Music

Shhhhhhh . . . Warren Zevon's sleeping . . .

Will Harris

Warren Zevon outlived his doctor's diagnosis by several months. Originally, all he claimed he wanted to do was live to see the next James Bond film; instead, he turned 'four months left to live' into an entire year.

In 1976, with the eighth track of his self-titled album, Warren Zevon gave music journalists around the world a phrase that would inspire the perfect headline for his obituary: "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

In 2003, it must unfortunately be said that, at age 56, Zevon is now sleeping. Zevon succumbed to lung cancer on Sunday, September 7th; publicist Carise Yatter said that he died in his sleep at his home . . . which, if you've gotta go, is about as peaceful a way to do it as you could hope for.

Rather than go gently into that good night upon receiving his terminal diagnosis back in September of 2002, Zevon opted to rage against the dying of the light and record a final album, The Wind. The recording process was documented by VH-1, and it showed a determined Zevon, concerned that he might not finish the album before his strength gave out (at the time of his diagnosis, he was only given four months to live); not only did he succeed with its completion, but he even survived to see its release on August 26th. Perhaps more importantly to Zevon, however, he lived to see the birth of his twin grandsons, born to his daughter, Ariel.

Zevon's career can be best divided into two halves: before and after rehab. It was the pre-rehab years where he saw his greatest commercial success, most of it coming courtesy of the Excitable Boy album; released in 1978, it featured the song for which Zevon would be best remembered, for better or worse: "Werewolves of London".

In an interview with Mixonline.com, guitarist Waddy Wachtel remembered, "When Asylum (Records) chose 'Werewolves' as the leadoff single, Warren and I were completely insulted! 'What's wrong with these people?!' And sure enough, it became the biggest hit Warren ever had." In addition to whatever he was pulling in from his own albums, Zevon's coffers were also filled with the assistance of Linda Ronstadt, who recorded versions of several Zevon tracks during the '70s, including "Hasten Down the Wind", "Mohammed's Radio", "Carmelita", "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me". Unfortunately, Zevon's success led him straight to alcohol abuse, which undoubtedly led to the two-year gap before his next album. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and The Envoy followed in 1980 and 1982, respectively, bookending the 1981 live album, Stand in the Fire (which still remains woefully unavailable on CD).

Bad Luck Streak was a mild success, though its sales figures were decidedly less substantial than its predecessor; still, by the time of its release, Zevon was on the wagon and ready to tour. Unfortunately, when The Envoy barely made a ripple on the charts, Zevon fell off the wagon in a big way.

It would be five years before he released another album. When Sentimental Hygiene appeared on Virgin Records in 1987, Zevon was clean and sober and using his experiences to fuel his lyrics; in "Detox Mansion", he sang of "raking leaves with Liza / Me and Liz clean up the yard." Backed on the album by the majority of R.E.M. (Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry) and including guest spots from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Flea, and George Clinton, the title track of Sentimental Hygiene scored significant college radio airplay, and it was clear that Warren was back in a big way.

His connection with R.E.M. would lead to Zevon to team with Buck, Mills, and Berry for a full-length album; calling themselves the Hindu Love Gods, the group recorded several blues covers, a version of Terry Anderson's "Battleship Chains", and, most notably, a raucous cover of Prince and the Revolution's "Raspberry Beret".

1989's Tranverse City, Zevon's second effort, proved less successful than Sentimental Hygiene, but it was clear at this point that Warren was simply enjoying making music. Albums would continue to follow on a bi-annual basis through 1995, including Mr. Bad Example and the acoustic live album, Learning to Flinch, both on Giant Records. After 1995's Mutineer, however, Zevon took a break for half a decade, though he wasn't particularly resting. During that time, he occasionally filled in for Paul Shaffer in his role as leader of the World's Most Dangerous Band / the CBS Orchestra, a.k.a. David Letterman's house band.

Zevon's 2000 album, Life'll Kill Ya, found him recording for Artemis Records and recording a surprisingly strong cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again". In 2002, he released My Ride's Here, which featured lyrical collaborations with such unlikely folks as Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiassen, and Mitch Albom; even David Letterman makes a cameo, on the Zevon/Albom co-write, "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)".

Letterman and Zevon had been friends for years, with Zevon serving as the first musical guest both on Late Night With David Letterman (NBC) and The Late Show With David Letterman (CBS), so it's no surprise that, when Zevon decided to make his terminal diagnosis public, the forum he selected for his last talk show appearance would be Dave's. In fact, that very night, Zevon referred to Letterman as "the best friend my music has ever had". The appearance was simultaneously depressing and uplifting; knowing that this would likely be the last time we'd see Zevon on a stage was enough to bring tears to anyone's eyes, but, somehow, hearing him talk about his condition with the dark humor that'd laced his lyrics for so many years was mildly reassuring.

"First of all," Zevon offered, "let me say that I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn't pay off."

And his sage wisdom, offered from the viewpoint of a man who knows his number is almost up . . .?

"Enjoy every sandwich."

Zevon performed two songs that night: "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Mutineer". They would be the last two songs he'd perform before an audience.

Zevon outlived his doctor's diagnosis by several months. Originally, all he claimed he wanted to do was live to see the next James Bond film; instead, he turned "four months left to live" into an entire year.

If The Wind is to be viewed as Warren Zevon's last will and testament, the general consensus is that it's a well-composed one. Perhaps the critics' opinions are colored by knowing it's his last, but, somehow, I don't think so; it's pretty much a classic Zevon album, through and through. Knowing of the diagnosis certainly makes the closing song, "Keep Me in Your Heart", the tearjerker to end all tearjerkers . . . but that he covered "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" after being declared terminal . . . ? Call it one last bit of black humor for the road.

Goodbye, Warren. Sleep well.

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