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Warren’s Bright Twilight

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John Pareles has a very nice, sometimes touching interview-requiem-career overview of Warren Zevon in the NY Times Magazine. Much of the ground has been covered before, but Pareles has a priceless encounter with Bob Dylan:

    Dylan was in Los Angeles in October performing at the Wiltern Theater, and word had got around that he was singing some Zevon songs on tour. Arriving backstage, Zevon was greeted with the double takes a ghost would get. Johnny Depp eagerly volunteered to play ”very bad guitar” on any session, anytime; Zevon said, ”I’ll see you again.” A studio musician too eagerly told Zevon that he looked much better than he would have expected.

    Soon Zevon was ushered upstairs to Dylan’s dressing room, where the two songwriters traded a long glance. Dylan mumbled something about how sad he was to hear about Zevon’s illness. ”I have come to value every moment,” Zevon replied. A few moments later, they were trading shoptalk on songs and musicians, and soon enough, it was time for the show. Dylan fixed a thoughtful gaze on Zevon. ”I hope you like what you hear,” he said.

    That night Dylan would sing three Zevon songs without introduction or comment: ”Mutineer,” a love song that begins ”I was born to rock the boat”; ”Lawyers, Guns and Money”; and ”Accidentally Like a Martyr,” in which, for a moment, he did an unerring impression of Zevon’s voice. Zevon listened with concentration, soaking up the moment as his idol paid tribute to him. But fatigue set in; he had to slip out before the concert ended.

Since his terminal cancer was diagnosed, Zevon has been on a creative roll, his recording sessions have been a who’s who of admirers:

    As news of his illness spread, Zevon found himself with all the eager sidemen he could ask for. The sessions have drawn his longtime friends, like Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakam, as well as admirers like Bruce Springsteen and Dylan. One day in November, Browne, Ry Cooder, T Bone Burnett, the actor-director Billy Bob Thornton and his collaborator Calderon all converged for a 12-hour marathon; Zevon’s 33-year-old son, Jordan, was there, too. ”It was like ‘This Is Your Life,’ unplanned and unrehearsed,” Zevon recalled. One song they recorded was ”Prison Grove,” which got started, like many Zevon songs, with a title phrase that struck him as both odd and singable.

    ”Jokingly we refer to it as my Robert Redford in prison song,” Zevon said. ”On another level it’s really serious. Afterward, Jorge said, ‘You know, your body’s the prison.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, he knows me better than I know myself.’ ”

    Cooder said after the session: ”It’s not easy for him. It’s hard work, recording. All the routine stuff about studios — ‘Do you like the playback? Do you care about the microphone?’ — I said: ‘Man, just let that go. You don’t have time.’ This guy has to make every minute count.

    ”It’s unbelievably sad and unbelievably brave,” Cooder added. ”You get that kind of intense focus, and every word and every note is heartfelt. Plus, he is so funny. His asides while he was playing piano over the earphones, his remarks, I hope they keep it and make it part of the record.

Zevon’s “life after the news” has undoubtedly been strange and rife with irony: how does a man obsessed with the macabre and the blackest of humor deal with the knowledge of terminal cancer? With dignity, humor and a grace not previously displayed, not to mention the burst of creativity. That Zevon is most alive in the twilight of his life is either brutal cruelty or a final gift depending upon your perspective. To his credit, Zevon has chosen the latter view.

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