; Tangled Up In Blue: Remembering Warren

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Remembering Warren

Two years ago today, September 7 2003, Warren Zevon died after a year-long battle with lung cancer (mesothelioma, to be exact). First known for his 1978 novelty song "Werewolves of London" and for being the author of the Linda Ronstadt hit of that same year, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," Zevon found his name in the headlines again as he fought the illness that had spread to his liver by the time it was discovered as he recorded his final album, The Wind. He died less than two weeks after the album's release. The album netted him two posthumous Grammys, one for the track "Disorder in the House" (which featured Bruce Springsteen) and one for "Best Contemporary Folk Album."

There is so much more to the life of Warren Zevon than his death and that goofy song from 1978. His original aim was to be a classical composer. Warren's idol was Igor Stravinsky, a man he befriended in his teenage years. He was an exceptionally literate and well-read man, counting among his friends the late writers Hunter S. Thompson and Ross Macdonald. Carl Hiaasen titled a novel Skinny Dip at Zevon's suggestion. His songs popped up in movies (from "She Quit Me" in Midnight Cowboy to the title song for the film Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead). He conquered the bottle after it almost conquered him (he once told David Letterman that his alcohol intake at one point was "a couple of quarts of vodka a day"). He fathered two children who are also entertainers (daughter Ariel is an actor; son Jordan just released his first EP of music).

But it all comes back to the music. The song that grabbed me and refused to let me go was "Accidentally Like a Martyr," a song about Warren's estrangement from then-wife Crystal. In a musical sense, that song changed my life. It knocked me on my butt the way only two other songs ("The Last Resort" from Hotel California and John Hiatt's title song to Crossing Muddy Waters) have in the 30 years that I've been listening to rock and roll. I bought Excitable Boy, then his Asylum debut album, Warren Zevon, and never looked back.

Warren could be incredibly funny while dealing with serious aspects of his life ("Gorilla You're a Desperado," "Detox Mansion"). His observations were frequently droll ("They say this place is evil but that ain't why I stay" he sang in "Join Me in L.A."). He gained the nickname "the Sam Peckinpah of rock and roll" because of his occasional violent subject matter (most of side one of Excitable Boy, The Envoy's "Charlie's Medicine," or "Jeannie Needs a Shooter" from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School). However, one of the most underappreciated facts about Zevon was that he could write fabulous heartbreak and love songs. "They say love conquers all," he sang in "Searching for a Heart." "You can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun." "Reconsider Me" should've been a top ten hit. In short, there was simply no limit to Warren's range of topics. Additionally, he addressed them with brutal honesty and sardonic wit (as the sadly prophetic ninth song on Life'll Kill Ya -- the G-rated version of the title being "My Stuff's Messed Up" -- shows). Even when facing death, Warren covered Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"' while singing, "Open up, open up, open up for me" over the chorus.

Warren's last recording was the song "Keep Me in Your Heart." His health had deteriorated to the point where the song had to be recorded in segments at his home. "Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath," he admitted. He then told his girlfriend and his fans, "If I leave you, it doesn't mean I love you any less. Keep me in your heart for awhile."

Warren Zevon will always have a place in my heart.


Blogger John H said...

How many others writers do you know that worked the word 'Brucellosis ' (a cattle disease) into one of their songs? I think the song is 'Play it all night long'...

When I was trying to convince my kids that there were other forms of music besides rap, Zevon's music punched thru their provincial walls. 'Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner' is a family favorite..

Driving up to King's Island Amusement Park in August to ride the coasters with the entire car singing 'roland' is a happy family memory..

11:23 AM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

I remember laughing my ass off when I first heard "Exciteable Boy". Then I rewound the tape and played it over and over again to make sure I heard the words correctly. I think I had to rewind about every song on that cassette the first time I heard Zevon.

There will always be great songwriters, but there will never be another Warren.

1:36 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...

His music is all I want to listen to these days. It’s the perfect amount of cynical accompaniment that plays so well along to these, our modern times. I had ‘Genius’ in my deck for a week now, and all I’m able to do is “turn those speakers up full blast and play ‘em all night long”.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Who is this person? This Razor's Edge person?

I've been so trying to not think about this anniversary, because it leaves me so cold in the heart. And here you are, posting about it at length and reminding me of all the anger (why didn't he quit smoking?) denial (maybe they'll find a cure) bargaining( God, are you sure you don't want Van instead? He's gotten to be a such pompous ass...) and true grieving I've done over the last four years. I've never really yet gotten to acceptance.

Like you, Accidentally was what grabbed me initially. It's still the love song that I treasure most...other than "Smack My Bitch Up". I stick around and play all the rest as the soundtrack to my life. There are so many days where the sun looks angry through the trees. September 7 is always one of those days.

Heaven help the one who leaves

Glad there are so many people on this list who don't say "who" when I say Warren....

2:37 PM  
Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

mycropht...meet Karen...music historian, and the biggest Zevon fan I know.
I thought she would be good over here. It appears I was right.

FYI...I've known her for over 10 years and we met in a music trivia event online on Prodigy many years ago.

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Zevon's illness was not smoking related. Mesothelioma is an form of cancer that is related to asbestos exposure. Smoking didn't help, but it also was not the primary cause. It is unknown where and how WZ was exposed. Steve McQueen died of the same thing.

The Password is ortfhux

2:59 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Sar...I know. But I was in the anger stage. I was not at my most rational...

Karen...are you Professor K over on wz.com bb?

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

It's a common disease in my industry. So it is a double heaping scoop of irony that one of my all-time musical heroes gets laid low by something that is work-related to me. Karmically, maybe I'll get to go out like a rock star.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

It's a common disease in my industry

I was actually wondering about that. You blow stuff up, right? That's got to be a long list of asbestos-filled buildings.

Karmically, maybe I'll get to go out like a rock star.

Hey, you never know. Enough Glenfiddich and poorly assembled beds and you might get your wish.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

We tear stuff down with big tonka toys. But,asbestos abatement is one of my pieces of the pie.
Every year as part of the certification process, the asbestosis and mesothelioma risk is presented in clear and ugly detail.
I may be wrong, but Jordan Zevon is/has been involved with some of the charities that deal with it. There is no cure, and there most likely never will be.

4:13 PM  
Blogger P. K. Nail said...

I came across Zevon fairly late in the game. I was flipping through radio stations and caught the phrase "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand" - which I recognized only as a riff I had heard on MST3K. I listened to the song and instantly went on a search for one of Zevon's CDs. Not an easy find when you're living in a small Mississippi town. But I finally found A Quiet Normal Life and was immediately hooked.

Warren's music was so deceptively profound and it's truly a tragedy that we don't have him around anymore.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

PKN--girl, I'll hook you up, once I figure out which one of the robed folk you are. Sunday Lydia said "she was sitting right behind me", which implies that I pay more attention to Lydia than to Frank. And that I can see that far from the balcony. I'm glad you got roped into Warren. No better place to be.

Sar--Jordan Zevon is involved in several charities for meso, according to the website. The fact that there will probably never be a cure is just horrible. It seems like an ugly way to die. How high is your personal level of risk at this point?

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Sarcastro said...

Much lower as smoking is a huge risk multiplier.
The insidious thing about this type of disease, is that you can go 20-40 years without knowing you have it. In a nutshell, when asbestos fibers are inhaled they start cutting through your lungs or pleural cavity. They are very sharp and very tiny. So it takes years before the scarring shows up, by then it is too late.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Raizor's Edge said...

Mycropht: Karen...are you Professor K over on wz.com bb?

No, that isn't me. I do need to sign up over there, though. Snake sent me a link to the Reader's Digest parody cover in the "Some People, I Tell Ya!" subject thread (in Hello Goodbye -- a title that'll have Sharon over there in a heartbeat! LOL), and I think I ruptured something from laughing so hard.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Raizor's Edge said...

Mycropht: God, are you sure you don't want Van instead? He's gotten to be a such pompous ass...)

HEY!!! I happen to LIKE Van Williams! LOL LOL

6:23 PM  
Blogger mapgirl said...

Thanks for saying very eloquently what I have been trying to tell other people about Warren. He's not just some novelty songwriter. And "Accidentally" gets me every time.

On bad days, I listen to "Sentimental Hygiene" and it always helps.


8:12 PM  
Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

"Hello Goodbye" (perk)

8:47 PM  

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