Steve K's seven-year quest for the quintessential live version of Zevon's 'Werewolves of London' ends in TOTAL SUCCESS

warren zevon

For the past seven years I’ve searched for the most refined and complete version of Warren Zevon performing Werewolves of London live. Recently, I came across the definitive version and and would like to share my findings.

Werewolves of London

The beginning of the song is well known and seems to vary only slightly from time to time. This version is live June 12th, 1986 in Buffalo, New York and Warren makes a few regional adjustments.

I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of Buffalo in the rain
He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fuk’s
Gonna get a big dish of…chicken wings

Howls…

Chicken Wings are typically served in bowls
Chicken wings are typically served in bowls.

The main refrain continues and the crowd is amped, excited to hear Warren sing his most popular tune. I remember seeing Warren Zevon once on David Letterman and he said that everyone always yelled for him to play Werewolves of London. He even sublimely goofed himself on Larry Sanders. But this recording is years before all of that, back when HBO was for perverts and Michael Milken had more money the Roman Catholic Church.

At first the song remains the same, but toward the end, things start to get perverse. Everyone knows that Warren was a smart, super talented, hedonistic, over the top, friend of Hunter and all around notorious bad guy of the singer songwriter set, but I think it’s fascinating to think about him creeping around Buffalo in the height of the Reagan years thinking up new ways to make a hit song more interesting to sing while not being self-effacing. That seems like quite a life, also one that seems increasingly distant in today’s cross-platform society. Maybe that’s why he wrote Transverse City? Ok, back to the topic at hand…

You can hear him howlin’ ’round your kitchen door
Better not let him in
Little old lady got mutilated again late last night
Werewolves of Buffalo again

Crowd joins in howling…

He’s that hairy handed gent,
who ran amok in Kent.
Lately, he’s been overheard in Mayfair.
You better stay away from him;
He’ll rip your lungs out Jim.
And he’s lookin’ for James Taylor.


James Taylor gets into swimming in the mid-80s.

Whoa!! He’s sinking his teeth into James Taylor?!? Did Sweet Baby James steal Warren’s dope on the road? Because he pissed in Carly Simon’s cornflakes? What happened here? True believers, this is only the beginning. Say tuned because before the tirade continues, he name checks The Dude back before actors like Jeff Bridges needed to slum around in baggy shorts.

I saw Jeff Bridges tryin’ to buy a used car in Del Mar.
It was a blood red coupe deville.
Said he was drivin’ it to Mexico.
Going down to Tijuana to kill somebody in the films.


Directed by Hal Ashby (1986) – Incredibly underrated

It’s amazing to think about Warren and Jeff Bridges in Del Mar, much less hanging out before he went to shoot 8 Million Ways to Die. Not only was it directed by Hal Ashby, but the screenplay was written by Oliver Stone. It’s as good, if not better, than Scarface. I know that’s a bold statement, but give it a chance. There’s an amazing scene with Andy Garcia and a trunk filled with ice cream long before he started slumming in the movies with blondes and drunks. Check it.

The lyrics continue, but the sharpness of the barbs increase…
The Queen City crowd’s interest is noticeably piqued as the main chorus, untainted, rings out.


Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman

I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen.
They were doing the Werewolves of London.
I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen.
They were doing the Werewolves of London.

I saw Bruce Springsteen walking with the Queen.
They were doing the Werewolves of London.

Well, it’s no surprise that Bruce gets led to the slaughter, but up next is peacenik and long time friend of Warren: Jackson Browne.

I saw Jackson Browne walkin’ down Sherman Way.
He’s just tryin’ to get along.

Ok, let me pause here for a moment and reflect on the 1980s, politics and folk singers. First, I am proud to be the first person on the Magpie to say that Jackson Browne rocks. He is an incredible songwriter, singer, performer and all around amazing dude. He wrote heartbreaking songs like The Circle Game and Shadow Dream Song while still in high school (like Brian Wilson) and he’s featured on the Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Taxi Driver soundtrack. His songs have been covered by Tom Rush, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and, famously, by Nico. He wrote whole albums (filled with award winning hit songs) that directly criticized the Reagan administration’s policies in South America. If you want to check him out and get directly to the good stuff, check out Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate and Linda Paloma.

But back to the song…

I don’t think that Warren is openly goofing Jackson, but instead using him as a gateway to elevate how harsh those years really were. The times they were a-chooglin’…

Jackson’s goin’ over to Gary Gilmore’s house,

Crowd starts to realize what’s happening…more clapping and cheers!


Norman Mailer writes in cold blood about Utah bad man Gary Gilmore’s stay of execution.


Gary Gilmore in happier, hippier times.

and Gary’s gonna teach him The Executioner’s Song.

Piano continues and song ends…
The crowd at the Tralf emphatically claps for Mr. Bad Example and his rougher than leather songwriting skills.

To conclude, the reason why I feel this is the quintessential version is precisely because of this ending. As a songwriter, Warren found a way to make a hit song MORE relevant by bringing together the personal influences in his life with what was currently happening around him at the time.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the death penalty in the 80s was an extemely hot button topic. Gary Gilmore was the first person executed after a reinstatement of the punishment in the 70s. He was from Utah, he killed two people, he could either choose hanging or the firing squad and so: he chose the firing squad. No appeals, no reprisals.

At the time, the press and those concerned jumped all over this case looking to help, aid, abet, capitalize and understand. Gary Gilmore had no remorse, YET he tried to commit suicide in jail which gave him a stay of execution. His last meal was a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, a baked potato, a few cups of coffee, and three shots of whiskey.

I’ve heard all sort of people referred to during this ending refrain. Oliver Reed, Glenda Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Carl Douglas…but the harshness of putting Jackson and Gary together, just as literary tropes, is devastating. It’s like the The Clash of the Titans of 70s and 80s counter to the over-the-counter cultural figures at the time. Many people tried to capitalize on Gilmore’s story at the time, including Mailer, Larry Schiller, etc., so many that it became absurd. Gilmore’s case, at the time and today, clouds the mind and when focused upon replacing decency and common wisdom with bleak confusion.

AND that’s why this is the GREATEST live version of The Werewolves of London ever recorded.
Kudos to Warren, long may you dig in the dirt.

DOWNLOAD AND LISTEN YOURSELF:

Warren Zevon Live at Tralfamadore Cafe on 1986-06-12 (June 12, 1986)

Werewolves of London (mp3)

2 thoughts on “Steve K's seven-year quest for the quintessential live version of Zevon's 'Werewolves of London' ends in TOTAL SUCCESS

  1. Pingback: MAGPIE » “Culture is worth a little risk” - Norman Mailer - Arthur Magazine blogs for you...

  2. great read Steve–truly enjoyed it. always loved the Zevon/Letterman connection–came upon “The Hockey Song (Hit Somebody!)” recently…and “My Ride’s Here” is beautiful. Thanks for sharing the article–

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