The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

How he saved himself from a coward's death

March 19, 1981
warren zevon cover
Warren Zevon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Alcoholism. That's what this story's supposed to be about. How Warren Zevon, after some heartwarming and colorful mis-adventures, licked the Big A and lived happily ever after. Zevon: a drinking-man's drinking man, someone who can talk about booze the way Pete Townshend talks about rock & roll. Starring Richard Dreyfuss as our wild and crazy hero, Diane Keaton as ex-wife Crystal, Warren Beatty as Jackson Browne, Gregory Peck as private-eye novelist Ross Macdonald (real name: Kenneth Millar), actress-girlfriend Kim Lankford as herself, with a special guest appearance by Jack Klugman as "the Doc."

You could write it that way, I suppose. Most of it happened, some of it still might. There was even a laugh or two here and there: the protagonist buys a Christmas quart for his in-laws, discovers it's the only liquor in the house and drinks it all himself before they can sample a drop. But you'd write it that way only if you didn't realize that alcoholism is a disease, and that your true alcoholic is about as colorful and heart-warming as a pale white body on a concrete slab. Eventually, a dedicated drunk will maim or kill everything he touches, often putting himself at the bottom of the list. Warren Zevon knows this. And, since I was around for a few key incidents, I hope I do, too.

We are sitting up late at night in Warren and Kim's rented home in the Hollywood Hills. ("This stupid, pretentious, screenwriter's idea of a screenwriter's idea of a screenwriter's house" is how Zevon describes it. He is particularly chagrined by a four-foot-high red bathtub. "Very California," he smiles, with a certain amount of grim satisfaction.) Lankford, who's currently starring in Knots Landing, has gone to bed hours ago.

Since Warren and I are both night people, we've decided to do our tapings from one or two in the morning until dawn, then laze around in the backyard and watch the planes, magnificently framed against a faraway mountain range, make their long, slow descent across the San Fernando Valley toward the Burbank airport. It's a beautiful sight, somewhat unreal. I'm reminded of Hitchcock's movies, where the horror happens in broad daylight.

"From what I know about alcoholism," Zevon is saying, "I'd say there's nothing romantic, nothing grand, nothing heroic, nothing brave – nothing like that about drinking. It's a real coward's death.

"The last time I detoxed, I really thought I was going to die. I had my hand on the phone, I was afraid that I was going to start hallucinating and shooting guns – I didn't know what was going to happen."

(Zevon had a recurring dream: that he'd grabbed his .44 Magnum, stumbled up the driveway to Mulholland, taken dead aim at a passing car and pulled the trigger. Each time he woke up, he'd scramble for the pistol and count the bullets, terrified there'd be one missing.)

"This time I really felt that way morally about life. I said, God, just give me one more chance, man. Don't let me die a fucking coward, not this way! Shit! Anything but this! I'm dying from having avoided the pain of living. This is suicide, the same as the gun barrel in the mouth, except that it's infinitely more cowardly. It's just the worst death – a chickenshit, shivering, quaking, whiny death. There's no keel over, make a young and pretty corpse. I was fifty pounds heavier then. I weigh the same now as I did in high school."

Zevon – bright, cleareyed, looking as sleek and powerful as Sugar Ray Leonard these days – is talking about the last time he fell off the wagon after his voluntary rehabilitation at Pinecrest, a private hospital in Santa Barbara.

The reason for that final binge – not that an alcoholic needs any special reason, Zevon will tell you – was the visit of Montreal Expos pitcher Bill Lee, about whom Warren had written a song. Lee had liked 1978's Excitable Boy, and Warren wanted to play a tape of "Bill Lee" (later included on Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School) for him. George Gruel, Zevon's live-in aide-de-camp and a warm and wonderfully understanding man, had some doubts as to what might happen.

Zevon tells the story: "I said, 'Now look, George, we don't necessarily have to buy all this stuff that the hospital tells us. Let's just see if I can drink moderately.'

"So there was this one occasion – especially unfortunate, since I think it left a bad impression on Bill Lee – when George said, 'Okay. You can have a drink when he gets here. Don't drink anything all day, and I'll let you have a drink then.'

"A couple of days later, George said, 'You can't control the amount you drink. You didn't stop yesterday. You didn't stop today. When are you going to stop?'

"I had a bottle and a half of Wild Turkey left. I said, 'When that's gone.'

"He said: 'Enjoy it.'

"And that's how we did it. I had to detox again. And for a few days, it wasn't bad. Once again I thought, Aw, see, they make more out of it than they should. Then one night I got what was like the flu, only it wasn't the flu. It was much worse. I really didn't know if my brain was frying, I felt so feverish. I got the chills. There was no getting warm enough. I was lying there, shaking and praying. Praying. I'm not even a religious man, but there comes a time . . .

I first met Warren and Crystal Zevon after his initial performance at the Bottom Line in New York City. Asylum had just released Warren Zevon, and I'd listened to nothing else for days. Though I loved the record and had, in fact, been familiar with Zevon's music for years, seeing the man onstage was like experiencing – what? – Jackson Browne's "For Everyman," the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, the New York Dolls, Norman Mailer, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels at an impressionable age. Rightly or wrongly, your life got changed.

The Zevons – Crystal then seven months pregnant – stayed in New York for a few days, and the three of us became fast friends. Mutual interests, etc. All I wanted to talk about were Zevon's songs, while Warren and Crystal simply brushed aside my questions and kept asking me about Ross Macdonald, whom I'd recently met in Santa Barbara. They'd read all his books and could quote passages verbatim. I was impressed. Provided it's all right with Millar, I said, I'll take you with me to visit him for a day or two. It was as if I'd invited them to meet God. Though I knew Zevon had something of a drinking problem, I had no idea then how deep it went. This was in the spring of 1976.

In the late summer of 1978, Warren Zevon and I became "blood brothers." Late one night, Crystal phoned from their new home in Santa Barbara. She sounded very distraught. Warren's drinking had gotten much worse. They'd had a fight, and he was in New York now to talk to friends: Bruce Springsteen, producer Jon Landau, guitarist David Landau, critic Jay Cocks, me.

"I know," I said. "He just called."

"I talked to him this afternoon," she said. "He told me he loved me and was coming home once he'd seen you, Bruce, Jon and David. 'Warren,' I said, 'you did see them, last night at the Palladium.' He didn't even remember being at the concert, Paul."

Shit, I thought.

There was a long pause.

"Will you try to talk him into going into a hospital for treatment?" Crystal asked. "I've already found one right here in town."

"Yes," I said, with a large gulp. "I'll try."

After we hung up, I wondered what to do. How do you introduce this particular topic into a casual conversation? Warren, old buddy, not to change the subject or anything, but have you ever considered committing yourself? Terrific, I thought. Just terrific.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. About thirty seconds after I'd knocked on his door, Zevon announced: "I want to ask you a serious question. The answer's important." He looked me straight in the eye. "Do you think I'm a drunk?"

My reply wasn't as dumb as I'd expected. It went like this: By asking the question, you've already answered it. Your answer's yes. So why not try to get some help – a hospital or something? There's probably one in Santa Barbara. You've got nothing to lose, absolutely everything to gain. After all, if you decide you don't like being sober, you can always buy another bottle, can't you?

Warren looked greatly relieved. All he'd really come to New York for was confirmation. He'd known for a long time what he had to do. He just didn't know if he could do it.

We talked for hours that night: our life stories. Fear was a major theme. Zevon, who'd spent some time with Igor Stravinsky as a teenager, wanted to make his mark in classical music as well as in rock & roll. There was this unfinished symphony, hanging like a stone around his neck. Me, I wanted to write a series of detective novels, be the next Ross Macdonald. About dawn, we agreed we owed it to ourselves to take separate shots at it. And to give each other all the support we could. Things had gotten pretty corny by then. "Blood brothers," we swore. If there had been a knife, perhaps some blood would have been mingled.

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