The morning was soft with early light filtering through the trees, the dog was leading the way on a well-worn path and I was balancing in my head a dead German philosopher and a dead American songwriter.
They weren’t fighting in the captain’s tower as Bob Dylan had Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot doing in Desolation Row. One was in mild, fatalistic agreement with the other.
The philosopher was Arthur Schopenhauer (born a week after Arthur Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove). The songwriter was Warren Zevon (born in Chicago in 1947, the son of a bookie with gangster connections).
Zevon’s only real hit was Werewolves of London; a novelty song, yet it displayed his morbid sense of humour, a strong line in narrative and imagery and a beautiful gift of melody.
How they came to be there was purely word/music association. I’d just heard Werewolves of London on the radio (“Little old lady got mutilated late last night, werewolves of London again”) and was thinking of the literary qualities of such a simple line – the alliteration, the internal rhyme and rhythm. Zevon was a master of the literary quality of a lyric. It’s not surprising that he had a library of more than 1000 books, and counted writers such as Carl Hiaasen and Hunter S. Thompson as friends.
It’s also not surprising that he could quote Schopenhauer, as he did in the filming of his final album The Wind: “We buy books because we believe we’re buying the time to read them.”
Zevon, then with only months to live, zeroed in on time the conqueror, to borrow from Jackson Browne. The full quote is: “Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents”.
Time ended for Zevon on September 7, 2003. He was 56. The book closed. There would be no more new songs. And now, it’s been 15 years, and 40 years since Werewolves of London was released, from the album Excitable Boy.
In idle moments, such as an early morning walk, you can miss what might have been. Snatches of songs flow in and out: “Time marches on/ Time stands still……
All life folds back/ Into the sea/ We contemplate eternity/ Beneath the vast indifference of heaven.”
I became aware of Zevon through Excitable Boy even though he had been in the business since he was teenager, had released two albums before Excitable Boy and written songs that had become hits for Linda Ronstadt, such as Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.
Zevon’s only real hit in his entire career was Werewolves of London. It was a novelty song yet it displayed some of his strongest traits, a morbid sense of humour, a strong line in narrative and imagery and a beautiful gift of melody. It was also described by guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who played on it, as “the hardest song to get down in the studio I’ve ever worked on. The recording of Werewolves of London was like Coppola making Apocalypse Now. It took seven bands to record.”
While it was issued early in 1978 overseas it didn’t come to notice in Australia until mid-year, appearing on the 3XY charts in June, backed with Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. It hung around for about six weeks and then faded away, which was a presage for Zevon’s chart success, or non-success.
In 1978, Zevon was competing against the likes of the Village People, Barry Manilow, Sweet, Johnny Mathis, Raydio, Boney M, Supercharge, Ted Mulry and John Paul Young. This was not a time for the literate to be storming the charts (if it ever is).
It did, however, give him the breakthrough to a wider audience. People could hear a more representative song of his on the B side. It was Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, which sat comfortably with Lawyers Guns and Money, Johnny Strikes Up the band and Accidentally Like a Martyr.
After the high, came the lows and a pattern that defined his career. His was the classic case of loved by critics, shrugged off by the masses. He was championed by Jackson Browne, who opened doors for him to recording executives. For many years Zevon album covers carried the line “Thanks always to Jackson.”
Zevon needed friends because among all the creativity, was a wrecking ball of destruction and addiction, which eventually led to rehab, getting clean and a song, of course, Detox Mansion.
He was equally at home writing observational pieces as well as personal. He was a writer who sung the story. With just an opening line, you were hooked:
‘’Grandpa pissed his pants again”
“He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam.
“Sweet home Alabama”
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long.
“Daddy’s doing Sister Sally
Grandma’s dying of cancer now
The cattle all have brucellosis
We’ll get through somehow.”
A particular joy of his work is hearing words that have never, you can safely bet, been rarely used in song: As in his scathing portrayal of Elvis Presley:
“Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lame/
That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet …
“Left behind by the latest trends
Eatin’ friend chicken with his regicidal friends.”
Carl Hiaasen said that the “most intimidating thing about him was the breadth of his intellect. A prodigious reader, he could talk knowledgeably about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Mickey Spillane, all in the same conversation. Likewise, a casual chat about music could carom from Radiohead to Brian Wilson to Shostakovich, at which point all I could do was nod and pretend I understood what the hell he was talking about”.
Zevon began to feel ill in 2002, so as was his custom, he asked his dentist, who advised him to see a doctor. The diagnosis was pleural mesothelioma; the prognosis was bad. He went to work.
His last album The Wind is a journey through his final “numb as a statue” days and a goodbye to those he loved. Some of the lights of music played on it in his darkness, including Bruce Springsteen.
Irony being one of Zevon’s strongest suits, in 2000 he released the album Life’ll Kill Ya. It, with its successor My Ride’s Here (2002, before the diagnosis) and The Wind, form a brilliant trilogy of melody merged with mortality. He covers Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and you can feel his constricted breath against the wood, his hand upon the handle. He adds the words “open up, open up” over the music and you know art has truly met life – and death.
Zevon would appreciate the irony that the only award of his life was posthumous. He received a Grammy for best contemporary folk album for The Wind in 2003 and another for best track with Disorder in the House from the album.
So, it’s been 15 years and I miss what might have been. Time marches on and hastens us down the wind, but yet even in a walk we can remember his music – and time stands still.