The first time I ever heard a Warren Zevon song, it was sung by Jackson Browne — in September, 1975, at the Main Point, a small, legendary coffeehouse in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I worked there as a publicist — my first, big gig in the music business. Browne was there to bring some saving grace. He had been a regular and favorite performer at the club for years, and he was back, with guitarist David Lindley, to play a week of benefit nights to help the Point’s ailing finances.
Browne also took the opportunity to tell his fans about one of his best friends and favorite songwriters. The night I was there (which happened to be broadcast on local radio — and bootlegged), he made a point of spelling Zevon’s last name, for everyone’s future reference, and then spelled out the dimensions of Zevon’s gifts by playing three of his songs: the warm, mysterious “Mohammed’s Radio”; the rip-roaring “Werewolves of London”; and the sweet, blue heartbreaker “Hasten Down the Wind.” “What do you think? Do you think we got a hit?” Browne asked us during the sing-along howl of “Werewolves.” We agreed. He was right, of course. Browne would go on to produce Zevon’s acclaimed 1976 Asylum debut, Warren Zevon, and co-produce “Werewolves,” the only Top Thirty hit Zevon ever had.
On September 7th, Warren Zevon died at his home in Los Angeles, at the age of fifty-six, after a year-long, very public battle with lung cancer. He made sure that he — not the disease — had the last word on his legacy: writing and recording a final album of droll wisdom and earnest farewell, The Wind, and allowing the sessions, as well as his declining health, to be filmed for a VH1 special, Keep Me in Your Heart. Twenty-eight years after that Main Point show, almost to the day, Browne spoke to me at length about Zevon’s life and art for a Rolling Stone magazine tribute. It was an honest, touching, funny conversation, the appropriate homage to a man who was all those things and more. Here it is in full:
The other night, I was listening to my bootleg of that Main Point show in 1975, and I couldn’t help cracking up when you got to that line in the second verse of “Werewolves of London”: “I’d like to meet his tailor.” It comes out of nowhere, amid all the booze and blood lust in the song, but it’s a killin’ line.
Somebody made reference to that song at Warren’s memorial service, which gave me a new perspective on the song after all these years. It’s about a really well-dressed, ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ladies. In a way, it’s the Victorian nightmare, the gigolo thing. The idea behind all of those references is the idea of the ne’er-do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman in gambling clubs, consorting with prostitutes; the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All of that is secreted away in that one line: “I’d like to meet his tailor.”
Did you see or talk to Warren much in his last months?
Not at all, actually. I left him a few messages. He had so many people calling — he got overwhelmed by how many people he had to talk to about this. I was going to write him a letter, and then I didn’t. I wasn’t able to put it in a letter. [Sighs] I would talk to Jorge [Calderon, Zevon’s longtime friend and collaborator] to find out where Warren was at, how well, or unwell, he was.
In making his illness public — recording The Wind, doing the VH1 documentary — I think he gave people the mistaken impression that he was being brave and witty twenty-four hours a day, when in fact so much of what he had to go through was private and hard.
The VH1 special is a celebration of his bravery in the face of mortality — his ability to summon that gallows humor, even then. They got so many moments in that special when he really was funny and charming, even when he was having an argument with Jorge: “Look, I’m the one who’s dying here . . .”
But in order to do what he did, he had to jettison anything extraneous, to limit himself. He couldn’t spend time bidding farewell to the many people that wished they could spend time with him. He told me he wanted to be there for the birth of his grandchildren. And he was. He wanted to finish this record. And no matter how much we celebrate the album and the people who came around to do it with him, making a record is real work. He had to retreat into his most personal, essential friendships. I have no problem saying that we were much closer a long time ago. And my admiration and affection for him has never diminished.
When I interviewed him last year, he had no problem revisiting his excesses and alcoholism of the late 1970s and early 1980s, what he called “cowboy days.” But as wild as he had been, I never got the sense, from him or his music, that he was truly self-destructive. Were there times, back then, when you thought he wouldn’t make it even to middle age?
He did seem self-destructive. He did harm to his career early on, by living that legendary wild-man life. It made him unable to play or sing as well as he could. There were times when he was the only one out of a whole group of people who was just crazed. If that’s not self-destructive, I don’t know what is. But he recovered.
Did he buy into the myth — the hard-boiled poet-saboteur — that he was writing about in songs like “Excitable Boy” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money?”
Oh, yeah. It was sincere. [Laughs] You have to understand — he did what he did to be authentic, to be a writer. He did it with his whole being. It was not a pose. He did things intentionally, that showed he was a showman.
Like when he got ready to conduct the string section for the first record [Warren Zevon]. He had written the string charts and assembled some of the legendary string players in town. And he was cracking them up. He was saying all of this stuff, and they were really laughing. Later, he admitted to me that he had written up some jokes for them. Because he’d been told that these were old-timers, a jaded bunch of guys, and they just wanted to take their ten-minute break every hour, get back to their pinochle game. They were not interested unless you charmed them. So he went about charming them.
I asked him one time if he considered himself an entertainer. And he said, “Yeah, absolutely.” He had no doubt. It surprised me, because I’ve always regarded the people whose work I love the most to be beyond that, above entertainment. He just gave me a funny smile: “If you’re not entertaining, you’re not doing anything.”
One thing that has always impressed me about that Main Point show in 1975 is the amount of support you were giving a writer who was virtually unknown. You actually spelled his last name, to make sure people got it right, and you sang three very different Zevon songs to demonstrate the range of his as-yet-unsung genius — time you could have spent showing off your own catalog.
“Hasten Down the Wind” is one of my favorite songs of all time. These songs of parting and longing — it was a counterpoint to his other thing, charging into the void with a torch and a martini. He had such an amazing range — “Mohammed’s Radio,” “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” “Mutineer.” Obviously, he had a strong following of people who would come and want to rage along to the chorus of “Werewolves of London.” And maybe he felt, at times, that it was a chore.
I used to sing J.D. Souther’s songs too, before he was recording. And at that time, Warren hadn’t made a record yet. [Not a good one, anyway — Zevon disowned his real first album, the woefully under-produced, 1970 Imperial LP, Wanted Dead or Alive.] I thought these songs deserved to be heard. Once they were, I stopped doing them. I could have recorded “Werewolves” myself, but it wouldn’t have been as good. I really believe the writer is worth hearing.
What was it about Zevon as a writer that attracted that kind of support from his peers, all through his career?
Actually, more people got him than I thought would get him. That’s a testament to the idea that what he was saying was so universal. He sang and joked about things that no one had joked about before, like “Excitable Boy.” But he could say in a few words something with great depth. His songs were like cartoons. I used to have this great cartoon of him — it was a fine-line pencil drawing that he did on the back of a tracking sheet in the studio. It was a picture of him being rowed across the river Styx [laughs], by a tall man with the head of a jackal. In this cartoon, Warren is sitting there, being rowed across the page, with this puzzled look, something like a duck. And the caption said, “It’s only when I close my eyes that I see the bad things.” [Laughs] He just thought in those terms. It was not the humor of someone who made up jokes and repeated them all over the place. They just flowed through him.
His illness, and the fact that he would not survive it, sent people back to his music and songwriting in a way that he hadn’t enjoyed since the late 1970s. Aside from “Werewolves” and the comic noir that was his signature, is there something about him as a writer that people didn’t really appreciate while he was here?
I hope that his whole body of work will be re-celebrated, by a whole new generation of writers and listeners. People are funny: They might not get your recent records. I’m that way — there are artists that I love, who mean the world to me, and there’s a record of theirs that I’ve never heard. Not too many people continually hit the heights of commercial success. But they do great work throughout their life.
The thing you have to know about Warren’s work is that it was incredibly powerful in the beginning, and incredibly powerful and consistent all through his life. If you look at that two-CD set he released [the 1996 Rhino anthology, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead], that is amazing.
All killer, no filler.
Of course, I’m familiar with the whole first CD; I had the pleasure and good fortune to be involved with those songs. But the second half is just as powerful and great, a gift and joy to discover. Life’ll Kill Ya  is one of the best records ever made, by anybody at any time, and it’s consistent with what he did early on. Warren popped out fully formed. The songs on the first album we did, like “The French Inhaler” and “Desperados Under the Eaves,” are literary masterpieces. Serious writers, serious lovers of language, will be discovering them for a long time to come.
But he never explained himself, or tried to sell his work. Warren looked at show business as a chance to perform. His songs were tuneful and fun, like the humor of the melody of “Excitable Boy.” It’s sort of like “Whistle While You Work” — mindless whistling while you’re singing about a murderer. Warren connected with the horror of so many things that go on in our everyday lives, that are visible on our televisions every day. It’s horrible — and at the same time, there was a robust pleasure summed up in these cartoon images: “He went down to dinner in his Sunday best . . . And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest.” To dress up, to want to put on the best impression, and then to overshoot by that far — it says volumes about that person without saying a lot.
And there’s the line at the end of “Desperados Under the Eaves”: “I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian, listening to my air conditioner hum/ It went . . .” And he hums this beautiful, almost religious melody, a hymn-like sound that comes out of the air conditioner — and out of him. It’s so cinematic.
His songs are like short stories — the best songs always are. They tell much more about life than books; they communicate so much more than a longer volume would. But it’s funny. Here we are, talking at great lengths, to describe something that was the very opposite of that — a guy who could say something in a few words that was immediately understood.