Warren Zevon’s been dead for a few years, but I’m not so sure anyone has told him.
Zevon was hardly an iconic member of the music industry. He remains largely unknown to the public, aside from the lamentable novelty recording “Werewolves of London,” his signature song detailing what appears to be a dapper werewolf hanging about in SoHo. This, clearly, was a story that needed to be written down, accompanied with lyrics and catchy piano samples.
Zevon was somewhat of a prankster musician, writing tales of quirky individuals and offbeat topics; his repertoire included since timeless singles as “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” He stretched his creative masterpieces to deal with such diverse topics as alcoholism (“Desperadoes Under the Eaves”); drug addiction (“Charlie’s Medicine”); divorce (“Empty-Handed Heart”); rape (“Excitable Boy”); lawyers, guns, and money (“Lawyers, Guns, and Money”); and, to knock on all the doors at once, suicide, abuse, and sadomasochism (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”). Once presumes had he ended just one day of his life smiling his head would have collapsed out of sheer lack of originality.
A product of the 70’s California music scene, Zevon’s relationship with the Los Angeles music industry was tenuous at best. When his addictions and proclivities prevented him from maintaining a stable work ethic, he withdrew in a sweaty pool of drug-addled resentment, calling the stars of the era friends while simultaneously burying an emberous jealousy he kept bottled up and eventually converted into another chartless song, no doubt about addiction to stimulants, or, perhaps as a creative change of pace, addiction to depressants. (When your high-water benchmark for success is tied to the achievements of Jackson Browne, you know you’ve sunk to a rather low artistic point.) As such, he gained only modest hits from time to time, and much of the 80’s and 90’s was spent on cheap, low-key solo appearances to pay the bills, the bulk of which I doubt involved receiving an actual W-2 at the end of the year.
Zevon was, of course, hailed as a genius within the music industry itself. The artists participating in his albums read like a Who’s Who Of People Winning The Awards You Probably Could Have Won Had You Kept Yourself From Getting Boozed Up All The Time, You Irresponsible Prick. Luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Neil Young, and members of R.E.M., Pink Floyd, and The Grateful Dead all collaborated with Zevon, with mountains and mountains of highly original material that never had a chance of ever making any money or charting on any charts.
Early in life, Zevon apparently stumbled across (one presumes in Michael Hutchence’s billfold) a checklist of incredibly hedonistic things to do to reinforce the image of the wild-man musician. He was a notorious womanizer, consumed more drugs than the rabbit warren at Pfizer, and treated ex-wives and associates with detached disdain. Humorously, he also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, an affliction he shared with (of all people) Billy Bob Thornton, his neighbor. One can imagine how THAT dinner conversation goes:
Zevon: I wash my hands sixteen times a meal, the number of original albums I’ve released.
Thornton: I open and close my mailbox twenty-five times, the number of movie releases I have starred in.
Zevon: I once injected horse tranquilizers in my rectum.
Thornton: I once drank a cocaine milkshake.
Zevon: I once had a threeway with Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown.
Thornton: Angelina Jolie reaches climax when I recite dialogue from Pushing Tin.
Zevon: I am scared of certain shades of fuscia.
Thornton: I’m afraid of antique furniture and silverware.
Zevon: Cool. Coffee?
Thornton: Yes, please. In three cups filled four-fifths of the way. Two and a half sugars, .25 liters milk, 4%.
OCD, of course, was the least of Zevon’s worries. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer, something that almost went undetected. Zevon was scared of doctors, so never went to them, and even after he found out about his cancer refused pretty much all treatment, deciding instead to do his most important creative work to date: filling in for Paul Schaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman. Oh, and recording some material, as well.
Despite his rather irresponsible lifestyle, he managed to keep his wit. Well, sort of. When you’ve spent a large portion of your life swimming in and out of alcohol, powder, and patented prescription drugs bought out of your pharmacist’s trunk, when you get the news that you’re terminal it’s Katy bar the door. With little repercussions, he spent his last years recording material, ingesting pills, and gaining limited respectability in the public’s eye, not necessarily in that order.
Zevon epitomized one of the greatest contradictions of classic rock. Most of his singles dealt in the abyss of his own character flaws, using music to either legitimize or eradicate them. And yet, unusually for the genre, the songs themselves are rather cheery and pleasant to listen to, something that forces you to drive 90 on the highway instead of sitting in the dark corner of the gym feeding off of your own self-pity at the high school dance. One of his final acts was to bless his ex-wife’s project, the recently released biography of himself, dictating to her that it show all sides of him, positive and negative, a rather tall order to give an ex-wife. Zevon, however, found hopeless escape in his music, as do we.