Warren Zevon, the #1 Gothic California singer-songwriter of 1978, has given his latest greatest hits collection this rather presumptuous title.

But Zevon (who is unfortunately terminally ill at present time) makes a compelling case for himself as an unjustly overlooked performer. It's difficult not to be acquainted with his deathless 1978 hit Werewolves of London, but not many people are familiar with Mr. Zevon beyond this three-chord shaggy dog tale, which sort of resembles a New Wave version of Monster Mash.

His 1976 self-titled record and 1978's Excitable Boy are represented by four songs each. This captures Zevon in his prime, and most of the truly unforgettable songs in the collection are in the front eight. Lawyers, Guns and Money is Zevon's second-biggest hit (a very distant second). All of these songs were produced by Jackson Browne, and this one in particular sounds like something Jackson would write if he had a single humorous bone in his body. The riff recalls Boulevard, or maybe Running on Empty, but the lyrics are a cheerfully bizarre tale of a guy who goes home with a waitress and ends up hiding in Central America in some rather deep shit that only lawyers, guns, and money can get him out of. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner is another classic-- a macabre, but still amusing, tale of an undead mercenary set to a sea shanty melody. When Roland confronts the man who killed him, he "aims his Thompson gun, and never says a word"-- how could he? He doesn't even have a head!! Offhand, this is probably the funniest song about a headless person ever written.

1976's The French Inhaler is of a more serious and complex nature. Members of The Eagles supply somewhat overdone vocal harmonies, on a song Don Henley wishes he could write. It seems to be the story of a girl, of the beautiful-and-helpless variety: "How you gonna make your way in the world, when you weren't cut out for working?", asks Warren, and then answers himself: "Maybe you'll wind up with someone different every night." But the song's perspectives keep changing, until this rather incomprehensible ending:

The French inhaler
He stamped and mailed her
"So long, Norman"
She said, "So long, Norman."

Some clues are provided-- a French inhale is a pretentious way of smoking cigarettes, "stamping and mailing" doesn't sound like it's a very good thing to have happen to you, but who the hell's Norman? Is he Warren? It sounds like the title of a Raymond Carver story. Some things I wasn't meant to know, I guess.

Carmelita is another highlight, a surprisingly funny song about heroin that steals both its chord progression and its Spanish guitar from Dylan's Desolation Row. Or Poor Poor Pitiful Me, where Warren repeatedly complains "these young girls won't let me be". I think every time I hear this: Then send the young girls over here, damnit.

Zevon's later work is also of good quality, but not quite as consistently brilliant. He was battling alcoholism and commerical indifference most of the way, and still the later years have such highlights as Boom Boom Mancini, a rare example of boxing rock (Bob Dylan's Hurricane and not a hell of a whole lot else), backed by R.E.M., who are a surprisingly hard-hitting and soulful unit when not fronted by Michael Stipe and forced to play at a jangly whine. Splendid Isolation features backing vocals from legendary recluse Neil Young and showcases Warren's harmonica playing. You can't go wrong picking them out by titles either-- try Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead or I Was in the House When the House Burned Down. You'll not be disappointed. There's even a rather ridiculous rendition of Prince's Raspberry Beret, again featuring R.E.M.

The liner notes are extensive and very welcome. Lyrics are provided (very rare these days), as well as charming illustrations of many of the songs featuring Zevon's trademark skull-wearing-sunglasses. Zevon even pokes fun at his lung cancer-- in many of the pictures, the skull is smoking a pipe or cigarette.

I was trying to describe Zevon to a non-believer friend of mine, and couldn't quite do it. I came up with such interesting ideas as "Elvis Costello crossed with Weird Al Yankovic", or "Tom Waits crossed with Jackson Browne." Maybe a four-way cross of all of 'em. Or I could just say he's a terrific songwriter of wit and occasional subtlety, who deserved better-- in a perfect world, he'd be more famous than Bruce Springsteen or .38 Special or The Backstreet Boys-- y'know, Springsteen had a song called Backstreets, back in the day... coincidence?

Yeah. Zevon is The Man. Not The Man who's keepin' me down, but The Man who could really rock his ass off. I couldn't get his songs out of my head if I smashed it against the punk rock. Right now it's Play It All Night Long. Before it was Poor Poor Pitiful Me. Entire days of "Lawyers" and "Roland" before that. Warren Zevon, you get the Freddo seal of approval. I hope it does you some good where you're going, but it probably won't. Still, there aren't many who could call a record "Genius" and then live up to it.

Oh, yeah. The track listing:

1. Poor Poor Pitiful Me
2. The French Inhaler
3. Carmelita
4. Hasten Down The Wind
5. Werewolves of London
6. Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner
7. Excitable Boy
8. Lawyers Guns and Money
9. Play It All Night Long
10. A Certain Girl
11. Looking For The Next Best Thing
12. Detox Mansion
13. Reconsider Me
14. Boom Boom Mancini
15. Splendid Isolation
16. Raspberry Beret
17. Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
18. Searching For a Heart
19. Mr. Bad Example
20. Mutineer
21. I Was in the House When the House Burned Down
22. Genius

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