Warren Zevon Offers a Lesson in Living

Posted in MusicWorld on June 29, 2003 by

As a songwriter, Warren Zevon is one of the most articulate and witty observers of the vicissitudes, absurdities and ironies of modern life. He's given us glimpses at the "Werewolves Of London, the "Excitable Boy" and "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner." He has called for "Lawyers, Guns and Money, done time in the "Detox Mansion, and shown us what it's like to be "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." And now the man who sang "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is giving us all a lesson, tragic as it may be, in how to die with dignity and purpose.

Diagnosed with incurable lung cancer in August of 2002, Zevon promptly set out to do what he has done all along: take the tragicomedy of existence and fashion it into musical art. Given three months to live, he has already stuck around for close to a year in order to give us The Wind, likely his final album. "I was more prolific than I'd ever been, notes Zevon. "I had this goal and it kept me going." As a measure of the esteem his peers feel for Zevon, the set includes guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thornton, Ry Cooder, T-Bone Burnett, Tommy Shaw, David Lindley and John Waite.

Such admiration is the just due for one of the bravest songwriters of his day, maybe ever. Zevon explored the dark side in song like a film noir private eye — and became friends with such crime fiction masters as Ross MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen — which seems only natural for a Los Angeles-reared artist who reveled in complexity and contradiction.

Trained as a classical pianist, Zevon first made his mark writing pop songs for The Turtles and playing with The Everly Brothers. The 1976 release of Warren Zevon brought him immediate critical acclaim, and '78's Excitable Boy album hit the Top 10. His stature was such that in the late 1980s, members of R.E.M. played on Zevon's Sentimental Hygiene and formed a side group with him, The Hindu Love Gods. In recent years, Zevon continued to prove his ongoing creative fire with the ironically titled albums Life'll Kill Ya and My Ride's Here (his ride being a hearse).

Being at death's door has taught Zevon "to value every moment, and do so with typically dark humor and aplomb. When David Letterman recently devoted an entire show to the singer/songwriter, Zevon noted how facing his own mortality showed him "how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

And as he presciently noted in 1983, "If you're lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you drop dead. That's as many pats on the back as you should expect." But thanks to his music and indomitable spirit, Zevon's legacy shall no doubt live forever.


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