I don’t remember the first time I heard a Warren Zevon song.
I’m pretty sure it was “Werewolves of London,” although it might have been “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Of course, I can’t remember my initial reaction, either, but at present I own several Zevon albums, and can hum about 30 of his songs from memory, so it must have been somewhat favorable. What I’m getting at here is that if asked, I’d never name Warren Zevon as one of my favorite artists, but if I really think about it, the cynical bastard has quietly wormed his way into my subconscious, my CD collection, and my life. And that’s one of the marks, I think, of his art – he sneaks up on you, carefully infiltrating, and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how much you’re going to miss him when he’s gone.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Warren Zevon will know by now that he’ll likely be gone very soon. Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer last August, and given three months to live. Rather than give up and die quietly, which was never his style (see “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” for one), he dedicated what he believed to be his remaining time on earth to completing one final album, one last goodbye. That album is The Wind, and it’s out this week.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other artist who has embarked upon a similar path. Most final albums are posthumous, and usually made up of half-finished recordings interrupted by sudden, intrusive fate. Some, like Morphine’s The Night – completed before leader Mark Sandman suffered a fatal heart attack on stage – are fully formed, yet betray no knowledge of their own finality. Very few artists are afforded the chance to bring things full circle artistically.
I can only think of two, in fact – Frank Zappa and Freddie Mercury – and neither one chose to take the opportunity, as Zevon has, to comment so fully on death’s approach. Zappa, also a victim of cancer, chose to hunker down and complete a series of instrumental works, most notably Civilization Phaze III, that displayed significant advancements in his already prodigious skills. In death, as in life, Zappa chose to keep his privacy sacred. Mercury, similarly, decided to paint on a smile and deny rumors that he was dying of AIDS, right up until one day before his death. He even told more astute listeners so in “The Show Must Go On,” a powerful denial anthem on the last Queen album he completed, Innuendo.
I can think of no artist who has so adamantly and publicly faced death as Warren Zevon has in this past year, and even if The Wind were complete garbage, which it isn’t, he deserves immeasurable respect for deciding and laboring to make it in the first place. VH1 filmed a documentary of the album’s creation, which debuted this week as well, and it plainly showed the physical pain and exhaustion Zevon went through to make sure this album got done – to the point of recording the vocals for the final song at home, because he was too sick to enter a studio. Here’s another way this guy has infiltrated my life – from now on, whenever some Johnny Whitebread rock star bitches and moans about how hard it is to do what he does, I’m likely going to flash on the image of a coughing, shaking Zevon, determined to get the vocals for “Disorder in the House” done right even though he was so doped up on meds that he couldn’t find the beat.
That The Wind concerns death and goodbyes is no surprise. What’s interesting is that writing songs about death, especially his own, is nothing new for Zevon. I’d be hard-pressed to name another songwriter so obsessed with the subject, in fact – Zevon’s catalog contains dozens of ruminations on things falling apart, breaking down, and wrapping up. Just three years ago, in fact, he delivered one of his finest extended meditations on death and dying, an album called Life’ll Kill Ya. From the existential title track to the prayerful “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” that album exemplified Zevon’s sidelong, wry take on the big dirt nap, and he even capped it off with the best, most direct song about systems failing in old age that I’ve ever heard – “My Shit’s Fucked Up.”
What a difference a death sentence makes, though, because The Wind cuts through all of that irony with a sharp edge. Standing at the abyss has brought out the purity in Warren Zevon, and the 10 new songs here make no bones about their simplicity and candor. Even the cover image is surprisingly direct – just Zevon, staring back at you through ghostly eyes that betray not an ounce of the sardonic wit for which he’s known. The trademark gallows humor is all but absent here, save for the presence of Zevon’s long-time symbol – a skull in sunglasses smoking a cigarette. Given the circumstances, you can’t get more jet-black than that.
Musically, Zevon has chosen to stick mostly with pure American heartland styles – blues, rock, country-folk – that only heighten the impact of the lyrics. Opener “My Dirty Life and Times” (once a contender for the album’s title) sounds like the stuff The Band would jam to in their off hours, a simple three-chord gallop that supports the tale of an outlaw coming to the end of his days. “Who’ll lay me out and ease my worried mind,” he asks, “while I’m winding down my dirty life and times.” Similarly, “Numb as a Statue” leaps forward on Zevon’s pounded piano, spinning the story of a man with no connections: “I may have to beg, borrow or steal some feelings from you, so I can have some feelings too.” Here, as elsewhere, Zevon seems intent on wrapping things up: “Ain’t nothing special when the present meets the past, I’ve always taken care of business, I’ve paid my first and last,” he sings, before exhorting the song’s recipient to “get here before I fall asleep.”
By and large, though, Zevon seems to have foregone the maudlin artist-at-death’s-door route and written himself one last barn-burning party. He invited more than a few friends along – The Wind features contributions from Don Henley, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Shaw, John Waite, David Lindley, Timothy B. Schmidt, the great Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Joe Walsh and Emmylou Harris, to name the more marquee-worthy ones. And it’s clear that several of these songs were written just to have a chance to jam out with old friends. This isn’t a bad thing – Springsteen rips and snorts his way through the guitar work on “Disorder in the House,” while Joe Walsh steals the show with his amazing blues six-string on “Rub Me Raw.”
Like all the best parties, though, this one is tinged with melancholy. Throughout The Wind, Zevon refers to his disease metaphorically as the blues, and describes his body as a house being swallowed by the earth, or as a prison holding a condemned spirit. (That song, “Prison Grove,” is a deep and beautiful highlight.) He also sprinkles sad goodbyes throughout, like “El Amor de Mi Vida,” written for an old flame. Trust Zevon to write a song called “She’s Too Good For Me” and turn it upon himself – the repeated hook line is “I’m not good enough for her,” and it sounds like coming to terms. Most touching because of its naked fragility, “Please Stay” finds Zevon asking his current love, “Will you stay with me to the end, when there’s nothing left but you and me and the wind?”
This context is perhaps the only one that can justify another cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” This has to be one of the most recorded songs in history, and the thing is, each new version plays like an ad for the original. No one interprets this song, they simply recite it, as if admitting that Dylan happened upon the perfect arrangement right off the bat. This version is no exception, though Zevon does bring a wellspring of emotion out through his cracked, wavering voice. That voice is in slipshod form throughout, by the way – a necessary consequence of the circumstances under which this record was recorded. It’s amazing how much you’re willing to forgive, and how thoroughly you’re pulling for Warren from the start, however.
Those looking for a glimpse into the heart of darkness will not find it here. It’s as if the finality of his own death has tossed aside his tolerance for bitter humor, and left him with a purity of vision he’s never shown us before. Nowhere is this more evident or touching than on the final track, “Keep Me In Your Heart.” In many ways, it’s the only song here to directly reference Zevon’s illness – it’s a last, loving goodbye that deftly avoids sentimentality. What else would you expect from Warren Zevon, anyway? With this song, he goes out exactly as he’s lived – with touching, simple honesty. And in his entire catalog, no song has moved me like this one:
“Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath,
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less,
Keep me in your heart for a while
When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done
Keep me in your heart for a while…”
I’m especially fond of that “for a while” – Zevon has never expected to be held up and canonized, and has never fought for the kind of fame and respect his contemporaries have. All along, he’s been a quiet voice off to the side, and that he’s engendered that respect from his peers and his many admirers seems to surprise him. He’s always been the voice of the emotionally crippled, the under-confident, the cynical misfit, and the best he feels he can hope for is that sweet, finite “for a while.” It’s like he’ll never know or believe what his work has meant to people.
Warren Zevon is still alive as of this writing, much to the puzzlement and joy of both his doctors and himself. He lived to see his final album released to rave reviews, and to see his first grandchildren born – twins. In a recent appearance on David Letterman’s show, he was asked if he now knows and understands any great truths about life and death that others not in his position may not. His reply: “How important it is to enjoy every sandwich.” The Wind is poignant, powerful and, at the last, devastating, but it’s also surprisingly, incredibly celebratory, a look back on a life worth living. We don’t deserve this record – it’s a gift, and a mighty generous one at that, a reminder to enjoy every day, every minute, every sandwich.
From all of us fans, Warren – thank you, and farewell. We’ll keep you in our hearts for a while.
See you in line Tuesday morning.