The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon
I first met Warren and Crystal Zevon after his initial performance at the Bottom Line in New York City. Asylum had just released Warren Zevon, and I’d listened to nothing else for days. Though I loved the record and had, in fact, been familiar with Zevon’s music for years, seeing the man onstage was like experiencing – what? – Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman,” the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, the New York Dolls, Norman Mailer, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels at an impressionable age. Rightly or wrongly, your life got changed.
The Zevons – Crystal then seven months pregnant – stayed in New York for a few days, and the three of us became fast friends. Mutual interests, etc. All I wanted to talk about were Zevon’s songs, while Warren and Crystal simply brushed aside my questions and kept asking me about Ross Macdonald, whom I’d recently met in Santa Barbara. They’d read all his books and could quote passages verbatim. I was impressed. Provided it’s all right with Millar, I said, I’ll take you with me to visit him for a day or two. It was as if I’d invited them to meet God. Though I knew Zevon had something of a drinking problem, I had no idea then how deep it went. This was in the spring of 1976.
In the late summer of 1978, Warren Zevon and I became “blood brothers.” Late one night, Crystal phoned from their new home in Santa Barbara. She sounded very distraught. Warren’s drinking had gotten much worse. They’d had a fight, and he was in New York now to talk to friends: Bruce Springsteen, producer Jon Landau, guitarist David Landau, critic Jay Cocks, me.
“I know,” I said. “He just called.”
“I talked to him this afternoon,” she said. “He told me he loved me and was coming home once he’d seen you, Bruce, Jon and David. ‘Warren,’ I said, ‘you did see them, last night at the Palladium.’ He didn’t even remember being at the concert, Paul.”
Shit, I thought.
There was a long pause.
“Will you try to talk him into going into a hospital for treatment?” Crystal asked. “I’ve already found one right here in town.”
“Yes,” I said, with a large gulp. “I’ll try.”
After we hung up, I wondered what to do. How do you introduce this particular topic into a casual conversation? Warren, old buddy, not to change the subject or anything, but have you ever considered committing yourself? Terrific, I thought. Just terrific.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. About thirty seconds after I’d knocked on his door, Zevon announced: “I want to ask you a serious question. The answer’s important.” He looked me straight in the eye. “Do you think I’m a drunk?”
My reply wasn’t as dumb as I’d expected. It went like this: By asking the question, you’ve already answered it. Your answer’s yes. So why not try to get some help – a hospital or something? There’s probably one in Santa Barbara. You’ve got nothing to lose, absolutely everything to gain. After all, if you decide you don’t like being sober, you can always buy another bottle, can’t you?
Warren looked greatly relieved. All he’d really come to New York for was confirmation. He’d known for a long time what he had to do. He just didn’t know if he could do it.
We talked for hours that night: our life stories. Fear was a major theme. Zevon, who’d spent some time with Igor Stravinsky as a teenager, wanted to make his mark in classical music as well as in rock & roll. There was this unfinished symphony, hanging like a stone around his neck. Me, I wanted to write a series of detective novels, be the next Ross Macdonald. About dawn, we agreed we owed it to ourselves to take separate shots at it. And to give each other all the support we could. Things had gotten pretty corny by then. “Blood brothers,” we swore. If there had been a knife, perhaps some blood would have been mingled.
One of the reasons the Zevons moved to Santa Barbara was the hope that clearing out of Los Angeles would curb Warren’s drinking. On his own, he’d attempted to stop, but it didn’t work. And the calmness of Santa Barbara, which he’d “thought was going to be an idyllic existence,” was driving him nuts.
Warren, in a bio he wrote, remembers the move this way:
That summer, we buy a spacious house in Montecito. Our initial reason for looking in the Santa Barbara area is simple: Ross Macdonald lives there. It’s quiet, peaceful, safe, beautiful. The air is fine. It makes me nervous. The idea that I can’t afford the house makes me nervous. The idea that I can afford the house makes me nervous. I have the guest house professionally soundproofed and build a four-track “writing studio.” The studio makes me nervous.