Looking back on the acclaimed songwriter’s fateful final album
There may never have been a more fate-fueled album than Warren Zevon’s twelfth and final studio effort, The Wind.
It was released on August 26, 2003, just days after Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable pleural mesothelioma, a cancer that destroys the lining of the lungs. It became his final musical mission in a very real way, as Zevon was determined to complete the album while he was still able to do so. Less than two weeks after its release, Zevon succumbed to this illness.
Not surprisingly, many of the songs are fatalistic in both attitude and inspiration. And yet its poignancy is matched only by its passion. Clearly, Zevon knew what was in store, and had given in to the notion that he was rapidly approaching his end of days. He even made a few late night talk show appearances to promote the record, in which he spoke candidly about how he was dealing with the inevitable. Several of songs are clearly tied to musings about mortality, and on standout selections “Dirty Life & Times,” the beautiful ballads “Please Stay” and “She’s Too Good For Me,” and, most especially, the unceasingly moving and mesmerizing “Keep Me In Your Heart,” the tender trappings are deeply affecting. One would be hard pressed to listen to any of them without feeling the need to blink away a tear.
The references to death and departure naturally lie just below the surface throughout, and Zevon’s considered commentary can’t disguise the sadness and sobriety that remains a constant throughout. A decisive cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is only one of the most obvious examples. So too, the harrowing and haunting “Prison Grove” comes across like a funeral procession, effectively infused with staunch and stalwart determination.
On the other hand, the raucous “Disorder in the House” finds him letting off steam with Bruce Springsteen in tow, just as the bluesy stomp of “Rub Me Raw,” the rambunctious “The Rest of the Night,” and a rollicking “Numb As A Statue” all seem to suggest he’s simply celebrating his last big hurrah, with the obvious intent on partying away the pessimism.
Given that the album itself represented a final farewell, it remains remarkable resilient. Both stoic and solid, it’s an assertive effort that shows Zevon remained undeterred until the end. It didn’t go unnoticed. The album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and several of its songs scored Grammy nominations. “Disorder in the House” scored for Best Rock Vocal Performance.
It’s a credit to the degree to which Zevon was admired and revered by his contemporaries that a host of notable names participated in the project. They included Springsteen, David Lindley, John Waite, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, Billy Bob Thornton, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, T-Bone Burnett, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh and Zevon’s son Jordan, who served as the album’s executive producer.
VIDEO: Warren Zevon’s final appearance on Letterman
In a certain sense, The Wind is strikingly similar in stance to Johnny Cash’s elegiac American VI: Ain’t No Grave, Springsteen’s Nebraska, Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind or any number of recordings by Mississippi John Hurt and other weathered and withered blues artists approaching the end of life.
While some may tend to look upon it fondly simply due to its sentiment and nostalgia, the fact is, The Wind represented Zevon at the peak of his prowess. His gruff vocals remain both solid and sturdy from song to song, and even as he navigates the sad circumstance, he remains as resolute as always. There’s little evidence of self-pity, and even when he does turn to remorse or reflection, he’s mostly includes others when sharing his circumspect.
“Please stay, please stay… two words I never thought I’d hear you say,” Zevon sings on the tender ballad of the same name. There’s a bit or irony in that, but there’s no mistaking the sentiment expressed in “Keep Me In Your Heart.” The impassioned plea aside, he needn’t have worried. We should all be as well remembered.