Song 324: Warren Zevon, “Accidentally Like a Martyr” (1978)


Why, why, why did I wait so long to listen to Warren Zevon? It was only a few years ago that I started to listen, to seriously listen, to what he wrote, to what he sang and played. Before that, I’d written him off as something of a novelty, a guy who did “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and some other stuff that he thought was funny. I was so, so wrong.

His music is funny, of course, but it’s also so much more: insightful, heartbreaking, cynical, satirical. Like the best writers who shared those characteristics (George Saunders and Mark Twain come to mind), Zevon seemed to have a direct line to the human condition, an eye on how people treat themselves, and each other, in the modern world. He also made a very funny song about werewolves.

Having said all that, my favorite Warren Zevon song doesn’t seem as barbed, or cynical, as much of his other work. “Accidentally Like A Martyr” is staunchly middle-of-the-road, a midtempo love ballad reminiscent of the Eagles (a couple of whom, incidentally, provide lovely backup vocals). The world has plenty of “I miss you since we broke up” songs, but Warren Zevon made one that only Warren Zevon could: “we made mad love, shadow love, random love, and abandoned love,” he sings, “accidentally like a martyr.” In other words, it was better, and worse, and weirder, than we even knew at the time. And I miss it.

My favorite thing about this song is that piano interlude, those triplets that sound like Randy Newman by way of Aaron Copland. That section provides a kind of sad wistfulness that lessens the song’s bite, just a touch.

What made Warren Zevon’s death so hard was that he was one of the writers we turned to for understanding and wisdom about things like death. “Enjoy every sandwich,” he famously said to David Letterman after he learned about the cancer that would kill him. It was a perfectly Zevonesque thing to say: concise, witty, and above all, real.


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