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The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon

Page 5 of 5

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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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