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The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

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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."

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