Because I found myself discussing both the West Coast gothic of Lana Del Rey videos with my woman friend Lisa and the oeuvre of Old Velvet Nose himself with my cousin Steve recently, below is my own ranking of Warren Zevon’s top songs about LA.
A few initial words of warning:
1. Only songs he himself wrote count. His cover of “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” eerily perfect though it may be, does not count.
2. Only songs normally about LA (i.e. the studio versions) count. “Werewolves of Los Angeles” (“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,/walkin’ down Sunset Boulevard in the rain”) or “Werewolves of Westwood” does not count.
3. As David Fine noted in the introduction to his essential Los Angeles in Fiction essay collection: [A]ny discussion of the Los Angeles novel must begin with the observation that it is chiefly the work of the outsider…To a large extent it was their position as outsiders, their estrangement and sense of dislocation—expressed in moods ranging from fascination to revulsion and often a combination of the two—that gave the Los Angeles novel its peculiar ambience. Warren Zevon is from Chicago.
Now, my top ten, in more or less reverse order:
10. “Empty Hearted Town”
Someone once commented on the eccentric brilliance of John Wesley Harding as a songwriter by noting that he would take a song with the chorus “What’s the point in a headful of something/if you’ve got a heartful of nothing” and title it “Headful of Something” rather than “Heartful of Nothing.” Elements of the title and melody of this Zevon track, unreleased until the posthumous album Preludes (2007), would later be borrowed by “Empty-Handed Heart;” the “should have done, should have done” part would be borrowed by “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” Brilliant songwriters don’t only rearrange; they reuse. As far as Los Angeles, what’s notable here is that LA isn’t empty hearted because it’s soulless Hollywood per se but because the singer is desperate for love and money and has none of the former with not enough of the latter. Moreover, it’s cold, and he has no car (!): “I’m walkin’ down the sidewalks of LA/wishin’ I had a warmer jacket.”
9. “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands”
Briefly the theme song to the Fox drama Action, this is 1980s LA in 3:31: car phones (four years before Roger McGuinn mocked them), “you’ll be living in the valley some day” as the end of the world (12 years before Sarah Polley told Katie Holmes, “Don’t go 818 on me”), and “all the worms and the gnomes…having lunch at Le Dôme.”
8. “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”
The Linda Ronstadt cover may be even more LA-in-the-70s, but you can’t beat the original: “I met a girl in West Hollywood,/I ain’t namin’ names.” (Some of the live versions, which often changed “girl” to “gal” and by the mid-80s routinely reached over 9 minutes long, are also worth checking out.)
7. “The Indifference of Heaven”
A post-Rodney King Rebellion song, perhaps (I always heard “blood on my hands/and my hands in the till/down at the 7-11” as Latasha Harlins’s blood and Soon Ja Du’s hands, although it wasn’t a 7-11), this 1993 track never mentions LA, or geography, other than by inversion: they don’t live around here. “Billy and Christie don’t—Bruce and Patti don’t.” (Live versions of the moment also added “Bruce and Demi don’t,” “Brad and Julia don’t,” “Lyle and Julia don’t,” etc.—often more poignantly if the couple in question had just broken up.) Of course, even the glitterati can only live in a finite number of places. But those who live along the borders are especially aware of exactly where those borders end.
6. “Join Me in L.A.”
The only Zevon song with LA in the title (with punctuation, no less). Despite the 70s soul singers getting their funk on on the Warren Zevon album version, I prefer the starker Preludes version with just Warren, a guitar, and a harmonica. “They say this place is evil,/but that ain’t why I stay” is funky enough in words.
5. “The French Inhaler”
Whether it’s a fuck-you song to an ex or to Norman Mailer, this track, also from his self-titled 1976 album, is also about “this sleazy bedroom town,” where he’s doomed to end up “with these phonies in this Hollywood bar,/these friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.” The live version from 1993’s Learning to Flinch is even better.
As photographer Richard Edlund explains*: Carmelita is a street, it’s like a shortcut through Beverly Hills. I used to live in Echo Park, and they had the Pioneer Market down there, and they had this chicken stand where all these drug deals went down…where he met his man, right? Pioneer Chicken existed in LA until 2009 (I remember driving by one, and it was near if not on Alvarado Street) and according to Wikipedia, still exists in Indonesia. Indeed, as the Warren Zevon Wiki page for “Carmelita” notes, The song is ostensibly about a heroin-addicted writer in love with a Mexican girl, but, as with many songs on Warren Zevon, it might be more accurate to say that it is about Los Angeles than about the character in question. Also worth checking out any of various live versions (including the one on Preludes) with the “bonus verse” that mentions “your big Samoan boyfriend,” as well as changing “Smith-Corona” to “Smith & Wesson.”
3. “Detox Mansion”
If “The Indifference of Heaven” was the other LA from the Hollywood the rest of us see, this is the other side of the Hollywood the rest of us see. “Now I’m doin’ my own laundry,/and I’m getting those clothes clean.” The 1988 BBC 1 live version may be the best.
2. “Gorilla You’re a Desperado”
True story: when I first became a journal publisher back in 2000, I somehow found out that my manager and an editor we both worked with were Zevon fans as well (it was probably a Trader Vic’s reference one of them made and I got). I saw Warren in concert for the final time that December (available here, though not courtesy of me) and was obligated to mention it to both of them. Both declined, with my manager adding, “Tell him to do ‘Gorilla You’re a Desperado.’” He didn’t—he rarely did, in fact—but if it were the Roxy in 1980, he probably would have. Of the various late 70s/early 80s LA elements parodied in this song—the Jesus freaks, L’Ermitage, transactional analysis—the most brilliant might be the fact that Warren found an actual Desperado to sing harmony.
1. “Desperados Under the Eaves”
Original Beach Boy David Marks explains: Warren was constantly moving in and out of the place he lived with [partner] Tule and [son] Jordan. He’d move into the Tropicana, then when he got tired of it, he’d go back for a home-cooked meal. One night he ended up at the Hollywood Hawaiian motel somewhere around Gower and Yucca. He was there for a while, I mean, maybe two or three weeks, and he couldn’t check out because he didn’t have the money to pay the bill. So, one night, I got my mother’s station wagon and pulled it into the alley. He threw all his stuff out the bathroom window and we escaped without paying. Crystal Zevon adds: Years later, when Warren got sober, he actually went back there to pay the bill. Of course, by then he’d written and recorded “Desperados Under the Eaves,” so they settled for a few copies of his Warren Zevon album. Not just the best Warren Zevon song about LA, but maybe the best Warren Zevon song, period. Look away down Gower Avenue.
* “Carmelita” and “Desperados Under the Eaves” quotes from Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, HarperCollins 2007. Complete Warren Zevon lyrics available at http://www.warrenzevon.org/3.html. The Warren Zevon Live Music archive is available at https://archive.org/details/WarrenZevon.