Not long after finding out he had an inoperable form of lung cancer, Warren Zevon was booked on the Late Show With David Letterman as the only guest for the full hour. Letterman was a huge Zevon fan and he’d featured the singer on his show dozens of times, often subbing him in for Paul Shaffer when the bandleader was busy with other projects. “As you know,” Zevon said. “You’ve been the best friend my music has ever had.”
The October 30th, 2002 show one of the most emotional Letterman broadcasts ever, but Zevon did his best to keep things light. “I might have made a tactical error by not going to a physician for 20 years,” he said. “I have a form of lung cancer that spread. It means you better get your dry cleaning done on special.” He also talked about his in-progress album The Wind, which came out the following August. “They certainly don’t discourage you from doing whatever you want,” he said. “It’s not like bed rest and a lot of water will straighten you out.”
Zevon had no plans to tour at this point, so he knew that his live renditions of “Mutineer,” “Genius” and “Roland the Headless Gunner” (played at Letterman’s request) would probably be his final public performances. Many in the audience probably had trouble maintaining their composure, but Zevon never wavered. He was absolutely brilliant.
Popular on Rolling Stone
“After the show, it was heartbreaking — he was in his dressing room,” Letterman told Rolling Stone in 2008. “We were talking and this and that. Here’s a guy who had months to live and we’re making small talk. And as we’re talking, he’s taking his guitar strap and hooking it, wrapping it around, then he puts the guitar into the case and he flips the snaps on the case and says, ‘Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.’ And I just started sobbing. He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show. I felt like, ‘I can’t be in this movie, I didn’t get my lines.’ That was very tough.”
Contrary to the predictions of many doctors, Zevon lived another 11 months after his Letterman appearance, long enough to witness the birth of his grandchild and see The Wind get released to rapturous reviews.
Here’s a video of “Mutineer” from the Letterman show. On this exact same night, Bob Dylan covered the song during a gig in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’d been playing Zevon songs the entire month, sometimes playing three of them a night. His cover of “Mutineer” appeared on Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon, a tribute album that came out in 2004. The title was taken from an offhand comment the singer made during his final Letterman appearance.