Alcoholism. That’s what this story’s supposed to be about. How Warren Zevon, after some heartwarming and colorful misadventures, licked the Big A and lived happily ever after. Zevon: a drinking-man’s drinking man, someone who can talk about booze the way Pete Townshend talks about rock & roll. Starring Richard Dreyfuss as our wild and crazy hero, Diane Keaton as ex-wife Crystal, Warren Beatty as Jackson Browne, Gregory Peck as private-eye novelist Ross Macdonald (real name: Kenneth Millar), actress-girlfriend Kim Lankford as herself, with a special guest appearance by Jack Klugman as “the Doc.”
You could write it that way, I suppose. Most of it happened, some of it still might. There was even a laugh or two here and there: the protagonist buys a Christmas quart for his in-laws, discovers it’s the only liquor in the house and drinks it all himself before they can sample a drop. But you’d write it that way only if you didn’t realize that alcoholism is a disease, and that your true alcoholic is about as colorful and heart-warming as a pale white body on a concrete slab. Eventually, a dedicated drunk will maim or kill everything he touches, often putting himself at the bottom of the list. Warren Zevon knows this. And, since I was around for a few key incidents, I hope I do, too.
We are sitting up late at night in Warren and Kim’s rented home in the Hollywood Hills. (“This stupid, pretentious, screenwriter’s idea of a screenwriter’s idea of a screenwriter’s house” is how Zevon describes it. He is particularly chagrined by a four-foot-high red bathtub. “Very California,” he smiles, with a certain amount of grim satisfaction.) Lankford, who’s currently starring in Knots Landing, has gone to bed hours ago.
Since Warren and I are both night people, we’ve decided to do our tapings from one or two in the morning until dawn, then laze around in the backyard and watch the planes, magnificently framed against a faraway mountain range, make their long, slow descent across the San Fernando Valley toward the Burbank airport. It’s a beautiful sight, somewhat unreal. I’m reminded of Hitchcock’s movies, where the horror happens in broad daylight.
“From what I know about alcoholism,” Zevon is saying, “I’d say there’s nothing romantic, nothing grand, nothing heroic, nothing brave – nothing like that about drinking. It’s a real coward’s death.
“The last time I detoxed, I really thought I was going to die. I had my hand on the phone, I was afraid that I was going to start hallucinating and shooting guns – I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
(Zevon had a recurring dream: that he’d grabbed his .44 Magnum, stumbled up the driveway to Mulholland, taken dead aim at a passing car and pulled the trigger. Each time he woke up, he’d scramble for the pistol and count the bullets, terrified there’d be one missing.)
“This time I really felt that way morally about life. I said, God, just give me one more chance, man. Don’t let me die a fucking coward, not this way! Shit! Anything but this! I’m dying from having avoided the pain of living. This is suicide, the same as the gun barrel in the mouth, except that it’s infinitely more cowardly. It’s just the worst death – a chickenshit, shivering, quaking, whiny death. There’s no keel over, make a young and pretty corpse. I was fifty pounds heavier then. I weigh the same now as I did in high school.”
Zevon – bright, cleareyed, looking as sleek and powerful as Sugar Ray Leonard these days – is talking about the last time he fell off the wagon after his voluntary rehabilitation at Pinecrest, a private hospital in Santa Barbara.
The reason for that final binge – not that an alcoholic needs any special reason, Zevon will tell you – was the visit of Montreal Expos pitcher Bill Lee, about whom Warren had written a song. Lee had liked 1978’s Excitable Boy, and Warren wanted to play a tape of “Bill Lee” (later included on Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School) for him. George Gruel, Zevon’s live-in aide-de-camp and a warm and wonderfully understanding man, had some doubts as to what might happen.
Zevon tells the story: “I said, ‘Now look, George, we don’t necessarily have to buy all this stuff that the hospital tells us. Let’s just see if I can drink moderately.’
“So there was this one occasion – especially unfortunate, since I think it left a bad impression on Bill Lee – when George said, ‘Okay. You can have a drink when he gets here. Don’t drink anything all day, and I’ll let you have a drink then.’
“A couple of days later, George said, ‘You can’t control the amount you drink. You didn’t stop yesterday. You didn’t stop today. When are you going to stop?’
“I had a bottle and a half of Wild Turkey left. I said, ‘When that’s gone.’
“He said: ‘Enjoy it.’
“And that’s how we did it. I had to detox again. And for a few days, it wasn’t bad. Once again I thought, Aw, see, they make more out of it than they should. Then one night I got what was like the flu, only it wasn’t the flu. It was much worse. I really didn’t know if my brain was frying, I felt so feverish. I got the chills. There was no getting warm enough. I was lying there, shaking and praying. Praying. I’m not even a religious man, but there comes a time . . .