In 1931, George Orwell published “A Hanging,” his eyewitness account of an execution at a prison in Burma. Reading the story is like getting a series of stiff jabs to the head, and the first one comes as the guards lead the doomed man from his cell to the gallows. The author noticed that “in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder,” the prisoner “stepped lightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.”
Seeing this, Orwell wrote: “I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive, just as we were alive.”
I think of this passage every time I listen to Warren Zevon’s new album, The Wind (Artemis). One year ago, Mr. Zevon, who is best known for a song called “Werewolves of London”-a horrible injustice to those familiar with the 13 solo albums he’s released since 1969-was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of inoperable lung cancer. His doctors gave him three months to live, and Mr. Zevon made a decision: to gather his musical friends and family and, under the watch of a VH1 documentary crew, record one last album.
The media never fails to lick its chops at the prospect of a celebrity with a death sentence, but Mr. Zevon was a special case indeed. Death has always played a Big Role in the Zevon canon, from the gory depictions of headless mercenaries and coddled murderers on his breakthrough album Excitable Boy to the bespectacled, cigarette-smoking skull that adorned the singer’s albums and backstage passes. But in recent years, the subject seemed to loom even larger in Mr. Zevon’s work. His last two albums were, respectively, Life’ll Kill Ya (2000) and My Ride’s Here (2001). Mr. Zevon’s art and his life had converged in a cruelly ironic way and even he seemed to know he could not protest.
At the beginning of VH1’s Inside Out: Warren Zevon , to be broadcast on Aug. 24, Mr. Zevon tells the camera: “Clearly, one of the reasons we find ourselves here and I find myself in a unique position of not being able to complain about my present circumstances is that I’ve always been interested in writing about death.” Then he smiles and says, “You know Hemingway said all good stories end in death.”
One year after his diagnosis, Mr. Zevon, 56 years old, is still hanging in there. He’s the brand-new grandfather of twins, courtesy of his daughter Ariel, and his album, The Wind , is finished. It will be released on Aug. 26, and if you’re expecting it to be a great album about death, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
The Wind is a great album about living -a visceral document of a man determined to squeeze the most out of his remaining time on earth. When Mr. Zevon’s friend David Letterman devoted a whole show to the singer last October, he asked Mr. Zevon, “From your perspective now, do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know?”
“Not unless I know about how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich,” Mr. Zevon said. That message is written in The Wind . It’s not a joyride but it’s not medicinal either, nor is it an instruction manual. Mr. Zevon doesn’t tell us how to live, he simply shows us what works for him: gathering up his nearest and dearest-longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón (who co-wrote a number of songs on The Wind ), Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Don Henley, musicians such as David Lindley who helped define the California sound of the 70’s and 80’s, his grown children Jordan and Ariel, and his hot girlfriend Kristen-heading into the studio and writing and performing a bunch of songs that right some wrongs, settle some scores and make a big noise. As Mr. Zevon wrote in his diary, “It’s the best way I can think of to say goodbye to my friends and kids.”
The album is freighted with human experience: happiness, bravado, humor, fear, regret, pleasure, pain, love, anger and, finally, the very human desire of wanting to make some small mark on this earth. As with most of Mr. Zevon’s work, the new songs are cold-eyed, devoid of schmaltz, wincingly funny. A number of them are also strikingly intimate-something Mr. Zevon has usually avoided in his songwriting.
And if you must ask, death is also present on The Wind . You can hear him in the occasional raggedness of Mr. Zevon’s velvet-and-vodka baritone, and sense his presence in some hard-to-watch moments of the VH1 special, such as when Mr. Zevon, after downing Mountain Dew and painkillers, turns in a pretty wasted version of a song.
When Mr. Calderón suggests that Mr. Zevon come in the next morning and start “fresh”, the singer replies: “Jorge, I’m dying. I don’t have no fresh.”
“We’re celebrating life everyday. Yours, mine and everybody else’s,” Mr. Calderón tells his friend.
That’s about as touchy-feely as things get. Mostly, Mr. Zevon keeps the grim reaper in the wings with gallows humor and a healthy fuck-you attitude. When his manager Brigette Barr tells him shortly before the Letterman performance that The New Yorker wants to profile him, Mr. Zevon replies, on camera, “Too late.” The look of disgust that crosses his face next tells you just how he feels about the media’s suddenly renewed interest in him.
In another scene that takes place the day after his Late Show performance, he tells the camera: “Playing your own wake is a rare opportunity for a show business personality and one that I think most performers would take on, but not the easiest thing in the world.”
The Wind is a document of faith, but not the religious kind. Ultimately, it’s about having faith in one’s self to hold close what is genuine and to jettison what is not. And at this moment of great deception in culture, government and religion, it is a message whose time has come.
He was born in 1947 in Chicago, the offspring of an unlikely pairing: a Russian-Jewish immigrant father whom he has called a “prototypical gangster” and a professional gambler in interviews, and a Scots-Welsh Mormon mother. He was named after his mother’s war-hero brother, who died in World War II and cast a long shadow in the family home, which soon relocated to Los Angeles.
His education, musical and otherwise, also encompassed a broad spectrum. Well-read-he references Rilke and Schopenhauer in the VH1 special-and classically trained as a pianist, Mr. Zevon also worked as musical director for the Everly Brothers and wrote ad jingles for Boone’s Farm Wines and Chevrolet after his first solo album, 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive , tanked. A 1981 Rolling Stone profile noted that Mr. Zevon’s album collection included “Shostakovich, Mahler, Stockhausen, Bartok and Stravinsky next to Eddie Cochran, Jimi Hendrix, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Byrds, Dylan Thomas” and “the soundtrack from Casablanca .”
Mr. Zevon was playing piano in a bar in Barcelona, Spain, when his friend Jackson Browne convinced him to come back to California and record an album. The result was Warren Zevon , the cover of which depicted Mr. Zevon standing next to a spotlight in a sportcoat and rumpled dress shirt with shoulder-length dirty-blond hair, his trademark wire-rim glasses and a serious stare. It remains a touchstone of the 70’s California singer-songwriter era that spawned Mr. Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.
But where, for instance, the protagonists of the Eagles’ songs usually swaggered, Mr. Zevon’s tended to stagger through sharply drawn L.A. settings, a trenchant alternative to the rampant romanticism of the time. There was the heroin addict in “Carmelita” who pawns his Smith-Corona to score one last hit from the dealer on Alvarado Street “By the Pioneer Chicken stand” and the flummoxed guy at the Rainbow Bar in “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” who meets a woman who wants him to beat her.
And finally, there was “Desperados Under the Eaves,” a song that, intentionally or not, took the piss out of the Eagles’ 1973 cowboy ballad “Desperado.” The outlaw of Mr. Zevon’s song is an indoors drunk at the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel. “Don’t the sun look angry through the trees,” he sings. “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves / Don’t you feel like desperados under the eaves / Heaven help the one who leaves.”
But the song’s coda-the line “Look away, down Gower Avenue” sung repeatedly by Mr. Zevon, Mr. Browne, Beach Boy Carl Wilson and others over a swelling string arrangement-cemented its status as an anthem of 70’s L.A. As Mr. Browne says in the special, Mr. Zevon could “mythologize and satirize in one stroke.”
Mr. Zevon’s next album, Excitable Boy , was his breakthrough and his undoing. Besides “Werewolves of London,” there was “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” about the vengeful ghost of a murdered mercenary-Mr. Zevon co-wrote the song with a soldier of fortune who owned the bar in Spain where he’d played-“Lawyers, Guns and Money” and the album’s title song, which is about a psycho killer. Some critics contend that the 1978 album doesn’t hold up in retrospect, but it pre-figured-in tone and subject matter-the brutal 80’s. His “Excitable Boy” was the prototypical American Psycho , more than 10 years before Bret Easton Ellis’ book existed.
As he rode the chart success of “Werewolves,” Mr. Zevon became a bit of a monster himself. In 1980, he put out Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and one of the great live rock ‘n roll albums, Stand in The Fire , which has never been issued on CD. As a new decade arrived, he confronted a serious drinking problem. In the early 80’s he finally got clean and came clean in a harrowing 1981 Rolling Stone interview by Paul Nelson that’s required reading for anyone with an interest in rock ‘n roll.
Mr. Zevon talked about the intervention his wife and friends-including Mr. Nelson-had staged to save him; how his marriage had not survived his difficult rehabilitation; the horrors of detoxing. Mr. Zevon had had a recurring dream that he’d grabbed his .44 Magnum, walked up the driveway of his home to Mulholland Drive and shot at a passing car. Each time he’d wake from the dream, Mr. Nelson wrote, “he’d scramble for the pistol and count the bullets, terrified there’d be one missing.”
But Mr. Zevon had determined that alcoholism was a “coward’s death.”
“I came to the realization that all that stuff in the media that made me into F. Scott Fitzzevon, the two-fisted drinker, the adventurer-all that stuff was just bullshit. ‘They don’t care if you die,’ I said. ‘It’s just next week’s issue.’ ‘You’re not a fucking boy and you’re not a fucking werewolf, you’re a fucking man, and it’s about time you acted like it.'”
After the 1982 release of The Envoy -the title track was about President Carter’s Man in the Mideast Philip Habib, who sent the singer a thank-you note-five years passed before Mr. Zevon released another record. But Sentimental Hygiene, made with members of R.E.M., is a great album. The title track, with its blistering lead guitar by Neil Young, is unforgettable. So are “Boom Boom Mancini,” “Bad Karma,” and “Detox Mansion.”
“I’ve been rakin’ leaves with Liza / Me and Liz clean up the yard,” Mr. Zevon sang, before declaring: “Well, it’s tough to be somebody / And it’s hard not to fall apart.”
The follow-up, Transverse City , a futuristic concept album, was spottier, but had “Run Straight Down,” a dark but infectious lament about the environment, and “Splendid Isolation”: “Splendid Isolation / I don’t need no one,” Mr. Zevon sang before bringing up another isolated man: “Michael Jackson in Disneyland / Don’t have to share it with nobody else …. Lock the gates, Goofy take my hand / And lead me through the World of Self.”
And listening to these two albums, it’s clear that as Mr. Zevon entered his 40’s, he was a man, a lonely, isolated man, unlucky in love and guarded by a wall of ironic detachment, perhaps, but nonetheless a man who had mapped out his world of self.
In 1995, Mr. Zevon put out Mutineer . On the album cover he looked like a grizzled Hollywood pirate in a watch cap, beard and gigantic black shades. Besides the beautiful title track-a song that Mr. Zevon wrote as a gesture of appreciation to his fans, there’s the melancholy “The Indifference of Heaven.” In I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead , a two-disc anthology of Mr. Zevon’s music-a great starting point, if it’s still available-Mr. Zevon seemed to be rebutting the optimism of his friend Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 song “Better Days.” Indeed, he not only mentions the song, but Mr. Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa, as well as Billy Joel and his now ex-wife, Christie Brinkley. Mr. Zevon and Mr. Springsteen go way back-they co-wrote “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” which appeared on Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School -but they have very different viewpoints. Mr. Springsteen once called Mr. Zevon “a moralist in cynic’s clothing.”
“They say, ‘Everything’s all right’ / They say, ‘Better days are near’ / They tell us, ‘These are the good times’ / But they don’t live around here,” Mr. Zevon sang in “The Indifference of Heaven.” “Billy and Christie don’t- / Bruce and Patti don’t- / They don’t live around here.”
I doubt that Mr. Zevon was thinking about anything other than his own predicament when he made The Wind , but as an example of how quickly our culture is moving, there’s a comparison to be made between his album and Mr. Springsteen’s 2002 CD, The Rising . Both are works about living in the shadow of death, but each is reflective of its time. The Rising , released last summer, is a big, spiritual and optimistic record that encouraged community at a time when the whole nation seemed to be huddled beneath the flag. One year, one bad economy and one continuing war in Iraq later, that sense of unity has dissipated. Once again, we’re a factionalized country, not just of reds and blues but a whole bunch of barely distinguishable hues living with a heightened sense of mortality and the creeping realization that, in life and death, it’s every man for himself.
Mr. Zevon seems to be dealing with this issue on “Disorder in the House,” the second song on The Wind and one that works as a metaphor for the state of Mr. Zevon’s mind or the nation-take your pick. “The floodgates are open / We’ve let the demons loose,” Mr. Zevon and Mr. Springsteen sing. “The big guns have spoken / And we’ve fallen for the ruse.”
The song, co-written by Mr. Calderón, sounds like a Texas rave-up and runs at a breakneck pace, powered by Mr. Springsteen’s taut electric guitar. “It’s the home of the brave and the land of the free / Where the less you know, the better off you’ll be,” Mr. Zevon sings. And in the end, he decides: “I’ll live with the losses / And watch the sundown through the portière.”
The next song on the album is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” It’s a straightforward but intense reading by an all-star cast that includes former Styx member Tommy Shaw and Billy Bob Thornton and Mr. Browne on backing vocals, but try not to get chills when you hear Mr. Zevon’s shouts of “open up” at the end. I also wonder if the placement of the song is Mr. Zevon’s black humor at work. To have put it at the end would have been too heavy-handed, so he made it track No. 3-the same number of months that doctors originally gave him to live.
But there he is on track 4, “Numb As a Statue,” a song inspired by his regimen of palliative drugs, sounding brave and funny and aware that, even if the docs were wrong, the clock is running out. “I’m pale as a ghost, numb as a statue.”
“You know what I love about you / That’s what I need the most / I’m gonna beg, borrow or steal / Some feelings from you.” Mr. Zevon doesn’t care if those feelings are superficial either. “You don’t have to dig down deep / Just bring enough for the ritual / Get here before I fall asleep.”
From here, The Wind gets much more personal. Mr. Zevon drops the irony for two songs about a love that got away. “She’s Too Good for Me” takes him to the upper registers, and “El Amor de Mi Vida” is achingly beautiful. Accompanied by only piano, upright bass and light percussion, Mr. Zevon sounds raw and full of regret. “I close my eyes, you reappear / I always carry you inside in here / I fall asleep, you come to me / And once again our love is real.” The chorus, sung in Spanish by Mr. Calderón, translates to “You are the love of my life / If only I could find you / With all my heart I would tell you / You are my true love.”
But having gotten some things off his chest, Mr. Zevon sounds ready for love again on “The Rest of the Night,” a chugging party song akin to “Quarter to Three” that features Mike Campbell’s chiming guitar and his bandmate Tom Petty’s vocals. “Me tired? Well boo-hoo!” Mr. Zevon exclaims. “I’m starting to fall in love with you.” And that leads to the plaintive “Please Stay.” As Mr. Zevon sings, they are “Two words I’ve thought I’d never learn to say,” but now that it counts he finds a way, asking: “Will you stay with me to the end? / When there’s nothing left / But you and me and the wind.”
The penultimate song is “Rub Me Raw,” as authentic a blues number as has been written. For those who might be feeling sorry for Mr. Zevon right around now, he sets them straight. Sure, he’s scared-“Went and told my psychic / I said, ”Keep it to yourself.'”-and he’s angry-“How the crowd gets fickle when your face is to the ground!” He’s even a “shattering mass,” but he’s holding it together. “I don’t want your pity or your fifty-dollar words,” he sings. “I don’t share your need to discuss the absurd.”
“I’m gonna sit up straight / I’m going to take it with class,” he sings halfway through the song, before invoking the last words of his gangster father: “Son, never look back.”
The last song on The Wind , “Keep Me in Your Heart,” is the first song that Mr. Zevon wrote after his diagnosis and the last one he recorded. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / Keep me in your heart for awhile,” he sings. “When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Mr. Zevon’s voice is clear and true on this song, the voice of a man who’s alive, just as we are alive. And when that voice stops, there is nothing to do but remember and rail at the vast indifference of heaven.