Warren Zevon: time stands still

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.

LPExcitableBoy-2

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”

And then:

“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.

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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.

20 responses to “Warren Zevon: time stands still

  1. “He ain’t dead, he’s just asleep,” Sang Bob Dylan on his 1975 recording of Joey, released 1976. As that was happening, Warren Zevon was singing, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and indeed, it has come to pass. What a guy! When you go over what he did, amazing experiences, moments and qualities abound, but at the same time not everything he did was laudable. Let us remember the good.

    I feel 1995’s “Mutineer” is one of his best… so very creative and bold, ten albums in, fourth before last, and the quality is par excellence. Junk bond kings, piano fighters, rottweilers and outlaws, well before any knowledge of the mesothelemia, Mr. Z was addressing mortality; “Going to a party in the centre of the earth- Honey, don’t you want to go?”

    (Buying books may not be buying time anymore than writing books buys readership, but the desire to read, the knowledge of that ability, the desire to entertain and the ability to do that originally~ these are sparks aeternal.)

  2. I’ve listed to his music for the last 40 years or so. I still laugh at “Mr Bad Example” and cry at “Keep me in your heart for a while”. Yes, I want that one at my funeral too, with the benediction “Don’t let us get sick”. We miss you Warren.

  3. The French Inhailer is one of his best….”I thought you’d be a star/ so I drank up all the money” …breaks my heart everytime I hear it.

  4. Warren was a Genius!
    I too saw him at the Universal in Fitzroy all those years ago and was very priviledged to do so
    Best lyricist ever
    So clever and prescient – could make you laugh and cry in the same song
    Songs like The Envoy – could be written about the middle east now
    Hs songs chnronicled his life – like no other singer songwriter – I will sleep when I am dead, Mr Bad Example, My Shit is fucked up….
    Brilliant!!
    Thanks for the article

  5. I will argue to the death that Werewolves of London was his only hit… in the U.S. he was yuuuuge. Miss him so much, music still cherished.

  6. The best rock auto biography I have ever read ” I’ll sleep when I’m dead” written by his ex wife
    Saw him in FItzroy at the theatre next to the old 3rrr studio in the early nineties in front of 80 people
    Great show
    There’s lots of stuff from his frequent appearances on letterman on youtube

  7. Keep Me in your Heart for a while is the song I want at my funeral…..it’s the song everyone should want at their funeral.

  8. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any of his American songwriting peers bettering “Accidentally Like A Martyr”. Except for Warren Zevon himself, with “Veracruz”.

  9. Patty Hearst heard the burst,
    Of Roland’s Thomson gun and bought it…..

    Encapsulates so many feelings and ideas…..same throughout his songs

    Send lawyers, guns and money…..the shit has hit the fan

  10. I was pretty much still a tragic hippy ’till Mr Zevon came along, I’ll credit him with much of the attitude problem I still have at 62. Thanks Warren, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”.

  11. I loved his self titled album to death. Hasten Down the Wind, French Inhaler, Mohammed’s Radio, Carmelita. I cannot think of the one that has the line “And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will,
    I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.” So much talent.

    1. My fave song but perhaps my fave line is:
      I can saw a woman in two
      But you won’t want to look in the box when I do
      I can make love disappear
      For my next trick I’ll need a volunteer

      From the somg
      For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer

    2. Rockpicker! Can’t believe I forgot to mention the wonderful “Desperadoes Under The Eaves”…
      So much stellar songwriting and performing choose from.

  12. Thanks Warwick for your reflections on Warren Zevon.

    I came across him from listening to Linda Ronstadt. Really enjoyed his titled view on life. So much more insightful than the everyday mantra on life.

    I don’t have the exact quote but at a time when he knew he was dying, he was interviewed and said something about life to the effect of “enjoy every ham sandwich” which has stayed with me. Consequently, I enjoy even the mundaneness of life (my ham sandwich) thanks to Warren Zevon.

  13. Timely article Warwick. I think about Warren Zevon from time to time and wonder where he would have been if he survived. What would people make of songs like Mohammed’s Radio or Carmelita today? Wonderful songs.

    1. I can say as a 17 year old boy that his music today is still very much loved today. I listen to him every day and obsess about him more than anything.

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