“He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim”
I remember the only time I was ever lucky enough to see Warren Zevon live. It was April, 2000 in Houston, TX at a horrible downtown outdoor venue called Party on the Plaza. He played a totally acoustic set, on piano and guitar, throwing off a number of drunken yuppie idiots who kept screaming for “Werewolves of London” after he’d already performed a fine low-key version of it. He bitched about the sound system and made fun of Jimmy Buffet, and played a hell of a show.
That particular concert seems even more poignant now, and if you’re reading this you probably already know why. For everyone else, here’s the short version: in August, Zevon discovered he had inoperable cancer (mesothelioma) in his lungs and liver. His doctors initially gave him three months to live. With an uncertain future, Zevon has devoted his remaining days to spending time with his family, putting together a final album and, amusingly enough, eating poorly. And who can blame him?
A longtime smoker (he quit five years ago) and recovering alcoholic (sober since the mid 1980’s), Zevon himself seemed unsurprised by the diagnosis. As he described it on his October appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman:” “I lived like Jim Morrison then lived for another 30 years.” Getting cancer is not exactly unheard of, especially for (formerly) hedonistic rock stars. What has been largely unique about Zevon’s case is the impressively stoic way in which he’s been facing his illness.
Singer-songwriters of integrity are, literally, a dying breed. Many artists view their musical careers in much the same ways athletes look at their collegiate tenure: a gateway to a lucrative pro contract. Playing in clubs and touring are all steps on the way to scoring that Miller Lite jingle or getting Mitsubishi to option their single. Then, if we’re lucky, we never hear from them again. And while it’s true that writing songs for TV commercials helped a young Zevon get his start, ketchup ads and the like were always a means to an end, rather than an end unto itself.
“I’m very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins”
A writer of songs for the Turtles and Linda Ronstadt, among others, Zevon was already well-known on the L.A. circuit when he gained cult notoriety for the song “Werewolves of London,” a dance tune that has become to Zevon’s career what “Stand” is to R.E.M.’s (the exception being that “Werewolves” is actually a great song). That album, “Excitable Boy,” contained other Zevon classics like “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and the title track. But nothing he released post-1978 would achieve the same commercial success as “Werewolves.”
He never lacked for critical accolades, though. 1987’s “Sentimental Hygiene” was widely lauded, and his 1991 album, “Mr. Bad Example,” also garnered raves. He lost his record contract soon after that, though he was eventually picked up by Artemis Records, which has released his last two albums, 2000’s eerily prescient “Life’ll Kill Ya” and 2002’s “My Ride’s Here.”
His personal life during the late 70’s and early 80’s was tumultuous, thanks to his well-publicized battles with drugs and alcohol. He bounced in an out of rehab for several years before finally getting clean for good. And even after his newfound sobriety, many found him a thorny individual in person. Zevon admits to this but, as with most other things, he doesn’t apologize for it.
A Zevon song is always notable for itsbiting sarcasm as well as, in the case of his many love songs, surprising tenderness. They’re also often quite topical; I know the first time I ever heard of Biafra was in “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and his song “The Envoy” offered a nice recap of the Middle East situation. Above all, his songs are infused with a wry sense of humor and a satirical eye for detail.
Granted, they aren’t all classics. “Nighttime at the Switching Yard” is as bad a faux disco song as anything Rod Stewart ever put out in the late 70’s, and only a couple of songs from 1989’s cyberpunk opus “Transverse City” are listenable today. Still, for a man who’s been writing music for over three decades, his catalog holds up better than just about anyone else’s.
Mirroring his musical career, Warren’s film and television contributions have tended to be obscure and overlooked. He scored the ill-fated NBC series “Route 66” as well as “Action,” another victim of the confounding programming brain trust at Fox. He sang two songs in 1990’s “Love at Large” and contributed the title to the Andy Garcia movie “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” (the song first appeared on “Mr. Bad Example”). “Werewolves of London” even enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity thanks to its accompanying Tom Cruise’s rhythmic pool cue gymnastics in “The Color of Money.”
More in part two of LIFE’LL KILL YA>>>