This morning, I had that lovely mortality reminder, the annual physical -- getting stuck, poked and prodded in various unpleasant ways to make sure everything is in order for another year. Every time I go through this, I can't help thinking about one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters, the late great Warren Zevon, who might still be alive if he'd taken a little more care about things like annual physicals. Zevon died of cancer five years ago this September. During a poignant farewell appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman," Zevon joked that not having seen a doctor for 20 years "was one of those phobias that really didn't pay off."
So after I get home tonight, I'm going to pay tribute by firing up Zevon's final album, 2003's "The Wind." For more on that, see below.
A heartbreaking swan song
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Aug. 31, 2003
In our youth-obsessed culture, when you can spend hours watching MTV without seeing a soul over age 27 except for the occasional Johnny Cash sighting, it's easy to forget a sad truth: We are all going to die someday. So leave it to Warren Zevon to give the world a not-so-gentle reminder about mortality with his new album, "The Wind" (Artemis Records).
Zevon made "The Wind" in the same spirit you'd plant a tree, as a sign of faith in the future. That's because he himself would not be around much longer. A year ago, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma -- the same kind of cancer that took down another fabled tough guy, the late great Steve McQueen.
Given just three months to live, Zevon could have been forgiven for retiring to the nearest beach. Instead, like George Harrison and Joey Ramone, he chose to continue working. He hung in there long enough to turn another year older, meet his newborn twin grandchildren (born in June), finish this record and see it released. Not surprisingly, the result is less than a merry affair. "The Wind" is devastatingly sad. If you're the type who can't get through reruns of "Brian's Song" without getting weepy, this will break your heart.
Yet "The Wind" has an uplifting side. A semi-legendary cult figure as beloved among literary figures as fellow musicians, Zevon has always bounced between his yin and yang of gallows humor and poignancy. He had his biggest hits with such hard-boiled signature rockers as "Werewolves of London" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," yet also penned "Carmelita," "Hasten Down the Wind" and other achingly pretty ballads.
"The Wind" hits a just-right balance between Zevon's two halves, conjuring as many mood swings as a funeral, drinking-binge wake and blinding hangover. It's a great record because it is literally about life and death and the difference between them, which is love most of the time. If it's not the best record of this year, "The Wind" is certainly the bravest.
Zevon himself scoffs when told he's being brave on the accompanying "Inside Out" VH1 special. But it takes a lot of courage to face up to one's mortality with a sense of humor. "Inside Out" shows Zevon recording "The Wind" and making the rounds -- seeing his oncologist, having a farewell dinner with columnist Dave Barry (who advises him to get a tattoo), appearing one last time on "The Late Show With David Letterman." In typical Zevon style, he steps out of a limo at Letterman's studio and announces his presence by declaring, "Dead man walking."
Parts of "Inside Out" are difficult to watch, especially toward the end. As a visibly declining Zevon struggles with a vocal take, his producer and longtime friend Jorge Calderon suggests putting it off until the next day, when Zevon might be "fresh" again. Zevon answers him, "Jorge, I'm dying. There will be no more 'fresh.'"
For all that, an amazing number of right decisions went into "The Wind." The first good call involves the opening track, "Dirty Life and Times." It's one of Zevon's classic swashbuckling outlaw songs, with the self-proclaimed "Mr. Bad Example" declaring that he's "looking for a woman with low self-esteem" and bragging, "Now they'll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes if I tell about my dirty life and times."
"Dirty Life and Times" was originally set to be the album's title song, which would have tipped the scales too far toward morbid jokiness -- an understandable impulse, because that tends to be Zevon's default worldview. Given how many images of death run through his catalog, Zevon seems to have fantasized his own end as much as the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. In fact, his two most recent albums were called "My Ride's Here" (about making a graceful exit in a hearse) and "Life'll Kill Ya."
The other way "The Wind" could have been blown was for Zevon to wallow in circumstances. But he indulges in very little of that. He sugarcoats nothing, mind you, and drops in plenty of lyrical references to the end drawing near. But it never comes across as cheap or contrived, just truthful. You will never hear anything more honestly regretful than "El Amor de Mi Vida" and "She's Too Good For Me," tender laments about a love that got away.
"I want her to be happy, I want her to be free," Zevon croons on the latter song. "I want her to be everything she couldn't be with me."
"Please Stay" straightforwardly conveys a feature film's worth of anxieties about death in 3-1/2 minutes, buoyed by Emmylou Harris' angelic backup vocals. Even the cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," a potentially ill-advised choice, is about as far from mawkish as you can imagine.
Harris is just one of the famous guests on "The Wind," which underscores the record's other main theme of friendship. Though never a big record-seller, Zevon has always been a musician's musician. His peers -- Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thornton, various members of the Eagles -- lined up to contribute to "The Wind."
Springsteen was on tour during the recording sessions, but chartered a plane and flew all night to Los Angeles to play on "The Wind." He chips in a fabulous pick-me-up to "Disorder in the House," on which the weakening Zevon's voice is at its shakiest. Springsteen gives the song just what it needs with a stinging one-take guitar solo and vocal support that instinctively props up Zevon in all the right places, turning what could have been a downer into a moment of triumphant camaraderie.
A perfect farewell
Zevon's friends work similar magic all over "The Wind," especially Joe Walsh's inimitable guitar wail on the bluesy stomp-along "Rub Me Raw." Yet the first 10 songs on the record are just a windup for the final song, "Keep Me In Your Heart," which is the sort of perfect, beautifully simple farewell that songwriters must dream about leaving behind.
A series of small details, "Keep Me In Your Heart" asks the listener not to mourn Zevon but to continue living and remember him "for a while." And Zevon makes a promise in return: "If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less ... When the winter comes keep the fires lit, and I will be right next to you." The delicate acoustic arrangement almost seems to float by, ghostlike, a simple guitar and drumbeat. I've played this song scores of times in recent weeks, and still can't hear it without tearing up.
Zevon has never exactly been a wedding-song kind of guy, but "Keep Me In Your Heart" is a song you might be hearing for years to come at another kind of ceremony: funerals. Which just goes to show that life is just, even when it isn't fair.
Zevon had quirky ways, words
By David Menconi, News & Obsrver
Sept. 9, 2003
Warren Zevon, the hard-living singer-songwriter with an endless streak of irony, died in his sleep Sunday afternoon after a yearlong battle with lung cancer. He was 56 .
Zevon's death coincides with his biggest commercial success since the 1970s, when he recorded "Werewolves of London" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Working against time, Zevon recorded one final album, "The Wind" (Artemis Records), which was released Aug. 26 . It debuted on the Billboard charts this week at No. 16 , his best showing in 25 years.
"Discounting the Beatles or Bob Dylan, he was my favorite songwriter," said Frank Heath, who owns the Cat's Cradle nightclub in Chapel Hill and used to drive a Volkswagen with Zevon's portrait painted on the door. "I saw him play in Philadelphia in 1982, and he gave me a harmonica he'd used during the show. I've still got that.
"What always amazed me was the variety of his life and music, the way he could go from the most sentimental songs to really harsh ones. He had this really large presence, and all these things sort of spun off that."
Zevon wrote love songs as well as over-the-top outlaw narratives about headless mercenaries, prom-date rapists and criminal-minded altar boys. Nobody could be more eloquently fatalistic. Zevon didn't have the prettiest voice, but he compensated with virtuoso musicianship and wordplay that made him a favorite of the literati as well as his peers.
Classically trained as a child, Zevon quit high school to try his hand as a folk singer in New York in the 1960s. He was back in California by the late 1960s, working as a session musician and writing commercial jingles. He also did a stint as keyboard player-music director for the Everly Brothers before achieving a measure of solo stardom in the mid-'70s.
Like fellow Los Angeles pianist Randy Newman, Zevon was a bit too acerbic for mass consumption. His biggest brush with fame came in 1978, when he scored his only Top 10 album, "Excitable Boy." In keeping with Zevon's gonzo image at the time, a photograph of a handgun on a plate of vegetables decorated the record sleeve. Dubbed "F. Scott Fitzevon " for his prodigious vodka consumption, Zevon lived the rock-star life to the limit.
"He's among the wildest people I've ever met," fellow California musician Jackson Browne told the Los Angeles Times last year. "I always remember him just tearing off into the night in Morocco one time, drunk, by himself. For him, it was all about trials by fire."
'Always a pro'
Zevon cleaned up in the early 1980s and later poked fun at his own drying-out experiences. On 1987's "Detox Mansion," he sang, "Well, it's tough to be somebody/ And it's hard not to fall apart / Up here on Rehab Mountain/ We gonna learn these things by heart."
Though absent from the charts in the 1990s, Zevon continued making solid albums and playing to his cult following. He counted on a solid core of fans within the industry, including Heath, who promoted four Zevon shows in the Triangle. The most recent was Dec. 8, 2000, the 20-year anniversary of John Lennon's death.
"He always put on a great show," Heath said. "The last time he was here, he had a bad cold. But being in front of an audience just transformed him, and he was always a pro once he got onstage."
Even after sobering up, Zevon never lost his taste for absurdity or idiosyncrasy. When former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1998, Zevon went to the inaugural ball to perform "Lawyers, Guns and Money" with him. And Ed Bumgardner, music critic for the Winston-Salem Journal, recalled the time a few years back when Zevon asked him to find a good fishing spot.
"I made a few calls and found a place, and we got in Warren's Winnebago and drove out there," Bumgardner said. "We get there, I start getting all my junk out, and Warren asks what I'm doing. 'I thought we were going fishing,' I said. And he goes, 'Ed, I really appreciate our relationship and everything you've done for me. But I fish alone.' That should be on his tombstone."
In September 2002, Zevon announced that he had mesothelioma, the same inoperable lung cancer that killed actor Steve McQueen. Professional to the end, he made his final album count. Featuring cameos from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris and Don Henley, "The Wind" ties up loose ends with songs addressed to past friends and lovers. It also has an eerie cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
But it is the last song , Zevon's own "Keep Me In Your Heart," that rings truest: "Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath," a dying Zevon sang. "Keep me in your heart for a while."
Heath said the album is the farewell you would expect from a man who wrote a song called "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."
"We've already had a year to mourn him," Heath said. "Now that it's finally happened...well, it feels good that he got to do this last record."