The rock legend still resists an easy, smooth canonization; not that he’d want one in the first place
The man who wrote and sang, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” has been sleeping that way for over 18 years.
Warren Zevon, who would have been 75 years old today, still resists an easy, smooth canonization, not that he’d want one in the first place.
Zevon specialized in so many songs about disreputable characters, none more disreputable at times than himself.
It might have taken a crime scene cleanup crew (or at least top-shelf spin doctors) to sanitize parts of his life.
Zevon wanted no part of that. When his ex-wife Crystal started work on his biography, Zevon, who knew he was dying of cancer, told her not to censor herself in what she wrote.
To start, Zevon, like no shortage of his music contemporaries of that age, had problems with addiction. Like too many others since the invention of alcohol, Zevon was the type of alcoholic who became more abusive and violent when he drank and drank in such volume that he couldn’t remember what he’d done. There was also that bit of rebellious “What, here? That?” response when his better angels would have told him not to go somewhere or do something.
In a 1981 Rolling Stone profile, writer and friend Paul Nelson detailed an intervention done on Zevon, saying, “One of the things that really rocked me back on my heels at the intervention was the fact that Zevon had been in an alcoholic stupor for so long that he couldn’t remember wrecking hotel rooms, punching people out or waving a pistol in a close friend and fellow songwriter’s face. It was news – literally sickening news – to him that he’d done such deeds.”
His behavior–be it the anger, the abuse, the untrustworthiness in relationships–led to bridges being burned down or at least charred to the point where crossing became more difficult.
To date, there’s no biopic, understandable as it’s no doubt difficult to come up with a script centered around a lead character that, while talented, could be unlikable for a fair share of the running time and, even with the final act concluding with the album being made by a man facing his extremely imminent mortality, couldn’t be wrapped up in a tidy, crowd pleasing bow. Realistically, it would have to play as a dark comedy.
Zevon, who hadn’t exactly shied away from darkness and mortality in his writing, accidentally predicted the fate that soon awaited him three-quarters of the way through his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya in the song “My Shit’s Fucked Up.”
Zevon opens the track singing:
“Well, I went to the doctor.
I saidl, ‘I’m feeling kind of rough’
He said, ‘I’ll break it to you, son’
‘Let me break it to you, son,
Your shit’s fucked up.’
I said, ‘My shit’s fucked up?
Well, I don’t see how’
He said, ‘The shit that used to work–
It won’t work now.'”
A little over two years later, that’s exactly what happened. Zevon had a longstanding phobia of doctors. Having been sober for 17 years and smoke-free for eight plus in the best shape he’d been in for a long time, he started to feel consistent shortness of breath. He was persuaded, finally, by his dentist, to see a doctor. The diagnosis was cancer of the lining of his lungs and it was terminal.
AUDIO: Warren Zevon “My Shit’s Fucked Up”
Some years later, almost concurrently, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen kept their pending deaths quiet while recording what they knew would be their final albums — Blackstar and You Want It Darker, respectively. Indeed, the fact that Bowie was recording at all was kept under wraps.
Zevon, meanwhile, took the opposite route.
He opted not to go for medical treatments that he felt would slow him down. His label gave him an increased budget to record his final LP, The Wind. Enough of those bridges were still passable and repaired enough that numerous big names crossed them to appear on it — Jackson Browne (who’d helped Zevon get his major label deal over a quarter-century earlier), Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Ry Cooder, Tommy Shaw, Mike Campbell and Don Henley to name a few.
A documentary crew was brought in to film the record Zevon’s working life through the recording process for an eventual VH-1 special.
He also had a final stop on the Late Show With David Letterman, a show hosted by Zevon’s biggest celebrity booster over the years. Letterman went beyond making sure Zevon was booked whenever he had a new album to promote. Zevon would serve on multiple occasions as substitute bandleader for Paul Shaffer. Letterman even guested on the song “”Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” from Zevon’s 2002 album My Ride’s Here, yelling the song’s title.
On a late October night, two months into his diagnosis of three months to live, Zevon was the show’s sole guest, performing a series of songs.
During the interview portion, Zevon’s answers contained the sentence associated with his final days. Letterman asked he was holding up and he said, “You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich and every minute playing with the guys and being with the kids and everything.” Later, when asked if, knowing he was terminal, if he knew anything about life and death that Letterman, who is the same age, did not, he said, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
VIDEO: Warren Zevon’s final appearance on Letterman
The Wind was finished, with his well-known friends helping carry Zevon through as it mixes the cynical, the dark humored (covering “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”) and the heartfelt, wrapping up with “Keep Me In Your Heart”, the first song he finished for the album and the last recorded, finished at home because he was too weak to go to the studio. Always intended as the final song, it’s a matter-of-fact tearjerker.
As tempting as it might be to say that wasn’t the type of writing Zevon usually trafficked in, except that it still bore the honesty, just more comforting than caustic.
And the stubbornness that had amplified his prior worst inclinations served him for good. He outlived his diagnosis by seven months, allowing him to reach his goal of being able to be with his two new grandchildren, who hadn’t been born yet when he was diagnosed.
It’s not hard to imagine an alternate timeline where Zevon hadn’t picked up a love for music as a child, first playing classical piano, then discovering rock-and-roll. In that timeline, he’d become a novelist, living in some place on Delongpre Avenue in Hollywood, spinning out book after book with the same often disreputable characters, cynicism and dark wit. In short, the kind of writer with beloved novels that Hollywood would have a hard time getting trying to get the film adaptations right.
There would be truth in those novels, as there was in his songs. Zevon was an alcoholic musician, son of a gambler and one-time bookmaker for infamous gangster Mickey Cohen, a “colorful character” for all the good and bad that implies. Warren was not, as in the title track to 1991’s Mr. Bad Example, someone who advanced from stealing cash from a box for a kids charity to running a mine with slave labor.
But there’s the chorus — “I’m Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt/I like to have a good time and I don’t care who gets hurt” and it’s not hard to picture the Zevon of the ’70s, scaring Crystal one night when she heard gun shots outside the house, only to find him amused that he’d fired three shots into his face on the cover of Excitable Boy (she was understandably not amused in the slightest).
It’s the Behind the Music trope that someone wasn’t fit to handle the sudden burst of fame, but the reality of it was that Zevon well on his way when he was playing in clubs, before the record deal.
Mr. Bad Example was one of Zevon’s sober records, during the extended period after going through the stop-and-starts that some addicts go through.
His 1976 album, however, was not a sober period record. Nor was it, technically, his debut. Although it was de facto. A 1969 album — Wanted: Dead Or Alive, was recorded, mostly with producer Kim Fowley (who’d be able to work for decades in a pre-#Me Too landscape, which is a whole other story).
Fowley left when it was apparent that Zevon wasn’t exactly the Hip & Happening Songs For Groovy Kids-type of writer/perfomer he thought and Zevon wanted more creative control.
The album was released to, as Zevon called it, “the sound of one hand clapping.” It’s frankly unsurprising, as only the occasional bits and pieces of where Zevon was going could be found in it’s groove.
VIDEO: Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne perform “Mohammed’s Radio” on The Old Grey Whistle Test 1976
That was not the case by 1976, when Warren Zevon, the self-titled debut for the fully-formed Zevon, was released.
There’s the lie addicts tell themselves that their work when they aren’t sober is enhanced by what they’re doing or at least that they can handle it and the work isn’t affected.
The first two ’70s albums are still the best starting point for exploring Zevon’s work. They didn’t show the ill effects — a combination of him having built up a repertoire, having his faculties and gifts as a writer intact, being with a number of talented players working with him and it being a fairly compact period of time — two years.
Time has only enhanced the self-titled album’s reputation, starting with “Frank and Jesse James,” which Zevon wrote for Phil Everly (having spent time in his band earlier in the ’70s), a far more succcesful trip to the West than hinted at on the 1969 track “A Bullet for Ramona.”
The album is full of Zevon standards– the breakup classic “Hasten Down the Wind” (which Linda Ronstadt later covered and the Eagles should have), the dysfunctional narrator of in the playful mocking of his pal and album producer’s Browne’s work in “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, the love of music found in “Mohammed’s Radio”, the grim alcoholic determined defensiveness of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”, the heartbreaking junkie’s life of “Carmelita” and above all, “Desperadoes Under The Eaves” — both one of the best songs about alcoholism and about Los Angeles.
AUDIO: Warren Zevon “Carmelita”
It details, with melody, dark humor, one of the low periods of Zevon’s pre-fame days. Living in a series of hotels, he wound up in the Hollywood Hawaiian, a cheaper hotel often used as a with sleeping junkies and some folks farther along than Zevon in their state of alcoholism outside. He winds up escaping the hotel to avoid paying the bill he couldn’t afford to pay, looking away from the Hollywood sign above Gower Street.
Oh, and it also contains one of his best lyrics, the kind other songwriters wished they’d come up with — “And if California slides into the ocean/Like the mystics and statistics say it will/I predict this motel will be standin’ until I pay my bill.”
For the record, he did go back years later to settle his bill, but, as the story goes, the hotel just took an autographed album instead.
Excitable Boy was his biggest hit, going platinum. And, yes, it’s the one that gave him his only Top 40 hit — “Werewolves of London” written somewhat as a goof in 1975 by Zevon, LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel after Everly suggested the title for a song about a dance craze.
Browne and T-Bone Burnett did versions of the song on tour that year, but Zevon gave it the touch it needed, that instantly recognizable piano part throughout (later sampled by for Kid Rock’s 2008 hit “All Summer Long” where the rich car dealer’s kid who’d pretended to be from straight out of a trailer had progressed to rhyming “things” with “things.”).
“Werewolves” was droll film noir as creature feature, played to catchy, slick ’70s L.A. studio pro perfection.
It’s not baffling to see why it was a hit. It was, however, baffling, that the label put out the title track as a single. It’s a pitch black satire where the least disturbing thing in the lyrics is where the title subject smears pot roast on his chest (something Zevon actually did one night at the dinner table). Things regress from there to assault, rape, murder and corpse desecration, all with cheery backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt and old time rock-n-roll saxophone. Hardly pop chart fare during a period where the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks were huge.
The satire isn’t just in “Excitable Boy”, which could be about how society fails to get potential murderers the help they need before things get violent or about how such violence too often gets excused – see Turner, Brock. Or both.
It’s also there in the ghost story of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, in which Roland, too good at wet work, is betrayed by a friend at the CIA’s behest. His headless ghost extracts revenge and can now be heard wherever the services of a mercenary might be required, be it a foreign civil war or for a domestic terrorist.
“Lawyers, Guns and Money”, an FM rock radio staple for years, is the more sardonic tale in a similar world, of someone who’s in over his head with people who are better at spywork and violence than he is. It’s a surprise nobody based a movie script off the song.
There are plenty of other highlights — notably tale of living under a colonialist invasion and civil strife in “Veracruz” and the heartfelt divorce song “Accidentally Like a Martyr.”
There’s a lot more to explore from there — as the folks reading this more familiar with Zevon’s work most definitely know.
Even his relatively lesser albums contain worthy material. There’s The Mutineer’s almost romantic title track, the white collar grifters turned losing gamblers of “Seminole Bingo” (co-written with novelist Carl Hiassen) and a lovely cover of Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.” The Envoy has a trio of tracks looking at the drug life — the fierily sad “Charlie’s Medicine” about a murdered dealer, the self-destructive impulses of “Ain’t That Pretty At All” and Elvis as the pill-popping savior of “Jesus Mentioned.”
There are the other albums that are quite worthy. 1980’s Bad Luck Streak at Dancing School found Zevon newly sober and focused. If you told me it belongs in the discussion with its predecessors, it would be hard to argue against that point. It’s sharper and punchier, led by the twisted, even more heated Tennessee Williams-esque world of “Play It All Night Long” -another Zevon classic.
Sentimental Hygiene, the first album after five years off the wagon, was Zevon, with the non-Michael Stipe members of R.E.M. as his backing band, in terrific form. “Detox Mansion” is a darkly funny rocker about living in rehab. “Boom Boom Mancini” is an unflinching boxing song through the fighter of the title and the fight where he delivered a fatal punch to Duk-koo Kim in the 14th round of a brutal mostly back-and-forth fight. The title track, with a terrific Neil Young cameo on guitar, was about the desire for love while “Reconsider Me” is a plea for reconciliation. His caustic lyrical eye turns to the music business in “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands.”
1989’s concept album Transverse City is the outlier in his catalogue and his most underrated — a presciently bleak look at a consumerist, Reaganite civilization at the verge of falling apart.
The thing about Zevon is that he never ascribed any sense of glory to his worst impulses. As he told Nelson during his first period of sobriety, “From what I know about alcoholism, I’d say there’s nothing romantic, nothing grand, nothing heroic, nothing brave – nothing like that about drinking. It’s a real coward’s death.”
Neither did he go to the tidy. His characters often still wound up in bad situations and unresolved endings. Love often ended up in breakups or uneasy attempts to keep things going.
One wonders what Zevon would have made of life and the world going into his senior years, with more time to sleep when he was alive. There could have been Old Man Yells at Cloud moments, sure, but it’s hard not to think that Zevon was too smart and too honest of a writer to fall into that trap very often.
He only had a little over a quarter-century to put together his catalogue, but there’s so much worth exploring, as there is with his favorite writers like Ross MacDonald and Hunter S. Thompson.
So, to paraphrase the man himself — “Enjoy every sandwich, every moment with those who mean the most to you and listen to what you love. And hey, maybe check out some Zevon while you’re at it.”
VIDEO: Warren Zevon “Werewolves of London”