Desperadoes, Gorillas, and Thompson Gunners: Remembering Warren Zevon
"The purpose of art is not to educate. The purpose of art is not to proselytize or sway the vote. There's something else for that, and that's fine, but it's not art. Not fine art. The purpose of fine art is to say, 'Gee, this planet's not so bad.' " -- Warren Zevon, 1995
September 7th is the fifth anniversary of Warren Zevon's untimely death of mesothelioma (a rather painful and usually terminal form of lung cancer which traditionally is associated with exposure to asbestos) at the age of 56. That's way too young by my calculations, and from what I've been reading of the biography that his ex-wife Crystal Zevon wrote (I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon), the man had a hard life; he was a tormented soul. Granted, a whole lot of it was self-inflicted pain, and his earlier alcoholism and substance problems didn't help his cause. Yet here is a man, creating such amazing yet perpetually under-appreciated music, both breathtakingly beautiful yet slyly wicked, bitingly sarcastic yet touchingly tender, angelic yet profane. The piano sequence in "Accidentally Like A Martyr" never ceases to fill my soul with gladness. I always smile at the wicked parting message he sends to an ex in "Finishing Touches". (I'll give you a quick clue about the linked video; the bleeped word rhymes with "rock".)
I got into Warren Zevon the same way most people do; I heard "Werewolves of London" on either WXRT or classic rock radio, decided to pick up his A Quiet Normal Life compilation CD, and was hooked. I regret never having been able to see him in concert. Like most artists who pass earlier than we expect they will, I thought I'd have another chance. I'll admit that there are some gaps in my Zevon catalog; I still need to get at least five more before I could have a complete collection. But even when he wasn't at his peak, his music always let you know the passion and intelligence of its maker. Plus, it was just damn fun to listen to. We didn't need to see what life in the gutter was like; Warren went there for us, and sent back letters of life in those trenches every time he released an album. But with songs like "Searching For A Heart", we'd discover beneath that veneer of hardened cynicism beat the heart of a romantic. His final CD, The Wind, is indispensible for everyone; most of his original suspects came back one last time to say goodbye in the best way they knew how: in song. I am fortunate to own VHS copies of not only the VH1 documentary chronicling the making of his last album, but also of his final appearance on David Letterman. Zevon and Letterman had a long history together; David had Warren on as his first-ever musical guest when he (David) started back in 1983. Zevon was promoting his newly-released LP The Envoy, and Letterman was greener than a shamrock. When Letterman went to CBS, his first musical guest was... Warren Zevon. When Paul Shaffer was out for any reason, Warren Zevon was a frequent substitute bandleader. And when it was announced that Warren was dying of cancer, David dedicated an entire evening's show to Warren, celebrating his life and music. It was to be Warren's final public performance, and it's so heart-wrenching to watch that it always gives me a lump in my throat. Recently, David told Rolling Stone magazine about what happened backstage after that show:
"Here's a guy who had months to live and we're making small talk. And as we're talking, he's taking his guitar strap and hooking it, wrapping it around, then he puts the guitar into the case and he flips the snaps on the case and says, `Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.' And I just started sobbing.
"He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show. I felt like, `I can't be in this movie, I didn't get my lines.' That was very tough."
Watch that show here on YouTube: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4. If there is ever justice in the world, this show and the VH1 documentary will be made available (again, in the documentary's case) on DVD for purchase. All proceeds could go to cancer research; I'd buy it.
If you don't own ANY Zevon yet, shame on you; buy yourself the excellent Genius compilation. From there, Excitable Boy is the popular one with great songs, the self-titled one from 1976 is great as well, I really like Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School, and give high marks to Mr. Bad Example and The Wind. So far, I'm halfway through his biography, and for those of you who already know Zevon's genius, I highly recommend that you read this book. There's an excellent long-form interview online with Warren which Goldmine magazine which was conducted in 1995, when Mutineer came out (permission is sadly not given to directly link it here, but if you click the first link on this Google search results page, you'll have it). And if you all could, please honor his final request: keep him in your heart for awhile.