The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

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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.

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