Warren Zevon, who has never won a Grammy before, is nominated for Song of the Year (a writer’s award) and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Keep Me In Your Heart,” the devastatingly affecting song from his final album, The Wind, which is itself nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album, a sort of odd catch-all category where greats like Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams are often stuck. Zevon is also nominated along with Bruce Springsteen for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, and Best Rock Song for “Disorder In the House,” also from The Wind.
Zevon died of cancer September 7, 2003 at the age of 56. One of rock’s most distinctive, enduring and disturbing singer-songwriters, Zevon’s sonorous baritone has lovingly expressed his affinity for the macabre in such jaunty anthems as “Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” and “Life’ll Kill Ya.” Though best known for his dark humor, Zevon’s songs of tender sincerity and emotional insight are equally cherished by his many fans and include “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita,” “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Never Too Late for Love.”
After a life spent wrestling with the angels of creativity and compassion and demons of self-abuse and cynicism, Zevon responded to the news of his, as he put it, “impending doom” with courage, humor, humility and an outburst of music created with his dearest friends and contemporaries, including Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and his long-time collaborator Jorge Calderon.
Zevon’s stunning album, The Wind, released last August, will proudly stand with his finest work.
The Wind is at once a summation of Zevon’s career, and a life-affirming celebration of the joys of music-making. “Dirty Life and Times” has a timeless Civil War march feel, tasty churning guitar from Cooder, and continues a mythic Western outlaw theme begun back in ’76 with “Frank and Jesse James” on Zevon’s brilliant self-titled album. The theme extends much farther back personally, as Zevon’s father was a professional gambler, frequently on the run around California and Arizona. Warren’s formative years were like something out of “House of the Rising Sun” – the younger Zevon’s music career began when he headed to New York at 16 in a Corvette his father had won in a card game.
“Disorder in the House” and “The Rest of the Night” are ripping rockers, raging cheerfully against the dying of the light, and love songs to the unhinged party life Zevon largely gave up in the early ’80s after a long struggle with alcohol abuse. Tom Petty harmonizes to great effect on the latter, and Springsteen unleashes his most jaw-droppingly savage lead guitar on the former.
But there is also great beauty and delicacy on the album. Zevon pays tribute to a hero and addresses the hereafter directly on Bob Dylan’s hopeful Western elegy, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Though the emotional intensity of the harmonized chorus is almost too much to bear, Zevon can’t resist a humorous poke at his own condition, shouting “open up, open up, open up” as the final extended chorus gradually fades to black.
“She’s Too Good For Me” and “El Amor de mi Vida” are lovely, aching ballads that display Zevon’s feel for the Spanish Southwest, which extends back to “Carmelita” on “Warren Zevon,” and “Veracruz” on his most successful album, ’78’s “Excitable Boy.”
“The Wind” ends with Zevon’s naked, heartbreaking admission of need, vulnerability and comfort, “Keep Me in Your Heart.” As Warren’s final repetition of “keep me in your heart for a while” concludes and the CD player clicks to a stop with finality, I scramble to push “play” as quickly as possible to begin the music again and cut off my tears. Warren went out in style.
Making this appreciation acutely personal is an aptly Zevonian twist of fate. In July of ’02, my wife Dawn and I were in Los Angeles on our way to Hawaii for a family gathering. Our friend, film producer and editor Brian Linse, threw a tremendous party on a beautifully cool, clear night in the Hollywood Hills while we were in town. Midway through a most festive evening a deeply tanned, notably muscular, bespectacled and familiar looking man appeared in the kitchen.
Dawn and I blinked at each other, did double takes of recognition, then bore down like zombies smelling brains upon the man in the kitchen, Warren Zevon.
We were great fans and said so – he was warily appreciative. I heaped semi-drunken praise and disjointed questions upon him:
“You’re a great, under-appreciated songwriter and singer,” I announced more loudly than intended.
“Thanks,” he smiled soberly.
Seizing the pundit’s pulpit, I opined, “I love your first two Asylum albums and your most recent two on Artemis best – does it seem strange to come back so strongly so late in your career? Who else has done that – Roy Orbison?”
“Roy Orbison?,” he sounded startled. “Um,” he mumbled, stiffening. “I didn’t GO AWAY, I just didn’t get the same REACTION to my work for about twenty years,” he snickered somewhat derisively in the direction of his friend, legendary music video director Nigel Dick, who snickered somewhat uncomfortably back.
I winced and tried again. “I like you performing your own tunes best, but Linda Ronstadt had great success with several of your songs – “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Carmelita,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Mohammed’s Radio” – have you made more money as a songwriter or as an artist?”
He softened, “Thanks, probably songwriting.” Suddenly, there was a vast sadness in his eyes and weariness to his posture that startled, even frightened me. I mumbled something about “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” being my theme song and modus operandi for about ten years in my twenties and early-thirties, then excused myself to resume less emotionally charged conversation. Later that night I bumped into Zevon again and complimented him on his impressively buffed physique. He told me he had been “working out more than Vin Diesel” for over a year.
A month later, a visit to the doctor revealed untreatable cancer in his lungs and liver. In September Zevon told the Los Angeles Times with a small laugh he had assumed his “shortness of breath” and the “tightness in his chest” were side effects of his workout routine. In a statement to the press, he said of his condition, “I’m okay with it, but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it till the next James Bond movie comes out.” He has lived to see not only the theatrical release of James Bond’s Die Another Day, but also its video release June 3 – large victories in the guise of small.
When the bad news broke ten months ago, Warren Zevon, former wastrel, resolved to devote his remaining time to music, friends and his family, especially his two grown children, Jordan and Ariel. He has had exceptional success, even good luck, in these endeavors. In the summer of ’03 Zevon became a grandfather for the first time when Ariel gave birth to twin sons, Augustus Warren Zevon-Powell and Maximus Patrick Zevon-Powell. Warren was at the hospital for the births, a source of great joy said a spokesperson.
On October 30 of ’02, Zevon appeared on television as the only guest of David Letterman, a huge fan, in a special episode of the show. Zevon was witty, charming, even profound without getting heavy or maudlin. Letterman was clearly moved. Besides Zevon’s musical performances, the highlight of the show was this exchange:
Dave – “Do you now know something I don’t know?”
Warren – “I know how much you are supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”
That Zevon has seemed most fully alive in the twilight of his life is either existential cruelty or a final gift, depending upon your perspective. To his everlasting credit, Zevon chose the latter view and acted very nobly upon it.
Portions of this story originally appeared here.