by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 1, 2003
Warren Zevon's Final Album
The L.A. purveyor of 'rock noir' makes his last stand
I felt like crying as I watched VH1's special on Warren Zevon. How sad. Zevon, as you likely know, is dying from cancer. But rather than die in private, Zevon has done what no one in his situation has ever done before. He wrote and recorded an album that both deals in part with his own imminent death and lets those who hear it experience the final artistic statement from Zevon, a man who has been fighting demons of one sort or another for much of his life.
And he has treated his illness as an opportunity to make a last stand before the public, appearing on "Late Show With David Letterman," talking to the press and letting VH1 film him during the year or so he worked on his final album, The Wind. That takes some guts.
There was a truly redemptive moment during that otherwise typically mediocre VH1 "rockumentary." It came in the control room of an L.A. recording studio as Bruce Springsteen began an incendiary raw rock 'n' roll solo for a new song called "Disorder in the House." Zevon, short of breath and clearly in a bad way, was sitting a yard or less from The Boss. As Springsteen leaned hard into that solo, Zevon seemed to forget himself. He smiled. He lost himself in the music. He was, for that moment, saved by rock 'n' roll.
I loved seeing that so so much. Even with death approaching, this music rock, rock 'n' roll, punk, whatever you want to call it that some of us have been obsessed with since our early teens, can heal, can bring joy, can give life meaning, can give life.
Zevon first came to my attention in 1976, when I read a review of his wonderful debut, Warren Zevon. It was produced by Jackson Browne, who was a big star at the time and a charter member of the "L.A. Mafia," which also included The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
Zevon may have hung out with purveyors of sometimes laid-back Southern California countrified rock, but his own songs were more suited to Raymond Chandler's L.A. "Noir" as in film noir was the word often used to describe such songs as "Frank and Jesse James," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" (which appeared on his second and best known album, Excitable Boy ). As Browne once put it, "He's the first and foremost proponent of song noir."
Zevon's voice was big and at times heroic, almost like that of a young John Wayne, if Wayne had been a singer. Or maybe Johnny Cash, back in the day. It's a voice that can just slay you. It can be big and bold and angry, but it can also be so tender when he uses it to deliver a love song ("Carmelita," "Hasten Down the Wind").
I dug those first two albums a lot, probably as much for the slide guitar-dominated rock sound (thanks David Lindley, thanks Waddy Wachtel) and for that way-larger-than-life voice as for his lyrics (those were good too!).
I saw Zevon when he toured in '78, following the release of Excitable Boy. He played to about 600 people at the San Francisco club the Old Waldorf. He was fairly out of control at the time; certainly his well-documented plunge into drugs and alcohol was in full swing. Still, he rocked the house, and proved that he was the real thing, not just some guy who could make a good record.
Excitable Boy included one song that could be looked at as Zevon's undoing: "Werewolves of London." It became a big hit. A big novelty hit. Fools the world over loved to sing along to its inane chorus. That song eclipsed everything else Zevon did. Instead of building a solid fan base of people who appreciated his sometimes morbid ("So the CIA decided they wanted Roland dead/ That son-of-a-bitch Van Owen blew off Roland's head" "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner"), sometimes maudlin ("She tells him she thinks she needs to be free/ He tells her he doesn't understand" "Hasten Down the Wind") lyrics, he became one of those "one-hit wonders."
The albums that followed just didn't click for me. As I recall, they were uneven. They also didn't sell. Time passed and Zevon faded away. He was one of those artists who just wasn't fulfilling the potential of his early work.
After I saw that VH1 special, I dug out a 1996 two-CD compilation, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which includes a lot of great songs: "Hasten Down the Wind," "Carmelita," "Accidentally Like a Martyr, "Mohammed's Radio," and so on. If you're new to Zevon, it's the album you want, since it cherry-picks his best work from 12 albums.
Best Album In Years
I bought Zevon's new and final album of new studio recordings, The Wind, the day after it was released. It was hard to put it on. But I was glad I did. It's very good, his best since the early days.
Now of course my listening to The Wind can't help but be colored by the context. This is an album made by a dying man. Am I willing to forgive the occasional clunker of a lyric? Sure. Or the one really dud track ("Numb as a Statue")? You bet.
I couldn't help but come to this album with very different expectations than I normally bring to a new recording. I've had my share of brushes with death. Both of my parents died of cancer during the '90s (cancer took my grandfather too). Just a few weeks ago, my best friend's father passed away again, a victim of cancer.
I sat in hospital rooms and watched the beast that is cancer take the lives of my parents. There's nothing easy about death. Not for the dying, nor for those left behind.
In a way, The Wind is a bit of a nostalgia trip. Zevon's musician friends Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Jim Keltner and others create what I think of as an early-to-mid-'70s L.A. rock sound. Yeah, yeah, we revolted against that when punk stormed through in '75, but truth be told, some of those L.A. country-rock albums were damn good. The Wind is a reminder of that. (Slide guitar dominates the sound of many of the rock tracks on this album, and whether it's being played by Cooder, Randy Mitchell, Lindley or Joe Walsh, it's quite exceptional.)
The standout tracks: The '50s-style rocker, "Disorder in the House," which has Springsteen on background vocals as well as guitar and is both an indictment of the Bush administration and a commentary on Zevon's declining health. "Prison Grove," a moody, minor-key ballad with Cooder on slide and Springsteen, Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, T Bone Burnett, Zevon's son Jordan and a few others adding background vocals. "Shine on all these broken lives," they sing. "Shine on/ Shine the light on me." If you hear it, you'll be moved.
There are some love songs that some will relate to and some will find corny: "El Amor de Mi Vida," "Please Stay." And there are some tough rockers: "Dirty Life and Times" and "Rub Me Raw." "The Rest of the Night," with the chorus, "Oh, yeah! Oh yeah! Let's party for the rest of the night," at first seems trite and tired. But then the irony hits. Here's a guy on his deathbed singing about partying all night with a voice that sounds like he'd much rather go to sleep. Zevon makes partying all night sound like a job no one would want.
My favorite song, and the one that will bring some listeners to tears, is the closing ballad, "Keep Me in Your Heart," which Zevon completed at this home studio 'cause he was apparently too ill at that point to leave his house. "Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath," he sings over a lone acoustic guitar, before being joined by bass and drums. "Keep me in your heart for a while."
Nearly every verse ends with the line, "Keep me in your heart for a while." Zevon sings that line with that voice, that big voice that thrilled us when we first heard it, over a quarter century ago. And as he sings that line, again and again, it sounds like the saddest thing you'll ever hear.