“Excitable Boy”, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, “Werewolves of London”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, are some of Warren Zevon’s greatest songs. He was an American original. His songs were story songs, tales of the underbelly of life. Zevon’s songs were pulp novels of old souls and lost angels of Los Angeles. He was the pop version of Ross McDonald, Thomas McGuane, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, all writers he enjoyed.
Warren Zevon worked in the trenches for years as a performer, bandleader, jingle writer and troubadour of the free spirited California singer-songwriter generation. Zevon was a prolific writer, stockpiling his tales of love gone bad, gangsters, drug addicts and life’s long, fractured highway. He was a contemporary of Jackson Browne, who was a strong proponent of Zevon, and Browne helped launch his recording career, even producing his early albums. Browne could write of poignant and mournful loss, against larger cultural ideals, much like the Eagles would with Hotel California. Zevon went for the painful, jagged edges, colorful losers and adventures most of us wouldn’t want to experience, but find haunting and yet amusing.
Writer James Campion spent years collecting information, conducting interviews and developing Accidentally Like a Martyr, a book about Zevon, which I just finished. Campion is to blame for this blog.
I liked Zevon and collected his records, but I often failed to find the genius that others bestowed on his music. I liked the edge and grit in his songs, which ran counter to the slick and polished L.A. sound in which he swam.
His lyrics were clever, though I didn’t always get his symbolism and imagery. I did respect his vision and lack of conformity to the laid back L.A. music machine. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School was my favorite, though it was on the tail end of his commercial era. As he moved on and his audience also moved on, I actually found his music more accessible. Unfortunately, substance abuse, erratic behavior and the failure to adapt, reduced this music career and life to a lot of lonely miles on bad road.
Fellow singer-songwriter J.D. Souther said of Zevon, “And I think his stylistic writing, combined with that voice, made it just a little more difficult dish than some people were willing to taste, but it was always rich in nutrients, which made his songs sound very determined, and somehow, for me, it made his vulnerability all the more poignant.”
His second album, Excitable Boy earned Zevon a gold record and it reached number eight on the charts. That would prove to be his commercial high water mark until the end of his life. He continued writing and recording but he struggled with alcohol and drugs, and his career reflected it.
“Warren suddenly looked like he could have a big career and I’m watching him throw it away,” said guitarist David Landau.
Jackson Browne said he thought Zevon stopped working with him because he pointed out Zevon’s problem with alcohol. Zevon needed to be challenged, as a writer and in the studio, to make his best music.
Zevon was a favorite of talk show host David Letterman, who featured him many times in his late night shows, and even dedicated an entire show to him after he was diagnosed with cancer.
When Zevon found out he was dying, he worked tirelessly to finish his final collection of songs. He stared death straight in the eye as it ate his strength but not his soul. Zevon kept his sense of wry humor going as long as he could as the inevitable shadow of death overtook him. His final album, The Wind, was dying from his perspective. Many musical friends helped out including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, members of the Eagles and Emmylou Harris. Zevon worked on the album in spurts as his strength allowed.
VH1 also produced a documentary around the making of his final album, as death closed in around him.
After his Asylum recording contract ended in 1983, Zevon spent the next three years in an alcoholic fog. He recorded demos with member of R.E.M. but it wasn’t until 1986 that he signed with Virgin Records. A big investment by the record company and a more sober Zevon produced Sentimental Hygiene, a more straight-forward rock album. In the previous decade, the music industry had changed. The album didn’t chart very high, but the reviews were decent and he had rescued himself from the edge of oblivion.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s he release several albums, but each failed to sell, even as his writing gained a mature perspective and deepened insight.
After his contract with Virgin ended, Zevon went several years before signing with the independent label, Artemis Records, in 1999. Funny, after years in the music industry wilderness, he not only found a home with Artemis, but his manager had just negotiated a great contract with a big Hollywood management firm to jump-start his career. Life had other plans for him.
His more recent albums contained interesting ideas, and his songs though inconsistent, still had some of the bite of his early work, but the public’s interest in him had moved on. Songwriters respected him but his toehold with the general public was 20 years in the past.
Zevon played out the string for all it was worth. He lived in the moment, producing his last record, reconnecting with friends and family, and showing you could squeeze the last drops of nectar from life.
If it’s still the past
That makes you doubt
Darlin’, that was then
And this is now