“Enjoy every sandwich.”
– Warren Zevon – to David Letterman – offering his insight on death.
Like many people I came to Warren Zevon’s music via his 1978 song “Werewolves of London” that he composed with LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel. From the album “Excitable Boy“, the song hit the charts and stayed in the Top 40 for six weeks. In addition to Wachtell’s guitar, the song features John McVie and Mick Fleetwood both of Fleetwood Mac fame on bass and drums respectively. The song, notably, was produced by Jackson Browne.
Born in Chicago, the family moved to Fresno when he was a kid. He has a somewhat unusual musical journey. As a teen he would go to Igor Stravinsky’s house where he studied classical music. After his parents divorced he quit HS and moved from LA to New York to pursue his music. There he did session work and composed jingles and even wrote some songs for The Turtles (“Like the Seasons” and “Outside Chance“). During the early 1970s, he toured regularly with the Everly Brothers as keyboard player and band leader.
Over the years I paid some attention to Warren but didn’t really focus more intently on him until I read of his diagnosis of inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma which is a disease associated with asbestos inhalation. He reportedly had a phobia of doctors and hadn’t gone to one in 20 years until he was very sick. He later commented in his typical wry, understated manner that not going to a doctor for so long “may have been a tactical error” on his part.
As a top-flight songwriter, Zevon has written a number of songs that are better known for being performed by others. The most notable is probably “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” which was a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1976. I love covers. Not just because I’m an amateur musician but because they are such a testament to how a great song can sometimes be even better than originally recorded. In honor of Warren’s death in 2003 a tribute album titled “Enjoy Your Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon” was released. The performers are a who’s who of rock royalty and for fans it’s a worthwhile purchase.
As far as collecting WZ recordings, you really can’t go wrong with “Excitable Boy” or his final release “The Wind” but for the casual fan I’d go for any one of the three Greatest Hits compilations that cover his music. They include: “A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon” (1986), “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (An Anthology)“(1996), and “Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon” (2002). I’m not sure why he released so many greatest hits albums. He did have about a dozen studio releases and while that’s an admirable output, it’s not that many. If you need to choose among the three compilations, I’d go for the first one “A Quiet Normal Life…”.
One memorable part towards the end of his life was his final appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Letterman was a huge fan and given WZ’s now publicly known illness, he was the only guest that night and played a number of songs. It was on this show that he uttered his now oft-quoted line “Enjoy every sandwich.” when commenting on his impending death.
Although I enjoy “Werewolves“, my two favorite WZ songs are “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Excitable Boy“. I’ve added both below along with some other picks. I’ve closed with “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” – a gem of a song.