Thursday, September 6, 2007

Life'll Kill Ya

Category: Opinion/News

(PHOTO: Warren Zevon and the blogger, taken by George Gruel at the Tower Theater, Philadelphia, October 10, 1982)

September 7 marks four years since Warren Zevon died from mesothelioma. This anniversary is marked with the availability of Crystal Zevon's biography of her former husband, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (previously reviewed). The book is tough to read, as Crystal said, because it shows every ugly wart Zevon possessed. However, it's not that much of a shock if you consider the man's music, because he certainly never presented himself as an Osmond.

Zevon earned a couple of posthumous Grammy awards for his life-affirming farewell album, The Wind. But, sadly, even today he remains best-known for "Werewolves of London" -- and dying. But there is so much more to Warren Zevon. And, thanks to the release of the two missing albums from his catalog on CD this year (Stand in the Fire and The Envoy), his catalog is waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Zevon's first taste with success was in 1969, when he penned a song that ended up on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack ("She Quit Me"). Kim Fowley produced his first album (Wanted Dead or Alive) that was pretty lame but did feature a couple of flashes of the brilliance that was to come ("Tule's Blues," "A Bullet for Ramona"). In 1976, his friend Jackson Browne convinced Asylum Records to sign him, then convinced Zevon to return to the U.S. from Spain. Zevon recorded his eponymous album with the help of most of L.A.'s famous musicians (Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and Browne). It sold poorly but gained fame after Linda Ronstadt covered four songs ("Hasten Down the Wind," "Carmelita," "Mohammed's Radio," and her hit "Poor Poor PItiful Me"). It remains a gem in Zevon's discography, the home of the brilliant "Desperadoes Under the Eaves."

If any song can be a microcosm of Warren Zevon's music, it's "Desperadoes Under the Eaves." It's powerful ("I'm trying to find a girl who understands me / But except in dreams you're never really free") and funny ("And if California slides into the ocean like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this hotel will be standing until I pay my bill") -- at the same time -- wrapped up in a lovely melody with the final punch line being an orchestrated imitation of an air conditioner humming.

In 1978 Zevon scored his best-known hit, Excitable Boy. The major hit was "Werewolves of London," but "Lawyers, Guns and Money" was also an FM rock hit (and was later covered in a very impotent version by Rick Derringer). For all the violence in the first half of the album, "Accidentally Like a Martyr" showed just how completely Zevon could pour out his heart into a song. The song, about a time of separation from Crystal, is as painful a song about the ending of a relationship as you're going to find ("Never thought I'd have to pay so dearly for what was already mine...should've done, should've done, we all sigh"). Just as deeply in despair as that song is, "Tenderness on the Block," co-written with Browne, is positive, a song about a daughter finding romance (inspired by daughter Ariel, who was about 14 months old when Excitable Boy was released). Yes, "Werewolves of London" is a hokey novelty number; however, this album should not be overlooked because of that (much the same way Randy Newman's Little Criminals should not be ignored because of "Short People").

Zevon's personal life was in the garbage disposal between Excitable Boy and the follow-up Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. He and Crystal finally divorced after a year-long battle with the demon in his life that lived in a bottle of vodka. (He would yo-yo on and off the wagon for the rest of his life, taking a serious fall (although one could certainly understand it) when he was told of his terminal illness.) The 1980 Zevon was a completely different person: trim and fit (not the pudgy -- by his own admission -- drunk who was sickened by the photo of he and John Belushi together), apparently ready to make up for the time he had lost sucking his existence out of vodka bottles. Alas, by the time he released Bad Luck Streak, the music scene had changed dramatically. Disco, punk, new wave, and ultra-tight "superstars" FM rock playlists took over. There was no place left for Zevon in mainstream music. Although a good album (nowhere near the masterpiece of the first two), Bad Luck Streak had half the sales of Excitable Boy. Asylum recorded his 1980 tour for a live album, Stand in the Fire, which Rolling Stone hailed as "one of the best live albums ever," but it sold even less. One more album, 1982's outstanding The Envoy, and Zevon was off the label.

The Envoy featured Zevon at his best. He was funnier than ever (consider this line in "Let Nothing Come Between You," his love song to Kim Lankford, the Knots Landing actress he was engaged to during the recording of this album: "Got the license, got the ring / Got the blood tests and everything"), rattling off gems such as "The Hula Hula Boys" ("I didn't have to come to Maui to be treated like a jerk / How do you think I feel when I see the bellboys smirk?") and "Jesus Mentioned" (about Elvis, who "went walking on the water with his pills"). This album also featured two of Zevon's best songs ever: "Never Too Late for Love," showing that he was not over Crystal despite being engaged (a marriage that never happened) to Lankford ("You say you're tired, how I hate to hear you hear that word, everybody hurts / Who am I to say I know the way you feel? / I've felt your pain and I know your sorrow"). Then there was "Charlie's Medicine," a powerful number about a man getting "expensive drugs" from a dealer then discovering that he was murdered by "some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills." "I came to say goodbye," Zevon sang, "I'm sorry Charlie died, I came to finish paying my bill." In I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Crystal Zevon revealed that Warren, thought to be living a clean and sober life in 1982, was actually doing heroin and wrote this song about his supplier. That bit of information makes the song ever more powerful.

When Zevon resurfaced with members of R.E.M. on 1984's Sentimental Hygiene, he was again back on the wagon. He took a few shots at Asylum for releasing him (in "Trouble Waiting to Happen," he referenced discovering that he'd been dropped from the label by reading it in the "Random Notes" section of Rolling Stone), and presented another funny-but-really-not-funny autobiographical snapshot of his life, "Detox Mansion" ("I'm going to Detox Mansion, way down on Last Breath Farm / I've been raking leaves with Liza, me and Liz clean up the yard"). R.E.M. was not yet the superstar band they would become, so their presence on Sentimental Hygiene didn't help sales. The best-known song from the album was "Boom Boom Mancini," Zevon's ode to the boxer (and probably a nod to his father, who was an amateur boxer).

During the sessions, Zevon and the band members jammed on various blues, country, and rock songs. The tapes were eventually released after R.E.M.'s late 80s success under the name Hindu Love Gods.

The decade closed with Transverse City, an album filled with synthesizers and techno (think Neil Young's Trans album). Zevon paid homage to his Russian heritage with the song "Turbulence," singing the final portion in Russian. The sales, as usual, were flat.

In 1992, Zevon released another masterpiece, Mr. Bad Example. The title song, a rollicking tale of debauchery, was noted by one critic to be so Zevonesque that "no one bothered to ask him if it was autobiographical." The song "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" appeared on this album, as did a lovely country duet with Dwight Yoakam, "Heartache Spoken Here." A tongue-in-cheek look at domestic life, "Model Citizen," featured Zevon's son Jordan singing back-up. (Baseball writer Peter Gammons released an album of rock songs, Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old, in 2006, and opened the album with a cover of "Model Citizen.") Then there was the closing number, "Searching for a Heart." "They say love conquers all," Zevon sang. "You can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun." David Letterman frequently referenced this line when speaking of Zevon's songwriting genius.

Zevon released two more albums in the 1990s, the live album Learning to Flinch and 1995's Mutineer. He referred to the latter as his thank-you to his fans, who thanked him by ignoring the album in droves. Indeed, Mutineer may be Zevon's poorest selling album since the 1969 release. Dejected and dropped by his label (Giant), Zevon took the rest of the 90s off. He made friends with numerous writers (Carl Hiaasen, Hunter S. Thompson) and, as he deadpanned, "learned to play the flute." Despite not being active in recording, he was frequently seen on The Late Show With David Letterman as substitute band leader when Paul Schaffer was away.

In 2000, Zevon released another classic album, one that would prove to have a most prophetic title: Life'll Kill Ya. "From the president of the United States to the lowliest rock and roll star," he sang in the title track, "the doctor is in and he'll see you now / He don't care WHO you are." Another song, the cleaned-up title being "My Stuff's Messed Up," also dealt with getting bad news from the doctor. Other gems on the album include "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down" (a man who seemingly escaped while all the "stuff" was "messed" up around him), "For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer" (a powerful look at messing up love: "I can saw a woman in two, but you won't wanna look in the box when I'm through / I can make love disappear, for my next trick I'll need a volunteer"), and the beautiful "Ourselves to Know." Set ostensibly in the era of the Crusades ("We left Constantinople in 1099"), the song concludes with one of Zevon's best verses: "Now if you make a pilgrimage, I hope you'll find your grail / Be loyal to the ones you leave with, even if you fail / And be chivalrous to strangers you meet along the road / As you take that holy ride, yourselves to know." This album shows that Zevon was in top form.

In 2002, Zevon released My Ride's Here, another album with a not-too-thinly-veiled death theme (the lyrics in the title song clearly indicate the "ride" he is waiting for is in a hearse). The album featured songs co-written with Hunter S. Thompson ("You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared") and Hiaasen ("Basket Case"). Letterman contributed his voice to "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)," which has a very "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" feel to it musically (not lyrically). Although still not selling outside of his traditional fan base, everyone agreed that Zevon was, as the song title said, "a genius" and the best was yet to come.

While on tour for My Ride's Here, Zevon complained of being short of breath constantly. He had developed a phobia of going to the doctor in the 80s and stated the only "doctor" he trusted was his dentist. When he told his dentist he was "working out like Vin Diesel" and attributing his shortness of breath to that, the dentist insisted on a chest x-ray.

By the end of the day, Zevon knew he was dying. X-rays and tests revealed lung cancer (later ruled to be mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos exposure) that had already spread to his liver. The doctors were pessimistic: Zevon's life would end in three months, maybe.

Undaunted by the news, Zevon headed to the studio almost immediately to begin work on what would be his final album, The Wind. The opening track, "Dirty Life and Times," was actually written before the diagnosis, although the opening line certainly makes it sound like a post-diagnosis song ("Some days I feel like my shadow's casting me, some days the sun don't shine"). As the album progressed, Zevon traced his disease, as much as in terms of living as in dying. "The Rest of the Night" is about as wild a party song as you could hope to find on a 60s garage band album. "Prison Grove" is a number that likens life on death row behind bars to life trapped in a cancer-riddled body. "Goodbye prison grove" is the cry of a man earning his freedom from the pain of the disease and the pain of incarceration. Sadly, either way, the way out is death.

With nothing left to prove, Zevon's last song, "Keep Me in Your Heart," was recorded at his apartment because he was too weak to travel to the studio. "Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath," he sang, literally proving his words true by the pain evident in his voice. "If I leave you, it doesn't mean I love you any less," a line to lover, former lovers, friends, and fans alike. His final request: "Keep me in your heart for awhile."

Zevon survived his self-destructive behavior a number of times, the final time over Christmas of 2002 when he locked himself in his apartment with nothing but his prescription narcotics for the pain the cancer was inflicting on his body and bottle after bottle of scotch to wash them down with. According to Crystal Zevon's tome, Zevon finally sobered up when he was informed that John Hiatt had been contacted to impersonate Zevon so the album could be finished. Zevon came out of his 90-proof shell and finished the album. He also lived long enough to see his grandchildren, twin sons born to Ariel and her husband, come into the world in June, 2003.

The Wind outsold Excitable Boy and was a top ten album when Zevon died on Sunday afternoon, September 7, 2003. Five months later, Zevon's children, Jordan and Ariel, would accept two Grammy awards, one for The Wind as "best contemporary folk recording" and one for "Disorder in the House" as "best rock vocal performance, duo or group" (with Bruce Springsteen's backing on the track). In the four years since, however, Zevon has pretty much slipped back into the shadows where he unfortunately hid from the masses most of his professional life.

I'm currently reading an essay on Patsy Cline, Joli Jensen's "Patsy Cline's Crossovers" in the collection A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music. In the paper, Jensen points out that, for years, Patsy Cline was a mostly forgotten artist in country music. While Jim Reeves was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame three years after his death (the first year he was eligible, as the Hall of Fame has a rule banning acts from being placed on the ballot for three years after they die to prevent a "sympathy vote"), it took ten years after Cline's death for her induction. It was not until Beverly D'Angelo's portrayal of Cline in the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter that interest in Cline picked up and people discovered the long-forgotten singer. By the same token, maybe one day someone will make a movie out of the biography just published and people will be flocking to stores to buy Zevon albums.

That'll be a wild way for his "dirty life and times" to end.

1 comment:

grandefille said...

Thank you, ma'am.

Thank you, thank you.