The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

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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.

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