The Best and Funniest of Warren Zevon, According to David Letterman

“If you listened to the music and anything about his life, this guy was rock and roll shooting himself in the mirror with a handgun.” Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos Getty Images

David Letterman and I are trying to grasp not only why Warren Zevon isn’t in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but why, until this year, he had never even been nominated for a potential induction. Is he too misunderstood? Does the novelty humor of “Werewolves of London” thwart his reputation? Are critics biased against rockers who play the piano?

Of all the people to enthusiastically posit these questions with, there are few as suited as Letterman. During his reigns on Late Night and The Late Show, he invited the complicated musician on dozens of times as both a guest and performer, with Zevon occasionally filling in for Paul Shaffer when the band leader was out of town. But it was Zevon’s 2002 Late Show appearance, months before his death at the age of 56 from mesothelioma, that underscored the depth of their 20-year friendship. It was a master class in a meaningful good-bye on Zevon’s terms: Casually profound with a three-song set and a reminder to “enjoy every sandwich” with our short time left on Earth. As Zevon put it during their exchange, “Dave’s the best friend my music ever had.”

“Warren should have been in this establishment,” Letterman says of his late friend’s Rock Hall chances. “If you listened to the music and anything about his life, this guy was rock and roll shooting himself in the mirror with a handgun. It doesn’t get much more rock and roll than that.” Letterman then picks up a compact disc of A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon and begins listing its songs in growing disbelief. “I mean, come on. To me, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is only of interest if Warren gets in,” he says. “He did so much for us, and it means nothing to him.”

Should Zevon be inducted this year, Letterman implied, if asked, that he would be involved in the segment in some capacity to honor his hero. (He had previously advocated for Zevon’s inclusion when inducting Pearl Jam in 2017.) In fact, he still has the guitar Zevon gave him during that final show and would like it used for the ceremony. But he’s torn: “Irrespective of my participation, I want the guitar back.”

First memory of listening to his music

It was when I was in California, so it would’ve been my late 20s. I’ll tell you my first awareness — listening to his music supersedes my memory of this. There was a profile of Warren in Rolling Stone and it was about a hundred pages long. That was my initial personal impression of him, which didn’t even come close to the impression I had as I got to know him. At first, it was like, Look out and Jesus, look out again and I don’t care, I’m Mr. Rock and Roll. I like guns and alcohol, and I’m drunk and playing with guns, and leave me alone. Later, when I got to know the man, I think it was after he settled and reconciled some of the rough edges. The humanity of the guy is what I think of when I think of Warren.

Song that always makes you laugh

I think this speaks to my own ignorance. Some of the allusions in these songs are so erudite and so esoteric that I take them completely seriously. I’m embarrassed to mention the thing that makes me laugh is the thing that embarrasses me, which is he wanted me to be in a song. I was so self-conscious, embarrassed, and worried that I would ruin Warren’s record. I listened to it a couple of years ago, and it’s me “singing.” I have a lovely singing voice — me screaming, “Hit somebody!” When I listen to it, it reminds me of when I was a kid and we had to sing in church and I would just mouth the words because I was too embarrassed to sing. All I had to scream was “Hit somebody!” It sounds so disingenuous, artificial, manipulated, and contrived that it does in fact ruin the song. What you really needed was to go to Madison Square Garden and get some drunk guy in a suit from Wall Street screaming, “Hit somebody!” That’s what he wanted, and I couldn’t even deliver that. So I guess I find it amusing. I think that’s why he’s not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Yes, thank you and see you down the road. Oh God, maybe I can rerecord it. If I had the chance, where would I go? Let’s do it. I would get good and drunk.

There’s no fond memories with regard to recording “Hit Somebody!” But there’s something that puzzled me when it came up and still kind of makes me laugh. Warren would sometimes take Paul Shaffer’s place on days he couldn’t be in the studio. Often when Paul would have a fill-in, the person would be mannequin-esque, and they would just play the keyboards and say, “Thank you.” Warren fit right in because I loved him, everybody there loved him, and Paul loved him. He felt right at home. One of those nights, I’m explaining to him how I thought one of the greatest live-concert records ever made was his Stand in the Fire album recorded at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. I think I opened for somebody there once. I don’t know. Anyway, I was fomenting about how much I love the energy of this album, and I thought you might as well be there. It’s electric, it’s vibrant, it’s exciting, it’s Warren hopping up and down, and he’s just fantastic. And I asked, “What are your memories of that, Warren, when you recorded that?” And he responded, “I have no memory of that show at all.” And I thought, Yeah, okay. I have no complaints with that.

I’ve described now to you about the only musical conversation he and I ever had. This is a weakness on my part. I’m sorry. See, I blame my staff. I think I was surrounded by incompetence. Somebody should have said, “Hey, dumbass, why don’t you ask him about some of these songs?” That didn’t happen, but I’m not taking blame for that.

What people fail to understand about his music

I often wondered if he had been victimized by “Werewolves of London,” as that may have created an indelible impression of the man’s work. While it’s delightful and humorous and funny and silly and good natured and upbeat, it’s in no way even the tip of the iceberg. It may be an iceberg next to the iceberg. I just wonder if that’s all people knew of him. I mean, good Lord, nobody writes things like this. Where’s another funny silly song about the werewolf in London? That’s the only Warren song you hear on the radio.

When I started listening to him, I thought these references were so far beyond what my education was — grade school, high school, or college. Now, being ignorant on these topics, I don’t know if it’s fiction. I don’t know if these are facts jumbled and put together to make a song or if he’s actually speaking to the geopolitical world at large. And then you have the crushingly emotional love songs. I was listening to “Transverse City” last night, and that’s a whole different deal. The writing kind of overtakes the musicality. I remember years ago when he put out a greatest-hits retrospective and I wrote some things in that for him, I thought, Well, here’s the only musical artist in the world to ever include brucellosis in a song. As unusual as that is, I think that’s the hallmark. That’s the guideline. That’s the standard. He might have a song featuring the word brucellosis.

Song that doubled as the biggest history lesson

I just love “Veracruz.” It’s not a rock-and-roll song, but God, it’s romantic. I should know what the trouble was in Mexico he’s referencing and alluding to, but I don’t. The same thing with “The Envoy,” which was inspired by an actual man named Philip C. Habib, who was a Middle Eastern envoy. I could go on and on and on. I couldn’t understand, How does he know about all of this to write a song? In those days, you could pick up the Los Angeles Times and find inspiration with the headlines. That and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” with all of the mercenaries. And look at a song like “Transverse City.” I don’t know when that was written and recorded, but that’s the world today, and it certainly was tipping that way when he must have written it. “Down in the Mall” and “Gridlock” as well.

He details problems of what American life has now caused that seem to be irreversible and deadly dangerous. There’s a man named John O’Hara who has a distinguished place in American literature because he created the format for The New Yorker short story and he chronicled life of the affluent, wealthy, sophisticated people in New York and such. As you start to think about Warren’s music, every one of his songs is a short story like that. I still don’t know what some of his references may mean except that, to me, I think, Holy shit, this guy is a poet. He’s a musician, and he knows enough about the world to include references that are beyond my education. It’s a pretty good package.

Song that should be adapted into a screenplay

There’s a version or two of “Werewolves of London” where he includes Brian De Palma, and I love that. “Boom Boom Mancini” is a short story. I want to see that screenplay of “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands.” And “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is a movie, isn’t it? It’s mysterious and exotic and, holy God, what are we up to? Patty Hearst makes an appearance in the song, which, okay, that’s fine. And then you kind of think, Now, wait a minute, how did she get ahold of that gun? I can’t say it’s my favorite, but I love it.

Song you’d play to convert a new listener

I’m very fond of “Desperados Under the Eaves” because I fully believe that it captures an autumn afternoon in Los Angeles. There’s nothing more depressing than a sunny and warm autumn afternoon in Los Angeles. “Searching for a Heart.” Kill me. I’m sure there are love songs as good as that, but any better? I don’t know. I think it’s easy to overlook things he wrote later in his career, which we shouldn’t. Like “Splendid Isolation.” We’re going to have to go to the judges.

I can remember the first time I heard “Searching for a Heart,” and I listened to it a thousand times in a row. I’d tell someone to listen to “Werewolves of London” because we all get a kick out of that. But then listen to “Searching for a Heart.” And you tell me, is that the same guy? As you may know, I have no friends. But I remember being surprised when Eddie Vedder once told me that I introduced him to Warren’s music. He was like, “Wow, I had no idea who this guy was.” I forget that I’m of a different generation than Eddie Vedder. I guess I was surprised because I thought singer-songwriters got to know and love Warren. Doesn’t that surprise you a bit? I think people who are good musicians and writers know this guy. Bob Dylan knows of this guy. Bruce Springsteen knows of this guy. It makes me feel great when my love for the guy is validated by somebody else I respect.

Best piece of advice he gave you when the cameras weren’t rolling

He took me aside and said, “You got to bet big to win big.” I think that was the best piece of advice. I still live my life that way. No, I’m lying to you. None of this happened. I’m sorry. Don’t get me wrong here. Warren’s not the kind of guy you went to seeking advice.

What his final Late Show appearance taught you about the human experience

It was firsthand verification that the human mechanism can exist in any form imaginable. Here’s a guy dying, and he’s on a late-night talk show — not talking not about his flight in from Los Angeles or his dog. He’s talking about the end of his life. I’d never seen an example of a guy, a person, go, “Hi, I’m here.” “So what’s new?” “Well, I’m dying.” I mean, the human spirit is infinite. It was confirmation of that for me.

It had never happened to me before where I realized, Oh, our next guest only has a few days to live. I felt completely unprepared. Here’s a guy I had known for two decades, but I was completely unprepared for the context of this. The minute it was finished, I wish I had done a better job. That haunts me to this day. I have not watched it since. Maybe if I saw it now I would feel differently about it. But at the time, I felt that I did not do a proper job for him. Those are the two things I remember. And then upstairs, after the show, he gave me his guitar, and I just started sobbing uncontrollably. I may start sobbing now. It’s a cinematic story of him packing up his guitar and handing it to me in the dressing room. If the interview is poignant, it’s because of Warren. I can’t watch it again. I just felt like, This man, how much time does he have left? He decided he would come and be on our TV show. That suggests a responsibility that’s nearly insurmountable.

Last sandwich you enjoyed

What do you think the genesis of that was? Was it spontaneous? Was it a song? I thought at the moment that it was something that had occurred to him when he got the diagnosis. Now this is history. The cement has dried on this. It was an ad lib. Because who can answer whatever the question was? And he did. It was perfect in its simplicity and its nonsensical reference. But nonetheless, it’s universally true.

Let me tell you something. I enjoy every sandwich. All right? The last sandwich I enjoyed was a couple of weeks ago. It was ham and cheese — nice, sharp cheddar cheese, ham, and some mayonnaise. And here’s the key: brown mustard. I’ve tried them all. I’ll tell you something else. Wrap sandwiches: bullshit. You might as well put it in an envelope. That’s no sandwich. Get yourself a burrito or an enchilada. That’s not a sandwich. This ought to be your headline here: “Wrap Sandwiches Are Bullshit.” I believe Warren would agree with me on this. My follow-up question to “Enjoy every sandwich” should have been “What about wrap sandwiches?” I didn’t. I’m a fool.

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“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” from Zevon’s 2002 album, My Ride’s Here. Here’s a compilation video of some of Zevon’s appearances as Shaffer’s fill-in. From 1980’s “Play It All Night Long”: “Daddy’s doing Sister Sally / Grandma’s dying of cancer now /
The cattle all have brucellosis / We’ll get through somehow.”
Dylan once said of him, “There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician.”
The Best of Warren Zevon, According to David Letterman