The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

How he saved himself from a coward's death

warren zevon cover
Annie Leibovitz
Warren Zevon on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

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.

One of the reasons the Zevons moved to Santa Barbara was the hope that clearing out of Los Angeles would curb Warren's drinking. On his own, he'd attempted to stop, but it didn't work. And the calmness of Santa Barbara, which he'd "thought was going to be an idyllic existence," was driving him nuts.

Warren, in a bio he wrote, remembers the move this way:

That summer, we buy a spacious house in Montecito. Our initial reason for looking in the Santa Barbara area is simple: Ross Macdonald lives there. It's quiet, peaceful, safe, beautiful. The air is fine. It makes me nervous. The idea that I can't afford the house makes me nervous. The idea that I can afford the house makes me nervous. I have the guest house professionally soundproofed and build a four-track "writing studio." The studio makes me nervous.

What happened in that studio just a short while after our "blood brothers" ceremony was enough to make everyone who knew Zevon nervous.

"I tried not to drink for a few days when I got back to Santa Barbara," Warren says, "but decided to give myself a little rope at our housewarming. By the end of the evening, I was hanging from it, of course."

Let Crystal finish the story: "The next day, some friends came over, and he started drinking more beer. After they left, I mentioned it. He got irritated. There was nothing wrong with having a few beers, he claimed. He said he wasn't going into the hospital, that he could quit by himself. We argued. He got mad and went out to the studio.

"About two in the morning, I heard three shots. I just sat straight up in my bed, and the sound of those shots was like a bolt of lightning going through me. My first thought was that he'd shot himself. Then I thought, Well, there were three shots. But I didn't know.

"I got up and looked out the window, but I couldn't really see what was going on, so I went out. But it wasn't until I started walking across the yard that I started to think of the possibility that he might shoot me, that Ariel [their two-year-old daughter] was in the house, that if he was drunk and shot me, what would happen to her?

"I found myself sort of sneaking up to the studio. I opened the door and went in, and he was just standing there with the gun, staring at the couch. He was obviously drunk. Then I saw his album cover – the Excitable Boy cover, a portrait of him – propped up against the couch. There were three holes right in the middle of the face.

"At first, he looked really scared. He put the gun down. Then he laughed – a real nervous laugh – and said, 'It's funny, isn't it?'

"I said, 'Warren, it's not funny at all. This time, it's really not funny.'

"I turned around and walked out of the studio, and he just chased after me. He was like a little boy, kind of pulling at my arm and crying, 'It was all a joke. It's okay.'

"When we finally got to Pinecrest, he was terrified. After he checked in, he said: 'Call Joe Smith [chairman of the board of Asylum] and tell him to issue a press release.' I think he knew that he might change his mind and try to get out. It was his way of making sure he stayed."

When Crystal telephoned to tell me that Warren had entered the hospital, she described his condition: "He's dying, Paul. Some days, he can't even dress himself."

I caught a plane to Los Angeles right away. Jackson Browne and I drove up to Santa Barbara the next day for what was called an intervention. Several other people were coming, too. Crystal had explained to us what we'd have to do: make a list of all the times we'd seen Warren drunk and tell him – in no uncertain terms – exactly how he'd acted. Under hospital rules, the whole thing would be a complete surprise to him.

Intervention. The very word suggests such a cold and exact, sanctioned and yet sinister interference with another person's life that I still get the shakes whenever I say it out loud. In-ter-ven-tion. Is it a Nixonian noun for some act of official pornography, a euphemism for gang rape by governmental robots? No. In a way, it's what Pinecrest has instead of God. While an intervention can seem as harsh and fear-provoking as the idea of eternal damnation, it's also kindly and forgiving. Put it this way: an intervention is an execution with a happy ending.

I remember wondering how this was going to help. Now that Warren had committed himself, wasn't the long recitation of his "sins" needlessly cruel? Wouldn't it shatter whatever confidence he'd built? And who the hell were any of us to sit in almighty judgment of him? Crystal assured us that the results would be positive.

At the hospital, we had what amounted to a rehearsal. Present were Jorge Calderón (cowriter of "Nighttime in the Switching Yard," "Veracruz" and "Jungle Work"), LeRoy Marinell (cowriter of "Excitable Boy" and "Werewolves of London"), graphic artist and photographer Jimmy Wachtel, Crystal and her parents, Browne and myself. Two doctors read what we had written and, in most cases, insisted that we get a lot tougher and more explicit "for the good of the patient." Rewrites were demanded – sometimes more than one.

Finally, we had our trial run. Crystal's parents led off, and you could feel their rancor slash like a razor blade. Sweet Jesus, I thought, get me out of here. This hospital's crazy. Next in line, I was trembling so badly that I wasn't sure I could speak. Here is part of what – in a very strange voice – I read:

Warren, I've seen you drunk probably five or six times, may be more . . .

In New York, I saw you drunk during a performance at Trax. The set was so painful that I had to leave. Your timing was shot, your remarks to the audience didn't make sense and none of the greatness of your music came through . . .

"My writing is conflict," you told me a few nights ago in New York, and I'm sure you're worried about losing that essential aesthetic conflict if you don't drink . . . You said you admired F. Scott Fitzgerald, felt that Ernest Hemingway took the coward's way out.

It took a lot of courage for you to come to Pinecrest, and I admire you for doing it. I think you did the right thing. If you hadn't, there'd have been The Crackup, which we've also talked about. I love you and I'm proud to be your friend.

My comments were mild compared to what had preceded and what followed. After about an hour, everyone was finished. Drained though we were, there was a collective sigh of relief. Then one of the doctors turned to Crystal and asked: "Where's your list?" Those three words exploded like shots in the night, ricocheting around the room and bloodying us all before they practically knocked Crystal off her feet.

An hour later, I felt that I'd led a very sheltered life; that I'd just been pulled through every nightmare sequence a spiritual terrorist like Ingmar Bergman could dream up; that The Lost Weekend was nothing more than a pleasant little fairy tale for children; that, were it not for his wife, Warren Zevon would have been dead ten times over; that – if there were still saints in this world – I'd just been listening to one.

After a few minutes of shock, tears and stunned silence, another doctor led Zevon in. It started all over again. It was even worse this time. One by one, we blundered through our speeches, each of us dreading the moment when Crystal's turn would come. Warren looked dazed and pale, like a small animal who'd been struck on the head. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.

Zevon remembers Pinecrest vividly: "When I went in, I was still protesting fiercely. Of course, I could have walked out anytime, but, sobered up, I was too scared to stick my nose out the door.

"Two days after I entered the hospital, there was an intervention. All of my closest friends were there. One at a time, they related stories of my atrocious conduct while I'd been drunk.

"I felt resentment and mostly terror at first. After that, utter despair. Then I realized how much all of these people must genuinely care for me to put themselves through such an ordeal. And if I meant that much to people whom I respected, I felt I no longer had the right to pronounce and act out a death sentence on myself."

When it was all over, one of the doctors asked us to go up to Warren and put our arms around him. We rose hesitantly. During the entire proceedings, Zevon had barely moved. His face was still a blank. God knows, he had no other secrets left – the intervention had taken care of that. As we approached him, I didn't know what to expect. Maybe he'd never talk to any of us again. Or fall to the floor. Or hit someone.

Then, as if in some kind of dream, we were all one body, embracing Warren. Suddenly, the tension broke. Everyone was crying – happily and unashamedly crying. The secrets were gone. We were a roomful of defenseless three-year-olds, members of a primal tribe that had ritually cleansed not Zevon but ourselves. No one could ever take that away from us. "Blood brother," I said as I threw my arms around Warren. We were both bawling like babies. "Blood brother," he said as he hugged me back.

If life were a movie, what a fabulous finale that last scene might have made: wife and buddies, smiling tearfully in Technicolor triumph as they form a blissful circle around the happier and wiser hero. A director like Frank Capra would have loved it. In the real world, however, the circle didn't stay unbroken long. A little over a year after the intervention, Warren and Crystal Zevon separated. The divorce has since been made final.

Why? Who can really tell? For Crystal, booze had a lot to do with it. But more important, after Pinecrest, the core of their relationship changed. For the good of both parties, the roles of the sober, responsible parent-adult looking after the undependable yet creative child-artist naturally had to be jettisoned. New tickets for the promised land were purchased – paid for with past blood and future promises – but somehow the Zevons, try as they did, never survived the trip or found a compatible new language.

These days, Warren Zevon is a relatively happy and healthy man caught up in the act of self-discovery. He's also a man who steadfastly refuses to lay to rest "those days." It's not that he's proud of them – far from it – but that he practically demands to be held accountable for past atrocities. (One of the things that really rocked me back on my heels at the intervention was the fact that Zevon had been in an alcoholic stupor for so long that he couldn't remember wrecking hotel rooms, punching people out or waving a pistol in a close friend and fellow songwriter's face. It was news – literally sickening news – to him that he'd done such deeds.)

After having been drunk for a decade, Warren found reentry into reality a strange and difficult journey. The whole world seemed different: slower. Zevon felt fine but was frequently bored silly. Alcoholics just aren't used to everyday regularity.

He's used to it now. I can see it in his eyes as we watch another plane glide toward Burbank. Time is no longer an enemy. There are dance classes, lessons in the martial arts, daily exercises, books to read, songs to write, a symphony to finish and a new interest in acting undoubtedly fostered by Kim Lankford. (The nights that we don't tape, I can hear Kim and Warren rehearsing a Knots Landing script. Scared shitless, Zevon nonetheless tries out for the role of a suspected psycho in one of the show's episodes. He doesn't get the part, but he makes a good impression. A year ago, I think to myself, he'd never have had the nerve to risk such rejection.)

"Kim is like Clint Eastwood," Warren says, topping off his fifth cup of coffee with this Zevon-esque simile. I pop the lid off my fifth can of Coke. Between us, we've built a small mountain of cigarette butts in the center of a huge ashtray. ("No wonder you guys can't sleep," Lankford laughs.) Albums line the wall by the fireplace: Shostakovich, Mahler, Stockhausen, Bartok and Stravinsky next to Eddie Cochran, Jimi Hendrix, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Byrds, Dylan Thomas, the soundtrack from Casablanca. There are guitars, a piano, a synthesizer and a bass signed by Bill Lee. Plus plenty of recording equipment. A shoulder holster hangs over the arm of an easy chair. Zevon tosses me a portfolio labeled Symphony No. 1, which he works on nearly every night. I don't quite catch it, and the contents slide to the floor: pages and pages of meticulously annotated music and a dogeared copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Perfect.

"Kim is like Clint Eastwood." I mull over the remark for a while. Though that might not be my description – spunky, smart, pretty and absolutely unpretentious, I would say – I know what Warren means: Kim Lankford knows exactly who she is.

In many ways, these two are complete opposites. Picture a somber, soul-searching songwriter, inching his way toward either paradise or paralysis, while his understanding but playful lady pinpoints and defuses problems with a logic so cheery and direct that you almost have to laugh because you didn't think of the solutions yourself. (I find myself wishing that Kim had a sister.) Send Lankford into a room filled with suave, self-centered "intellectuals," and she'd be too shy to speak for an hour or two. But when she did, the effect would be like Clint Eastwood splattering the bad guys in a Sergio Leone movie. Sometimes she gets to the heart of the matter so fast and guilelessly that, if you blink, you miss it. Zevon has been quick to pick up on such salvation.

"When Kim and I first met," Warren is saying, "I felt almost like a virgin because I wasn't used to being sober around women. We talked for days and days. We were both determined not to jump into a symbiotic relationship, and we don't try to be like each other. Both of us had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that you're supposed to work at a relationship. Hell, we thought, we already work hard enough – at our careers. Anyway, we have a wonderful relationship that doesn't seem to require constant analysis. We certainly don't sit around and evaluate it all the time. Instead of being dependent on Kim, I just look forward to seeing her. She's helped me to loosen up. I only hope that I've helped her."

He has, and not only by introducing her to books, classical music and new ways of thinking about art. "I understand people much better now – myself included," Lank-ford says. "I'm more confident." She flashes a mock-wicked smile that lights up the room. "Before I met Warren, I had a tendency to feel that my opinions weren't worth voicing. Now, once you get me going, I hardly ever shut up."

Jim Houghton, one of Kim's costars in Knots Landing, drops by, and we spend a night talking about music and movies. And – of all things – doing card tricks. I only know one, but it's a beauty and stumps everybody. Finally, I take Zevon into the kitchen and explain to him how the trick works: by mathematics, not sleight of hand. He's fascinated. It's like a musical score to him. I can see that he's determined to figure out why one particular card winds up where it does when it does.

Warren does a card trick, too. He splits the deck, holds up about twenty cards – many of them face cards – and asks Houghton to pick one. (Since Zevon has already let me in on the "logic" – and I use the word loosely – behind his trick, I'm eagerly waiting to watch it fail and get in a friendly dig or two.) "Is it the four of hearts?" Warren asks Jim, who nods yes. I groan out loud as Zevon breaks up laughing. "I can see that we've destroyed Paul's sense of the order of the universe," he gloats, twisting the knife.

"I wouldn't have the guts to try that trick," I reply. "Tell them how it works. If you're not too embarrassed."

"Well, sometimes it doesn't work," Warren says. "A doctor told me about it. There's really no trick at all. You just show someone a bunch of cards – pack a few face cards in there – and a lot of people will pick the four of hearts simply because it's so unthreatening. The only rationale is that the four of hearts is a nice card."

I throw up my hands in defeat.

Later that night, Zevon questions me about my trick again. I tell him I don't know how it works, just that it does. "We've got to figure it out," he says. We spend hours on the task, and to my amazement, Warren discovers a shortcut to the payoff, improving the trick by one-third. Then our collective obsessiveness really gets rolling. We assign musical notes to each card, hoping for a piece of atonal music that will reach its peak precisely when the right card is revealed. This takes until dawn, and we think we're on to something – a whole new form of composition.

"What'll we call it?" he asks as he sits down at the piano.

"The Four of Hearts," I answer. "Maybe it'll sound nice and unthreatening."

"Maybe we should call it The Dreaded Past," he says.

We both laugh nervously. After all, we might have a masterpiece here. I turn on the tape recorder, and Warren begins to play. You wouldn't believe how bad it sounded.

The past, let it all go fast: Warren William Zevon. Born in Chicago on January 24th, 1947. Spent most of his youth in various California cities: Fresno, San Pedro, San Francisco, Los Angeles, et al. Father, William, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, got off the boat in New York, boxed for several years, then became a professional gambler. Still makes his living that way in Gardenia, California. Mother, Beverly, a Scots-Welsh Mormon, totally unlike William. Zevon describes her as "extraordinarily withdrawn – you can barely hear her speaking voice. She did encourage my interest in art, though. My mother's relationship with her parents, Elsworth and Helen, was a tremendously destructive factor in the lives of both my father and me. I was told my birth nearly killed my mother. They treated my father like a vagabond and roustabout. It must have been terribly uncomfortable for him, so he wasn't there a lot of the time. I wouldn't have been either, if I'd had a choice. Nobody ever told me anything, and my parents' marriage has been a mystery to me all my life. They didn't even let me know that they'd gotten a divorce until long after the fact.

"My grandmother is very senatorial – a big lady in every way. She ran the family. I grew up with a painting of an uncle, Warren, who looked just like me. He was a military man, a golden boy, an artist. He'd been killed in action. Uncle Warren was sort of the dead figurehead of the family, and I was brought up to follow in his footsteps. My ideal was supposed to be a dead man – with my name, looks and career intentions. A dead warrior who'd been waylaid by his heroism. I guess that kind of background gave me the idea that destroying myself was the only way to live up to expectations.

"Also, my mother's side of the family could have been the world's greatest champions and spokesmen for the AMA. They just believed in drugs. I can recall very vividly that when I had the slightest illness as a child, I was given powerful medicine. I remember being stoned a lot at a very early age."

There are a few good memories – living with his mother and father as a close-knit family in Los Angeles for a time, becoming an avid surfer while staying with his father in San Pedro, meeting Igor Stravinsky – along with the bad ones. "My friends all saw my father as a sort of Jesse James character," Zevon says. "Which was a mixed blessing. It was neat sometimes. Other times, I think I'd have preferred a Robert Young type.

"I was indoctrinated with the idea that I was smart when I was a kid. I broke IQ records all over the place. Oh shit, I can remember thinking, I believe you do this act with a cross. They kept accelerating me through Gatorade High in Fresno and Motorcycle High in San Pedro, and then I suddenly found myself in Fairfax High in L.A. It was an excellent school, but I was out of my wire. In chemistry class, I was confronted with the inevitability of flunking, which was weird. The only thing I did well in was English. And it's funny, because my English grade depended on a long essay I had to write. Afterward, the teacher took me aside and said: 'Here's your composition and here's your A. Who really wrote it?' I did, I said. And she said, 'You're lying.'" Warren finally called it quits his junior year and headed for New York to be a folk singer.

But his days as a folkie came to an abrupt end when, during a pass-the-hat performance at a tiny club in Greenwich Village, he dropped one of his finger picks into the sound hole of his guitar and felt too foolish to continue. "I was just awful," he recalls. "Except for chasing the romantic, Bob Dylan dream, I didn't know what I was doing. I went to Florida for a while and then back to California. First Los Angeles, then San Francisco. This was in 1964. I was eighteen. In San Francisco, I met a girl named Tule Livingston, and we lived together off and on for the next few years, mostly in L.A. We got married in 1968. Our son, Jordan, was born in 1969. The marriage broke up shortly after that. There were lots of drugs and drinking."

Throughout the late Sixties, Warren supported himself by playing in various groups, penning commercials for Boone's Farm wines, doing session work ("I'm strumming a guitar somewhere way in the background on Phil Ochs' Pleasures of the Harbor") and writing songs for other artists ("Like the Seasons" and "Outside Chance" for the Turtles in 1967). "In 1966," he says, "I was lyme in a duo called lyme and cybelle. We had an extremely small hit, 'Follow Me.' Interestingly, everybody observed the no-caps e.e. cummings-ism very strictly. I met Jackson Browne in 1968, and we started getting to know one another.

"In 1969, [producer]Kim Fowley[/producer] called me up one day and asked very simply, 'Are you prepared to wear black leather and chains, fuck a lot of teenage girls and get rich?' I said yes. So we started work on Wanted Dead or Alive for Imperial. While we were making the record, I had a sudden attack of taste and told Kim that I wanted to finish the album myself. And he very graciously waltzed out of the project. Wanted Dead or Alive was released in 1970, to the sound of one hand clapping."

Zevon spent the early Seventies working with Don and Phil Everly. He was hired to play keyboards, find new musicians (among them, Waddy Wachtel) and "revitalize" the Everly Brothers sound. "The road, booze and I became an inseparable team," he notes. During this period, Warren wrote "Carmelita," "Hasten down the Wind," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Join Me in L.A." (with Tule Livingston), "The French Inhaler" and "Desperados under the Eaves." He met Crystal in late 1971, and they lived together with two foster children she was taking care of. "We were very happy, and I was writing," Zevon says. "I wrote 'Frank and Jesse James' for and about Don and Phil Everly. In 1972, I was under contract to David Geffen as a songwriter. This was at Jackson's suggestion, of course, though I believe that Geffen liked my songs. He let the contract lapse in 1973, however. Not much work that year.

"In 1974, I moved to Berkeley for a while. Pretty soon, I was playing two or three clubs a night – in other words, finally doing what I'd intended to do a decade earlier in New York. The gigs started looking better, but so did Hollywood. I opted for L.A. again.

"Crystal and I decided to get married in 1974. Hunter Thompson-style, we drove all night – with a best man and bridesmaid, recruited at the last minute – across the desert to Nevada after dropping acid, me pouring down vodka the whole way. In spite of the dope –which had worn off anyway – we both cried and took the ceremony and our marriage very seriously."

Though Warren continued to write ("Backs Turned Looking down the Path," "Mohammed's Radio," "I'll Sleep when I'm Dead"), 1975 began badly. Zevon couldn't find a job and got busted for drunk driving one night in front of L.A.'s Troubadour club. "Crystal and I decided we were fed up," he says. "So we sold everything we owned, except for my Martin guitar and a Sony stereo cassette recorder, and headed for Spain. When we got there, we read all the Ross Macdonald novels, and I played the bars for pocket money. While this was going on, Jackson and David Geffen were bluffing each other over my recording contract and advance. Fortunately, Jackson won. We flew back to Los Angeles and started work on Warren Zevon."

In Spain, the Zevons had met David Lindell, a fabulous character straight out of Soldier of Fortune. From this meeting came "Roland the Headless. Thompson Gunner." Back in L.A., Warren wrote "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy." And Crystal discovered that she was pregnant.

Zevon took to the road when his first Asylum LP was released in 1976. Most critics loved the album. Of the tour, he says: "I began to fall apart. Once again, I learned what a good place the road can be for a bad husband. Ariel was born. For Christmas, Crystal, the baby and I flew to Spain to visit Lindell. It was a disaster. The first night, I got into a fight with some drunken Spaniards over my version of 'Jingle Bells.' Things went downhill from there. Lindell and I spent Christmas getting twisted all over Marbella. Crystal got pneumonia, so she and Ariel flew back to California. I decided to go to Morocco with a bag filled with Valium, vodka and Fitzgerald. Too much booze and not enough food. I've always figured that in dragging myself to Tangier and back, I squeezed the last drop of 'glamour' out of my rapidly worsening toxic condition.

"Much of 1977 was a nightmare. Crystal and I lived apart for several months, and I was seriously into the noir life – vodka, drugs, sex. Somehow, I got the songs written for Excitable Boy. I thought my days were numbered in fractions. But Crystal and I got back together. We finished the record and enjoyed the holidays peacefully.

"Of course, in 1978, I crashed completely. Excitable Boy sold well. People magazine made me into the dangerous Dean Martin of my generation. 'But he's such a good family man,' they said. Oh boy! In Chicago, I fell off the stage and wrecked my leg. For the rest of the tour, I was in a wheelchair, on crutches or gimping about. 'The Jett Rink Tour,' I called it, in honor of James Dean passing out in the middle of a drunken speech in Giant. Clearly, I had carried this F. Scott Fitzzevon thing too far."

If we can think of this great country of ours as polarized between two sets of James Brothers, Frank and Jesse at one end and Henry and William at the other, why, we begin to get some sense of the enormous spectrum in between.

—Peter DeVries,
Consenting Adults or the
Duchess Will Be Furious

Many thousands of words ago, I said that this story was supposed to be about alcoholism (though I hope there's more to it than that). The reason it's about alcoholism is because Warren Zevon wanted it that way. "I've been a walking advertisement for excess and chaos most of my life," he says, "so it's about time I tried to do something for the other side."

Obviously, Zevon's journey hasn't been an easy one. He and I were going to collaborate on this piece in 1979, not long after he was released from Pinecrest the first time. Crystal called me a few days before I was to leave for Santa Barbara. She and Warren, with the hospital's consent, had decided to take separate vacations. He was in Los Angeles, more than likely drunk, she said. "I can't help him, Paul," she told me. "I've tried, but now he's got to help himself. Otherwise, it's no good. I hope you understand."

I said I understood but caught the plane for L.A. anyway. Perhaps I was being overly melodramatic, yet I had a terrible premonition of what I might find there. A critic from Seattle had given me a Neil Young tape that included an acoustic version of "Powder-finger." Like the narrator of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the protagonist of "Powderfinger" is a dead man who tells us how he was killed. I couldn't get the intervention and its horrors out of my mind. And Neil Young's lyrics

Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Just think of me as one you never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I'll miss her

sounded like eulogy, something that one friend might read at another's funeral.

Zevon and I met for dinner. He was friendly but shaky. I don't think he knew that I knew he'd started drinking again. After dinner, we went to his hotel, ostensibly to begin work on the story of how he'd conquered alcoholism. One look at his room blew that. There were empty bottles everywhere. Full ones, too. Neither one of us knew what to say about it, so we didn't say anything. To me, the room reeked of death. I can't really describe it. The closest I can come is Van Gogh's description of his painting, Night Café at Arles: "The most violent passions of humanity . . . blood red . . . dark yellow . . . in an atmosphere of pale sulfur, like a furnace . . . I tried to show a place where a man can ruin himself, go mad, commit a crime."

As the night wore on, Warren began to drink huge tumblers filled with straight vodka. He became very drunk, yet he kept talking about how he was cured. Then he'd switch things around and admit that he'd lost the battle. But only for now, he'd claim. "I'll stop drinking tomorrow, and we'll drive up to Santa Barbara," he'd say. "I know I can do it."

He made a brave attempt. For three days, he cut down. Yet he had about as much chance to sober up without professional help as I did to grow a new head. I could see that he was suffering, and I knew what I had to do: not preach at him and get him back into Pinecrest with his ego and sense of honor at least partially intact.

Once again, I got lucky. An outpatient from the hospital phoned and asked Zevon for assistance. Warren was to meet him at a lake just north of Santa Barbara. They would talk and fish. Though it sounded like a setup to both of us, it provided an honorable reason to go to Santa Barbara.

Since Warren wasn't sober enough to drive, and I didn't have a license, we called a limousine service he'd used in the past. Lee Herron, a man I will always be grateful to, was our driver. Zevon was debating whether to pack up everything and check out of the hotel or keep the room and come back to Los Angeles after I returned to New York. I was trying to convince him not to come back – if he did, I believed he'd die there – but I was trying too hard, and he was resisting.

While Warren was out of sight, I whispered to Herron, who was looking totally confused: "My friend is an alcoholic. He's very sick. I need to get him and his stuff out of here. There's a hospital in Santa Barbara. They'll know what to do. Will you help me?" Herron answered immediately. I'll never forget what he said: "Thank you for taking me into your confidence. Of course, I'll help you."

And help he did. Before Warren knew what was happening, we were on the road to Santa Barbara. When we got there, Herron dropped me off uptown before taking Zevon out to the lake. I walked over to a bookstore owned by two close friends of Warren's and mine, Ralph and Carol Sipper. Zevon was supposed to call me there later.

Warren called at five o'clock. He sounded terrible. "My therapist was at the lake," he said. "He thinks I should recommit myself. I don't want to. I told him I didn't need to." The voice on the phone was almost pleading.

I made myself sound as tough as I could. "But you do need to."

"Oh shit, not you, too," he said. He was crying. "Do you really think I need to go back to the hospital? They make you sleep on rubber sheets there."

"We'll change the sheets," I said. "You've got to go back."

I kept the conversation short, figuring that if I played the bad cop, Herron would play the good one. He did. We agreed to meet for dinner, drive out to Zevon's house, pack some things and take Warren to the hospital.

It wasn't that easy. I waited at the restaurant for three hours. Herron and Zevon finally arrived. Warren had changed his mind about a dozen times. He quickly downed three vodkas. We'd talk quietly for a while, then things would flare up. More vodkas. People were staring at us. Lee and I kept switching roles, desperately trying to keep Zevon calm.

At the house, it was more of the same, only worse. One minute, Warren would agree to the hospital. The next minute, he wouldn't. He had a bottle in every room.

"I've got this nice house," Warren said. "Why can't I stay here and enjoy it?"

I could feel myself getting furious and decided to go with it. Nothing else was working anyway.

"Because," I said, picking up something and throwing it across the room. "Because you don't enjoy it! And you never will enjoy it unless you quit drinking! Now stop all this shit about the rubber sheets – they're hardly the issue here – and let's get going."

He just looked at me for a long time. Then he shrugged and said, "You're right. I don't enjoy it. Give me a drink and we'll go."

While Lee got Zevon into the car, I suddenly realized that I didn't know exactly where the hospital was. I'd only been there a couple of times – in daylight. It was four in the morning now, and Santa Barbara shuts down about ten at night. But we were rolling, and I knew I could find the general area. From there, it shouldn't be too difficult. I looked at Warren. He had passed out.

What followed was sheer Keystone Kops. Santa Barbara was pitch black and seemingly devoid of cars and people. We'd been driving for almost an hour. Everything looked familiar, but where the hell was Pinecrest? A police car sped by. We chased it and forced it to the curb at fifty miles an hour. The two officers gave us directions. No luck again. What kept confusing us was a little one-way street. "Fuck it," I said. "This street must be the problem. Let's go up it the wrong way." We did. And there was Pinecrest. Right around the corner. After we checked Zevon in, we sat in the car for a while. Numbness had set in.

Herron was the first to stir. "Do you know the way back to the house?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I said. "Do you?"

"I don't think so," he said. "But I suppose we can find it."

We were both so tired that neither one of us could stop laughing.

Three days later, Warren was released from the hospital. "I guess they figured they'd have to trust me," he said. He was in such rough shape he could barely talk. I tried to think of something that would help. Ken Millar was the answer. He and his compassionate creation – private detective Lew Archer, whose specialty was saving mixed-up young men and women – were surrogate fathers, not only to Zevon and me but to an entire generation. Soon Millar was at the front door. With a look of surprise, Warren let him in. I put on my Nikes and went out for a long run.

When I got back, Zevon was much improved. His eyes were alive again. He even cracked a joke. That night, he started playing the piano. I figured we were home free.

To keep my job, I had to fly to New York the next day. Had I known more about alcoholism, I'd never have left. Zevon spent a week in hell.

It's Warren's story: "Each time you detoxify, it's infinitely worse, just incredibly worse – a lesson I hope I've learned by now. Anyhow, after you left, I had these terrible dreams. You've probably had the experience of screaming yourself awake during a bad dream, right? Well, I'd scream and scream and not wake up. I'd literally have to throw myself across the room to wake up. And even then, I wasn't positive I was awake. In one dream, you were dragging me out of the mire of a construction site, and everybody was laughing at me. I was covered with mud and slime. And these maggoty, medieval hags and horrible-looking faces – it was like Ken Russell's The Devils – were laughing at me and trying to kill me.

"I was depressed and riddled with anxiety. Something called Stars in Stress was on TV. You can imagine the irony. I sat there looking at Janis Joplin and Judy Garland footage and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. One night, I just started screaming. I went berserk. I flung open the liquor cabinet. There, in front of all the bottles, was Christmas candy. Sugar! Arnie Wallace [Zevon's therapist] had told me to grab sugar. I ate all the candy. If it hadn't been there, who knows. I took every bottle – and this would break any boozer's heart – and just poured the liquor into the sink. I was screaming, 'It's my fucking life! It's my life, not yours! It's my life, and you can't have it!' I poured all the liquor out. Then I got rid of the tranquilizers. Down the toilet.

"As I was storming around the house, I came to the realization that all that stuff in the media that made me into F Scott Fitzzevon, the two-fisted drinker, the adventurer – all that stuff was just bullshit. 'They don't care if you die,' I said. 'It's just next week's issue.' I looked at those pictures of me that used to be in the bathroom, and there was Jackson and Crystal and John Belushi – all these people – and me standing there looking like a fat clown. I said, 'You're not a fucking boy and you're not a fucking werewolf, you're a fucking man, and it's about time you acted like it.'

"They talk about alcoholics living one day at a time, not knowing if they're going to drink tomorrow. It's really true. At that point I was going minute by minute. Little things would get me through another hour. The note you left. The movie you said Jay Cocks said was good. The Medusa Touch, I think. It was on cable TV, and I watched it over and over. It was the best movie I ever saw. It got me through a whole day.

"Then I got a phone call from a dear friend. Someone from the old days, not a musician or anything. I kept telling him, 'I'm all right, man. I'm shaking and I'm feeling shitty, but I'm pounding the piano twelve hours a day and singing and writing songs for myself – telling myself a lot of things in songs.' And he kept saying, 'I understand, Warren. I'm your friend. I understand that if you're an artist, you've got to drink. So why don't I come up there with a bunch of cheese burgers, a bottle and an ounce of blow?'

"'No, no, you don't understand,' I'm trying to tell him. 'Don't come up here. I'm really happy. I'm really working.' Of course, I'm hysterical by now. 'It's cool,' he says. 'A little vodka, a little cocaine, and you'll be fine in no time.'

"I hung up the phone. It was a shattering experience. If ever I believed that there was a God and a devil – and that they were just guys, you know, one with a tail and the other with a long white beard – it was at that moment It was just a satanic temptation. I started writing another song – something for me, not for other people. It wasn't a good song or anything, but, for me, it was important. It was long and involved, and there were tears running down my face while I was writing it.

"Then I sat down and read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. By then, it really was a spiritual experience."

Warren Zevon, Kim Lankford and I see a lot of each other in 1980. During the Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School tour (a.k.a. "The Dog Ate the Part We Didn't Like"), Warren and Kim spend almost a week in New York. Onstage at the Palladium, he's in fantastic form and gives such a kinetic, physical performance that some critics take him to task for exhibitionism. To me, these charges are small-minded and ridiculous. This is the first tour on which he's been in shape and sober enough to move. There's a celebration going on up there, and Zevon is trying hard to make up for all those drunken debacles in the past. Once you understand that, it's very touching. As lead guitarist David Landau (who played with Warren on the last leg of the disastrous Excitable Boy tour) sails into a soaring solo, I'm reminded of what Zevon said when he asked Landau to join his current band: "David, I'd like you to meet Warren Zevon. You've never met him before, you know."

Perhaps the highlight of Warren and Kim's week in New York is a meeting with Martin Scorsese. Jay Cocks and I tag along. Scorsese has always loved Zevon's music and the evening is a great success. When Warren's live album, Stand in the Fire, comes out, there's this dedication: "For Marty." (Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School was "For Ken Millar.")

I fly to L.A. in October. Zevon and Lankford have moved into a new house, this one not cursed with red bathtubs. I'm interviewing Clint Eastwood for a story, and he and Sondra Locke stop by to visit Eastwood remembers Warren from three years ago ("He did everything but drink vodka from a silver boot then") and is delighted at the change. Later, Zevon previews Stand in the Fire for me. He paces back and forth while I listen. "What do you think?" he asks.

"Along with Neil Young's Live Rust," I answer, "it's the best live rock & roll LP I've ever heard."

"Well, at least we're not stuck with another Four of Hearts," he laughs.

Stand in the Fire was recorded over a five-night period at the Roxy in Los Angeles. I'm curious how Warren felt onstage in front of a delirious hometown crowd that was obviously pulling for him all the way.

"Let's just say that it was like rescuing the little boy who'd fallen through the ice," he says. "Rescuing him while the whole world was watching."

My last night there, we reminisce about Ken Millar. "Jesus, I remember that day well," Zevon says. "I was in such terrible shape. I don't think I've ever felt worse. Ken said a lot of things to me that nobody had ever said before. 'We writers are overcompensated in this society,' he told me. 'In this house, at your age, you feel guilty.' We both got a laugh over our religious backgrounds. And I found myself telling him things that I'd never told anybody. I said I was disillusioned because I thought writing had to be fun. He just looked at me and smiled. I told him I drank to force the fun, to get rid of the anxiety and guilt I'd had all my life. For the first time, everything made a crazy kind of sense to me. Since what I felt guilty about was also destroying me, crime and punishment were taking place simultaneously, so I must have thought I didn't have anything to worry about. If somebody reprimanded me for my conduct, I could tell them, 'Don't fret I know I'm being bad, but I'm punishing myself for it. I'm taking care of it.'

"The scariest part about alcoholism – about any addiction, for that matter – is that you credit the booze for all your accomplishments. You could be dying from drink and unable to move anything but one finger, yet still be convinced that, without another shot, that finger was going to stop, too. Ken Millar made me realize that I wrote my songs despite the fact that I was a drunk, not because of it."

"What did you think when you opened the door and saw him there?" I ask.

"It was like a dream come true," Warren Zevon says. "At the lowest point in my life, the doorbell rang. And there, quite literally, was Lew Archer, on a compassionate mission, come to save my life."

This story is from the March 19th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 339: March 19, 1981