums and Fleetwood Mac bassist, John McVie, played bass for Zevon. With the song recorded and the bet settled, Zevon went on to complete the remaining songs for his third album called, “Excitable Boy”. Of all of the songs included on this album, “Werewolves of London” was the song Zevon thoughts least likely as the album’s debut single. However, once the album was submitted to the record label, the release of singles was, essentially, out of Zevon’s hands. The record executives thought that there was something special about “Werewolves of London” and, over Zevon’s loud objections, they released that song first. As time has proven, the song did strike a chord with a segment of the listening audience who weren’t normally enamoured with Zevon. Consequently, “Werewolves of London” became “popular”. Zevon equated “popular” with “common and basic” and, as such, he was never truly proud of his biggest hit song.
Warren Zevon lived a conflicted life over the course of his entire career. His battles with alcoholism and his political views (which were often to the far right of the political spectrum) often caused his to be viewed as being “difficult”. No one ever doubted his creative genius but, as a human being, Zevon was, at times, a hard person to be around. He was at his best and most approachable when writing and playing songs that read like classic novels. Without question, one of his biggest supporters/fans/patrons turned out to be Talk show host, David Letterman. Letterman booked Zevon as musical guest dozens of times. He even had Zevon stand in as bandleader on those occasions when Paul Schaffer proved unavailable. In the entire history of Letterman’s late night career, only one time did he ever dedicate an entire show to a single guest….that guest was Warren Zevon and it was on the occasion of Zevon going public that he had an incurable form of cancer and only months left to live. Letterman asked him if he would play Letterman’s favourite song of his….”Desperados Under the Eaves”. Zevon declined. Even as he was dying. Even for his most ardent supporter. Zevon was difficult right up until the end.
“Werewolves Of London” is a song that speaks to many people. It is popular with the masses, just like summer blockbuster movies are, too. All Art doesn’t have to be lofty to be appreciated and enjoyed by others. For someone who often viewed popular music with disdain, Zevon died and left behind a legacy that begins with a song about an aristocratic scoundrel that was written as a joke in order to settle a bet. Which just goes to prove my original point….be careful what you write and release into the world. Your words often end up being a reflection of your character. For Warren Zevon….master wordsmith….his best known song was, literally, spit out in minutes, over drinks.
Not that my opinion matters now that he has passed away but, for what it is worth, I have always liked “Werewolves of London”. I hope you do, too. I, also, hope that our liking his least favourite song doesn’t impact his ability to rest in peace. Thanks, Warren, for a catalogue filled with excellent writing. Don’t beat yourself up for having written one song that became “popular”. It is ok to allow yourself to be liked, as well as, admired.
Here is “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon, can be found here.
The link to the video (Part #1 out of 4) of Warren Zevon’s famous final interview with David Letterman, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Warren Zevon, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for playing all of the best songs; whether they are “popular” or not. The link to their website can be found here.