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David Letterman Is Right: Warren Zevon Should Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Richard E. Aaron, Redferns, Getty Images
Richard E. Aaron, Redferns, Getty Images

David Letterman’s speech for Pearl Jam when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month was one of the night’s funniest and most moving moments.

In addition to remarking on the band’s rotating lineup of drummers and recalling a note singer Eddie Vedder gave Letterman’s young son, the former late-night host made a simple, but not at all surprising, request: “One day I hope to come back here for the induction for my friend Warren Zevon,” he said.

We totally agree.

Zevon belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s been eligible since 1994. And how many times has he been nominated since then? Would you believe zero? Of all the artists who continually show up on lists of Artists Who Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nobody’s absence is a more glaring oversight than Zevon’s.

Zevon and Letterman have a long history, going all the way back to 1982, the year Letterman started hosting Late Night on NBC. Over the years, the singer-songwriter appeared on Letterman’s shows — he jumped to CBS in 1993 — more than a dozen times. When a guest dropped out and Letterman needed a quick replacement, Zevon was there. When Letterman needed a musical director to fill in for Paul Shaffer, Zevon was there. And when Zevon shared the news of the inoperable cancer that eventually killed him, he did so on Letterman’s show.

His final appearances on Letterman’s program are among the most poignant and heartbreaking ever aired. His reply to Letterman’s question as to how the diagnosis had affected him — “You put more value in every minute. … You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich” — is amusingly honest, sad and real.

Letterman has personal reasons for seeing Zevon inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But that just skims the surface of why he belongs there. He’s one of popular music’s great unsung singers and songwriters. You probably know him from “Werewolves of London,” his only Top 40 hit, from 1978. But his career goes deeper than that, with a dozen albums dating back to 1969.

His list of great songs stretch from 1976’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” to “Keep Me in Your Heart,” from The Wind, which was released a week before his death of lung cancer at age 56 in 2003. In between is an exemplary body of work that has been woefully neglected by so many people, including Hall of Fame voters, over the years.

Zevon was a songwriter’s songwriter. His champions over the years included everyone from Jackson Browne (who produced and played on his two best albums, 1976’s Warren Zevon and 1978’s Excitable Boy) to Linda Ronstadt (who covered several of his songs) to R.E.M. (who formed the band Hindu Love Gods with him in the mid ’80s and backed him on his 1987 comeback album, Sentimental Hygiene). He palled around with Fleetwood Mac during the period when they ruled the charts. Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen both helped put together The Wind, which Zevon recorded as he was dying. And we don’t know a single person who can listen to “Keep Me in Your Heart” without tearing up.

So why isn’t Zevon in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when almost every one of his friends, peers and contemporaries have been there for years? Good question. He could be erratic onstage and on record. He followed up his two best albums, after drying out and getting clean, with a record about fighting his demons. And he released a string of records in the ’90s that few people heard and didn’t chart, but contained some quiet gems nonetheless (start with 2002’s “My Ride’s Here”).

But none of this really explains why Zevon has been passed over time and time again by a committee that’s never shied away from nominating difficult artists, cult heroes and assholes before. Zevon’s fans — and there are thousands of famous and not so famous ones out there — are left scratching their heads year after year at his constant omission. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to getting Zevon into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If the people responsible for getting artists into the hallowed hall won’t listen to the fans, or even their own hearts, maybe they’ll listen to Letterman. Maybe that’s what it finally takes to get one of the most undervalued artists the respect he deserved more than 20 years ago. And we hope Letterman is there on that special day.

Masterpieces: The Very Best Albums From More Than 100 Classic Rock Acts

Next: Top 10 Warren Zevon Songs

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