On the anniversary of his passing, we look back at the life of Warren Zevon, one of the great under-appreciated talents of modern America. But as his friends, family, and lovers would attest, he could also be a total pain in the ass. He may be frightening, destructive, and distant at times. "He had tonnes of charisma, but when he didn't want people coming up to him, he had charisma in reverse," his ex-wife Crystal Zevon recalls. Until his children were grownups, he was a mostly absent father: "He had no language for dealing with children. As a teenager, I was angry that he wasn't there for me as a kid, angry at him for mistreating my mom, " Ariel, the daughter of Ariel and Crystal, states. And when he was drinking, he was almost unbearable: unpredictable, belligerent, emotionally absent, impossible.Embed from Getty Images
The hard-drinking, satire-spitting creator of cutting rock'n'roll songs like "Werewolves of London," the tune for which he is best known, is the Zevon who became a cult icon. But it's a sliver of the guy, and it doesn't explain why his admirers and friends flocked to him in the first place or why they still like him now.
Zevon was an artist's artist, relatively little known to the public but adored by the best of his contemporaries: Bob Dylan was a major fan. Tom Petty, Other fans included Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob Thornton and T Bone Burnett. Springsteen is quoted in Crystal Zevon's 2007 book, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon "[Warren] would write something that had real meaning, and it was funny, too. I always envied that part of his ability and talent. " Similarly, David Crosby said he was his all-time favourite songwriter.
Embed from Getty Images
When describing a musician's style, the conventional technique is to compare him to other musicians. But when it comes to Zevon, because his music is so highly literate and oriented toward storytelling, the more relevant similarities are with writers. "One thing I regret," adds his friend, Stephen King, "is that we never got a chance to collaborate on a song or story." In return, King dedicated his book, Dr Sleep, to Warren.
Hunter S Thompson was another literary acquaintance, and there were significant sensibility overlaps between the two men: their merciless satire, hard-living, and occasionally inexplicable dark humour. One time, Ariel Zevon and her father went to a concert in Colorado, where Thompson was waiting for them in his RV: "He invited Dad in, then ceremoniously draped some huge fancy cables around his neck and handed him a Taser. Who knows why? My dad dutifully wore the cables around his neck on stage and lit up the Taser."
"Warren was close to Thompson, and their work shared a certain twisted energy," agreed his close friend, writer Carl Hiaasen. "Warren, on the other hand, was a considerably more disciplined writer than Hunter. Warren was a stickler for detail. He agonised about his lyrics even when he was in his twenties and high as a kite."
Nonetheless, the Thompson similarities are inevitable when conjuring a man who wrote song openings such as: "Well, I'm gone to Detox Mansion / Way down on Last Breath Farm / I've been raking leaves with Liza / Me and Liz clean up the yard." A place for people to go to get their minds straightened up. To paraphrase another song's lyrics: "I went home with a waitress / The way I always do / How was I to know / She was with the Russians, too?" (Lawyers, Guns and Money). Or, of course: "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain / He was looking for a place called Lee Ho Fooks / Gonna get a big dish of chow mein." (Werewolves of London)
These are the huge, loud, humorous tunes for which Zevon is known. But for his friends, it is the slower, sweeter but still just as poetically skilled songs that show Zevon off at his best, such as Desperados Under the Eaves, which is one of the finest, coolest rock songs ever written, and Boom Boom Mancini which remains the coldest of cold views on the noble art.
Embed from Getty Images
"Dad's later music got smarter and had more wisdom with less craziness, but it never lost its dark humour," said Jordon, his son. "His albums are dense with stories and brilliant images," added King. For example, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner is less a 4-minute pop song than it is an epic war movie. And with The French Inhaler, he penned the most brutal of breakup songs which he aimed squarely at Marilyn Livingston, Jordan's mother: "When the lights came up at two / I caught a glimpse of you / And your face looked like / Something death brought with him in a suitcase / Your pretty face / It looked so wasted / Another pretty face, devastated." Jordan even remembers his mum playing him the track despite its subject matter. "Isn't that brilliant?' She knew he was a genius," he recalled. "He always fantasised about being a novelist, and I think that's why he had so many novelist friends," Crystal adds. "And, of course, the novelists all wanted to be musicians."
Embed from Getty Images
Zevon collaborated with Hiaasen and poet Paul Muldoon on a few tunes. (Muldoon also composed a posthumous poem about Zevon, Sillyhow Stride.) Rock Bottom Remainders, a group of writers including Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Scott Turow, had Hiaasen play a few times. He urged Zevon to do the same "Warren was just another member of the band. The rock guitar was something he enjoyed doing, but it wasn't something that he was very good at. He'd scream at me to play like Keith Richards while claw-hammering his guitar, "calls to mind King.
He was pleased to talk about music, but he preferred to talk about writers: his songs are loaded with references to Norman Mailer, Thomas MannByron and philosophy. "Warren expected you to keep up with him [intellectually]," adds Crystal. "The Carl Hiaasen's and Paul Muldoons were the folks he sought out. But these folks have families, and that's what Warren always yearned for, despite not acting that way."
Embed from Getty Images
A young Mormon mother and a middle-aged Russian-Jewish criminal father gave birth to Zevon in Chicago in 1947. (Warren later commemorated this unusual coupling in the charming Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded, a tune with a joyful rhythm but lyrics that speak of oncoming catastrophe.) In the early years of Warren's life, his parents separated, and the family moved to California, where he began to develop a love of classical music. Initially, Warren lived with his mother and her new partner, but his stepfather never veiled his dislike, calling him "a pansy" because he wore spectacles and played the piano. His mother didn't interfere to protect her son. So Warren, angry, fled to his father.
"A rough-edged little person, Warren's father was always there for his son. For his 14th birthday, however, this was a father who decided to give his son a prostitute, "Says Crystal, with a smirk. "Warren's later life was profoundly impacted by his chaotic upbringing as a child. Adulthood was a struggle for him since he was never content with what he had; he was always looking for something more, be it alcohol, sex, or women. There was always a part of him that sought security but also ran away from it. You can hear his entire life narrative in his music."
Zevon devoted himself to music from an early age with some success – one song, He Quit Me, was included on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy when he was 22 – and he was steadily acquiring a reputation among the LA music world as a control freak and, quite probably, a genius. He was employed as a musician for, of all odd bands, the Everly Brothers in the early 70s, by which point he had a son, Jordan, with his girlfriend Marilyn and was just about to fall for Crystal, who was then with a friend of Zevon's, guitarist Waddy Wachtel. The two of them parted up with their partners, and in 1974 they married.
"It was pretty instant that first time we saw each other – it was fast, romantic and happy," says Crystal. "'Would you do anything differently if you could go back?' is a common question. But I couldn't give any of it up, even if portions of it were incredibly terrible - maybe as much as it was really joyful. I'm not saying it wasn't a wonderful relationship."
The couple met Jackson Browne in the mid-'70s, and Browne was instantly enamoured with Zevon's music. "He was unique and, for that reason, I thought there was a chance he might not get a record deal," says Browne. He was right: David Geffen knew from the start that Zevon would never make him any money. But Browne so believed in Zevon's brilliance that he put himself and his money on the line and got Zevon the deal. Zevon's best-known tunes appeared on two of their albums. Ultimately, both Geffen and Browne proved out to be correct: establishing the pattern for Zevon's career, the albums sold modestly, but the reviewers liked them. 'His self-titled first album,' according to the New York Times, shows "Janet Maslin in Newsweek said that "Zevon is out to smash every stereotype in the Asylum bucket... It sounds like Zevon is trying to demolish every cliché in the Asylum trash." Zevon is a pop singer with a comedic detachment that is refreshingly rare."
Embed from Getty Images
As with Zevon's relationships, Browne and Zevon's relationship was periodically strained: "Working with him on the first record was exciting, but second albums are always more difficult. He was intoxicated when he arrived at the studio, which affected his ability to sing and remain focused, "Browne chimes in. "We only went on one tour with him, and he drank a lot. At one point, he puked off a balcony at a party the record company gave for us, which I believe was an indoor balcony. In spite of all that, his demeanour was always warm and kind to all who worked with him."
Aside from Zevon's increasingly crippling drinking, there was another problem: "Warren would never have been able to get a record deal if it weren't for Jackson, and he knew that and that created a tension," explains Crystal. As Browne himself wrote in, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: "My role as benefactor took its toll on our friendship."
Zevon made a vow to Crystal before Ariel was born that he would stop drinking after the birth of the baby. But in truth, his alcoholism intensified, and when he got drunk, he would sometimes turn aggressive with Crystal. Crystal finally left him after eight years: "I've always been in love with him. I left because he was playing with guns, because the drinking had grown so terrible and because I had a child. If I didn't have a child, I'm not sure I would have had the strength to leave. Both of us ended up marrying other people in the end, but that didn't stop us from keeping in touch and expecting to see one other again. "Crystal's voice is getting a little shaky as she speaks. "When I think of Warren now, I think of the good times because we had a lot of them."
In spite of his sustained musical output, Zevon's alcoholism worsened until 19 March 1986, when he declared his sobriety for the first time. Unfortunately, additional issues arose in their stead. Zevon had always suffered from obsessive-compulsive issues, but they had largely been covered up by substance usage. Now, they rose to the fore and, until he learnt how to manage him, almost overwhelmed him. But they also introduced him to Billy Bob Thornton, a neighbour and fellow suffering who proved to be a new buddy. Zevon approached him one morning at their mailboxes when he noticed Thornton carrying his post in and out of his box and remarked quietly: "Oh, so you have that too."
"Because we didn't know what it was for Warren, it would irritate me to hear him say, "Really, you have to wash your hands again?" when I saw Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. Because you had no idea what it was, it was also a little frightening. Because I discovered that fighting it was futile, I've learnt to accept things as they are. Crystal says so, as well."
Then there were the ladies, who, to a degree, took the place of booze for him. Zevon kept a diary throughout his life, and reading it now is like reading about a never-ending string of girlfriends and chance meetings (Hiaasen writes in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, "God only knows where he found the time to write songs,"). At first, he would stick to his new partners and savour the stability they gave – but then they would grow too close, or start talking about babies, or make him feel bad about his on-the-road philandering, and that was the end of it and on to the next one.
Embed from Getty Images
In the same way that all addicts have to deal with old cravings on a daily basis, King recalls that "I offered him a cigarette once and he just stared at it, like a bird hypnotised by a snake," "That was very clear to me, and I haven't done it since. The monsters that came in bottles and up straws were something that neither of us discussed. He was timid. Then again, so am I. To cope, I believe both of us turned to narcotics." At the same time that all of this was happening, Zevon continued to record records, meet new people and get closer to his children, including Hiaasen and King.
"When I was a kid, I don't think my father ever learned to deal with the guilt of not being there for me. Although he made atonement, I don't believe he truly made amends in his heart. "Ariel says this, as well. "However, when I went to college, things changed for the better for me and my family. Even after we parted ways, we were able to converse about literature and philosophy."
"In spite of his flaws, you always understood what was beneath. Musicians who are successful are often jerks, but my father is neither; he's been in the business for a long time and doesn't have time for nonsense. Sure, he had his shadow side, but he also had his rays of sunshine. He was a thorn in the side of many people, "adds Jordan, a musician in his own right.
All his life, Zevon was so frightened of cancer that he couldn't even pronounce the word. He'd avoided visiting a doctor for more than 20 years in case they told him something he didn't want to hear. However, by 2002, he could no longer deny that something was wrong, not even to himself. All of his concerns were confirmed: he had cancer, and he had months to live. He planned to spend them recording a last album, The Wind, and although falling badly off the waggon after the diagnosis, he managed to complete the record with the support of musical friends and admirers. "It was like This Is Your Life in the studio," jokes Jordan, who sang on the album.
Embed from Getty Images
Zevon had always composed songs that mentioned death, teasing the exact thing that terrified and attracted him: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Life'll Kill Ya, Don't Let Us Get Sick. Knock on Heaven's Door and Keep Me in Your Heart, two of his most poignant songs about mortality can be found in The Wind. "Sometimes when you're doing simple things around the house / Maybe you'll think of me and smile / You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on the blouse / Keep me in your thoughts for a while."
As Zevon prophesied, it would become one of his most critically hailed albums, but he barely lived to witness the plaudits: two weeks after the album was released, he died on 7 September 2003. "What I miss most is calling him up to tell him about something and relying on his weirdly cryptic perspective," says Ariel. "Though not always useful, I often hoped I could get him to answer my questions in the more typical fatherly manner. But now, I miss it, and I'm always imagining what he would have to say about certain topics." "It blows me away to think he's been gone 10 years," adds Hiaasen. "I can still hear the message machine's loud, gravelly voice in my head. He has the potential to be a hassle. But who doesn't have demons? Warren's pals kept loyal because he was such an exceptional presence in all our lives, his warmth and humour. Simply put, I'm pleased that I had the opportunity to meet him."
"His songs were full of humanity and wit. I've memorised more of his songs than anyone else's "Addition made by Browne. "I think of him all the time – and that's because those songs live on."