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Warren Zevon and the Art of Dying

Facing terminal cancer, the singer-songwriter is penning his own epitaph: a final record full of dark humor

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon

Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Warren Zevon is sitting at a table in a Hollywood hotel cafe, patiently waiting for someone to bring him a menu. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes seep by. “At a time like this,” he says with an arched eyebrow and a low, rumbling laugh, “you really get the feeling of time marching on.”

In late August, Zevon went to a cardiologist, complaining of shortness of breath. He left with a death sentence: diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare, inoperable cancer that had ravaged his lungs and invaded his liver. Zevon’s doctors initially gave him three months to live but later backed off from a specific figure. Zevon professes not to care about the numbers except, he cracks drily, “in line at the market: ‘Excuse me, I have terminal cancer. Can you help her with her coupons? Can we speed this up a little?’

“But the nature of destiny is that I’m alive today,” Zevon says cheerfully after that menu finally arrives. Dressed in loose gray pants and a wool sport coat, with a full head of dirty-yellow hair and a strong smile, Zevon does not look sick or dying, only a little tired — and that’s because he was up late the night before, working on his music. “I’ll probably wake up tomorrow, too,” he declares optimistically.

Which he does. The next day, Zevon is hunched over a grand piano in a studio off Sunset Boulevard with his longtime friend and collaborator, Jorge Calderón, wrestling with a chord progression in a new song. Since his diagnosis, Zevon has been writing and recording what he knows will be his last album. He jokes about racing against the clock (“Do they still put out EPs?”) and quotes another friend, crime novelist Carl Hiaasen: “Carl believes you can’t die in the middle of a project.”

Much of what Zevon is writing for this record is for, he says, “people I want to say goodbye to. It’s also about fun I want to have. When you get into songwriting, everything else falls away. That’s the miracle. It works so well as a drug.” It is a poignant comparison. For now, he is taking only anti-nausea and pain medications. Zevon has chosen not to undergo chemotherapy.

He enjoys being in charge of his own epitaph. He’s already got a title song for the album: “My Dirty Life and Times.” A gold-plated list of pals has lined up to help out, including Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam and Bob Dylan, who is playing Zevon covers nightly on his current tour. Calderón describes a recent evening when he and Zevon nailed a new song on their cell phones: “He’d given me a line out of a conversation the other day, so I wrote a few verses. Then he called me while he was walking to the video store, because he can’t drive anymore. I gave him the verses, and he loved it: ‘We’ve got something!'”

And the original line? “He has to take these painkillers,” Calderón explains, “so he was saying, ‘I’m as numb as a statue, so beg, borrow or steal some feelings for me.'”

Zevon has prepared for this crossroads for thirty years, on more than a dozen albums. He is best known for his one Top Thirty single, the 1978 blood-lust spoof “Werewolves of London.” But Zevon’s greater legacy is the ripe wit and acute detail with which he has written and sung about extreme living and the big sleep: in the 1970s classics “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Excitable Boy”; songs of personal armageddon such as “Detox Mansion,” rooted in his victory over alcoholism in the early 1980s; and the wry gems “Life’ll Kill Ya” and “My Ride’s Here,” the respective title songs of Zevon’s 2000 and 2002 albums.

“It’s not easy to write a rock & roll record about mortality, because so much of rock & roll is spent eluding it,” says Jackson Browne, a close friend since 1968, who produced Zevon’s first Asylum Records LP, 1976’s Warren Zevon, and co-produced the hit follow-up, 1978’s Excitable Boy. “But he does it with a humor and appetite for what life is really like. It’s summed up in ‘Life’ll Kill Ya’: ‘From the president of the United States/To the lowliest rock & roll star/The doctor is in/And he’ll see you now.’ It’s a very funny song about the most daunting fact of our lives. But his work has always been characterized by a comic kind of courage.”

“I don’t know why he’s chosen that topic, other than a love of skulls,” says Zevon’s son, Jordan, 33, one of Zevon’s two children by separate early marriages. (Zevon’s daughter, Ariel, is twenty-six.) At home, Jordan notes, his father “always had a gorilla skull with wire-frame glasses hanging around. But he’s not a morbid person. He actually told me some really good advice: ‘Whatever you do, wherever you go, make yourself happy.’ Death is his outlet, a topic he digs.”

“I always thought old age would be a good subject for rock & roll,” Zevon claims. “If you thought Neil Young and I were mad about being young, wait till you hear how mad we are about being old and decrepit.” But Zevon’s obsession has deep roots. An only child, Warren William Zevon was born of exotic stock in Chicago on January 24th, 1947. His Scots-Welsh mother, Beverly, was Mormon, an influence Zevon vividly recollects, although he has not been a practicing member of the faith for many years: “Mormons have a matter-of-fact attitude toward the supernatural. I grew up with a painting of Uncle Warren, the World War II hero, in our house: the dead namesake who was like a present member of the family, always at the table.”

Zevon’s father, William, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant, a professional gambler and, in Zevon’s words, “a prototypical gangster.” Of the rampant gunplay in his songs and early album art (the inner sleeve of Excitable Boy featured a photo of a revolver on a plate of vegetables), Zevon says only, “It relates to my father.” Did William pack a heater? “Even on the brink of extinction, I prefer to get as little as possible into that family lore.” But Zevon fondly remembers his father’s last words — “Never look back” — and other favorite motto — “Fuck everybody.”

Zevon discusses his fate with the same mix of the earnest and profane. So do good friends such as Hunter S. Thompson and humorist Dave Barry, and Zevon appreciates it. “I told Hunter I might have to break open a bottle of absinthe,” says Zevon, who has been sober for two decades. “He said, ‘Are you sure you want to launch yourself into some orgiastic debauch only to find out the bastards are wrong, like they always are?'” Barry threatened to lead a posse of Zevon’s literary buddies for a visit. “We just want closure,” Barry wrote. “Then when you fall asleep, we’re gonna go through your meds.”

Even Dylan couldn’t resist a jibe when he hugged Zevon backstage before Dylan’s October 17th concert in Los Angeles. Zevon’s co-manager Brigette Barr, who was there, says Dylan ribbed Zevon about using Neil Young to play harmonica on an old album track. “Dylan said, ‘How come you didn’t ask me?'” Barr recalls, laughing.

But the sweetest shock of all, she says, came during the show. When Dylan sang Zevon’s songs “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and “Mutineer,” “people got up around our table — and applauded Warren.”

When Zevon found out he had cancer, he was, in every other respect, healthier than he had ever been. He quit smoking five years ago and, according to Jordan, put in at least an hour at the gym every day, lifting weights. “His arms were massive at one point,” Jordan says.

Zevon does not know how he contracted mesothelioma, usually found in people regularly exposed to asbestos, although, he concedes, “wolfing down joints and Silk Cuts all those years can’t have helped.” Nothing turned up in previous medical examinations because “I hadn’t had any, in many years.” Before he got the bad news in August, the last time Zevon had seen a doctor was in, he says, “cowboy days.”

That would probably be the early 1980s, when Zevon kicked the severe alcoholism that nearly derailed his career after the success of Excitable Boy. He went public with his demons in a famous 1981 Rolling Stone cover story, but there are still a lot of mad tales from those days to go around. Browne remembers the night he and Zevon wrote the song “Tenderness on the Block” together, sort of: “I went to his house because a banister had been ripped off the wall. He had no memory of doing this. But we sat down to write a song. It was late. I might have written the first two lines, then I went down. When I woke up, it was a song.”

Zevon was thirty-one, a veteran of the margins of the music business, when “Werewolves of London” momentarily made him a rock star. In the mid-1960s, he wrote for the Turtles and recorded as half of a folk-rock duo, lyme and cybelle. When his 1969 solo debut, Wanted Dead or Alive, bombed, Zevon took a job as musical director for the Everly Brothers, did solo gigs and commercial jingles and, at one desperate point, moved to Spain in search of an album contract. “Some Barcelona company said, ‘Can we put a dance beat to these songs?'” Zevon says. “I thought, ‘Hollywood’s not gonna be any different than this.'” When Browne finally brokered a deal for Zevon with Asylum in 1975, Zevon had an enviable body of work ready: “Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” were among the songs written during the wilderness years.

“I don’t remember stardom with any longing,” Zevon says. “It was a brief opportunity to be rude: ‘Fire that opening act. I don’t like the way he looked at me.’ My success was a fluke. I was a folk singer who accidentally had one big hit.”

Zevon’s recent sales are modest but solid: Life’ll Kill Ya has sold 80,000 copies in North America, My Ride’s Here about 50,000. But he has what Browne calls “the success that matters: this very loyal following of people who truly get him. There’s no greater success than being loved and admired for what you really do.”

Zevon insists that for him, ambition was always about “getting the third line of the second verse right.” Now, when asked if he has achieved everything he ever wanted, he says, “Yes,” then walks over to his shoulder bag and pulls out the evidence: photographs of Jordan and Ariel. “Take a look at these pictures, and you will inevitably ask yourself, ‘How did this fuckwad do this?’ They’re a very fine pair. They couldn’t be more wonderful toward all this in every way.

“I also look back and think, ‘I had this crazy idea that I wanted to be a pop star.’ And in a way, I achieved it. I wanted to write a certain kind of song, and I did.”

“He’s being so accepting,” Calderón says in amazement. “For the first few days, I was going, ‘Why him, after all this?’ I’ve seen other people go to old age drinking and smoking. But he just says, ‘I’ve done this and come back. I was a good father. How poetic is all this?'”

Zevon’s impulse now, in his final songs, is to send messages to those he is leaving behind. “If I can let someone know what I felt about them,” he says, putting the irony to one side, “that’s more important than passing off some bullshit insight I’ve had about living on the planet.”

Or about what he might find on the other side. “No” — that is Zevon’s firm answer when asked if he has given any thought to his impending afterlife. “I’m too busy. I might change my mind in a week. Sometimes I go to Mass with my ex-girlfriend. Maybe I’ll go to Mass with my ex on Saturday night and decide I want the priest to give me instruction, fast and furious.

“But what I’ve told myself,” Zevon says, “is that it’s a good idea to be able to say goodbye to yourself, one hopes fondly, and that you’ll be at peace with everyone you know, as I was with my parents. I hope I’ll be in that position with everybody around me, or that I’ll have written a song to a person I can’t reach, to say, ‘Hey, I shouldn’t have fucked this up.'”

In the meantime, Zevon intends to finish that last record. “There’s no room in the human psyche,” he insists, “for hearing Ry Cooder play his licks on your song, then worry about what might happen in six weeks. So I’m doing fine.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Warren Zevon

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