Renowned Boston rock critic Jim Sullivan reflects on pal Warren Zevon 15 years after his passing
Warren Zevon died 15 years ago on this date. I knew the man pretty well, first as fan, then critic, then friend. (Our friendship was not without its conflict, as with most of his relationships. But that’s another story.) This is an excerpt of some of what I’ve written over the years: It was the fall of 1989 and I was having lunch with Zevon at Musso & Frank’s, the hip West Hollywood eatery where he was a regular.
The waiter came and we ordered beverages, a beer for me, a Diet Coke for him. And then, alarmed, I blurted out, “Oh shit, I’m sorry. Should I not have done that?”
Everyone knew Zevon was a recovering alcoholic. There was a Rolling Stone cover story in 1981, “The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon.” But he didn’t talk much about it. “It was a survival issue,” he said, about putting the vodka down. “That’s why I did it and why I don’t talk about it. The word anonymous meant what it meant.”
Zevon paused for a few moments after my beer order. Not unusual. Zevon often took time to think before responding. It could sometimes be un-nerving if you didn’t know him well. He fixed me with a squinty, wry look. “Yeah, Jim,” he growled. “A decade of sobriety out the window because you’re having a beer.”
It was perfect Warren Zevon.
Zevon died from mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the membrane around the lungs. He was 56. Zevon wrote a lot of death-related songs over the years, including one on his major label debut album called “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” It’s a smashing, crescendo-laden rocker about proudly living the reckless life now and worrying about consequences later. (It’s also the title his ex-wife Crystal Zevon chose when she wrote his warts-and-all biography – with his blessing – some decades later.)
And so, death was part of our conversation. In that 1989 interview, Zevon was discussing his current album, a semi-conceptual effort, “Transverse City,” and he described it as “cheerily morbid. I think we all agreed it should be unremittingly grim. Let’s take grim all the way – not like ‘We’re kind of sad, but trying to cheer you up.’ If it’s not funny anymore – too bad.”
So, it didn’t seem particularly morbid that I asked him about his future obituary. I’d reviewed and interviewed him numerous times for the Boston Globe. We’d become friends. I thought maybe I’d even be writing his obituary some day. I did. How did Zevon think an appreciation of his career would begin?
“Ow-oooh,” he immediately offered, deadpan, echoing the werewolf’s call in his big novelty hit of 1978, “Werewolves of London.” That simple, catchy rocker would be the inevitable first reference to his life’s work. “Just three chords over and over and over …” sighed Zevon, joking (?) it took as long to write as it did to play.
But he wasn’t complaining. “Maybe,” he mused, “you don’t want to die and have it say, `This guy wrote some really sensitive, intellectual, literate songs that put everybody to sleep – this was one pretentious guy.’”
Of course, Zevon did write sensitive, intellectual, literate songs, too. Lots of them, like “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Splendid Isolation” and “Let Nothing Come Between You.” But he put no one to sleep and was not in the least pretentious.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, he issued a statement saying, he was “OK” with it, but hoped he lived long enough to see the new James Bond movie. Ironically enough that was called “Die Another Day.” And he did live long enough to see it. (I don’t know if he did.) He was given a few months by doctors after the diagnosis and he made it about a year, enough to write and record a heart-wrenching final album, “The Wind.” (His previous album had been called “Life’ll Kill Ya,” so he couldn’t use that title again.)
“The Wind” included a tear-inducing version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” perhaps the most un-ironic song Zevon ever recorded. The resonance was obvious. And it had the gorgeous and sweet ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart.” Sang Zevon, “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath/Keep me in your heart for a while.” All any of us could hope for – not eternal fame or everlasting love. Just to linger for a while in someone’s heart after yours has stopped beating.
A lot of Zevon’s famous friends chipped in on that album, as had been the case throughout the years. Zevon’s sidemen and collaborators included Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein, David Gilmour, Chick Corea, Jackson Browne, Jorge Calderon, Mark Isham, David Lindley, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jack Cassady, Jorma Kaukonen, Ry Cooder, and Emmylou Harris.
“As immodest as I am in my private moments,” Zevon once told me, about these collaborators, “it still kind of baffles me. Why did this guy go to all this trouble for me?”
In a VH1 special in 2002 about the making of “The Wind,” Zevon typically fretted that he was irritating people because he’d outlived doctors’ predictions about his longevity. Late that fall, Zevon appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Asked to give advice to people as he faced his own mortality – what did he know that we didn’t – Zevon said: “Enjoy every sandwich.” That became the title of a 2004 posthumous Zevon tribute album by his peers and pals, Henley, Browne, Springsteen and others. His son, Jordan, was the executive producer, and did an unrecorded song by his dad, “Studebaker.”
That night on “Letterman” Zevon played an unprecedented three songs and was the evening’s only guest. Zevon, who was the fill-in bandleader whenever Paul Shaffer was away, called it “meaningful fun,” and thanked Letterman profoundly for doing so much to keep his career alive over the years, after radio had lost interest.
The first time I met Zevon was in 1978 after a rather drunk show at Berklee Performance Center in Boston. The next time we talked was in 1980, when he’d gone the AA route. I mentioned the sloppy gig and he said, “That figures.” He finally went for help, he said, after he was telling Crystal about his intention to see Bruce Springsteen and she informed him he’d already done so. “That was it,” Zevon told me. “It was a scary thing, but you’re real lucky if the gorge rises and the self-disgust gets to a sufficient cinematic kind of thing where you know that you’re an asshole.”
Miami-based satirical novelist Carl Hiassen was a good friend and occasional Zevon collaborator on “Seminole Bingo,” “Rottweiler Blues” and “Basket Case.” “At the height of his popularity,” Hiassen told me in 2010, “he started misbehaving to the extent that it got in the way of concerts. I know once he opened for the Grateful Dead and he almost passed out on the piano keys. They said, ‘Forget it you can’t open up for us,’ and they’re the most drugged band in the world. That’s pretty severe.”
Zevon wrote, with trenchant black humor, about rehab in “Detox Mansion.” There he is, merrily raking leaves with Liz and Liza, learning to be sober in the morning and golfing in the afternoon. He sang: “Growing fond of Detox Mountain and this quiet life I lead/But I’m just dying to tell my story for all my friends to read.” Then: “It’s hard to be somebody/And it’s hard not to fall apart/Here on Rehab Mountain/We learn these things by heart.”
One of the keys to Zevon’s music, as well as his personality, was his ability to intertwine humorous and serious matter. The listener – or Zevon’s conversation partner – couldn’t always be sure where he stood on the matter. Perhaps Zevon couldn’t either. I once asked him about “Play It All Night Long,” a rocker about an inbred Southern that kept playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Play that music up full blast,” sang Zevon. “Play it all night.” It’s black-humored, as it touches on the band’s fatal plane crash and correlates to the family’s decline and the solace they seek in Skynyrd. It seems to them a small comfort that the band’s fate might be worse than their own.
So, when I asked Zevon what his intent was, he said, “Well, it is funny, but it’s also not funny. Like it’s not intended as a ridicule of Lynyrd Skynyrd – I don’t think it’s funny that rock bands get killed in plane crashes – but then the grim, crazy stuff is funny and the overall effect is scary. It’s ambivalent.”
“As a writer,” he told me another time, “it’s a danger to exaggerate your own emotions and we do that, but it’s probably a greater danger to hide from them or conceal them. … I realize how personal what I’m saying is, but I don’t know any other way of doing it. I always took to heart Hemingway’s advice: Your write what you know. That’s all you can write.”