Keep Him In Your Heart: Swan Songs of the Late Great Warren Zevon
Life'll kill ya, Warren Zevon sang in one of his most grimly humorous songs — and it did. The grotesque multiplication of cells we know as cancer got him on September 7th, 2003, terminating the career of one of the sharpest, most unsparingly funny troubadours America has ever produced.
For anyone who equates Zevon simply with the accidental novelty hit that was 1978's "Werewolves of London," further delving into the man's back catalogue is hereby recommended in the strongest terms. And once you've heard the masterful case-studies of his Elektra-Asylum years ("The French Inhaler," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," and their incomparable like), progressed through his '80s stints on Virgin and Giant, and docked in the twilight splendour of his final albums for Artemis, you may be intrigued enough to read the oral biography that is I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.
I recently finished this hefty, un-put-down-able tome, assembled somewhat masochistically by Warren's second wife Crystal using an all-star cast of reminiscing friends, lovers, children and collaborators — together with the man's own diary entries. Painful as it was to see Zevon for what he was — a monstrously selfish genius whose obsessive compulsions and addictions (to alcohol first and then, for 17 years, to sex) hurt almost everybody he knew — the book made me understand why all those people tolerated him for as long as they did.
Briefly, Zevon first emerged as the fly in the laid-back ointment of '70s Los Angeles. A writer-arranger-for-hire, he was ruffling feathers in numerous studios long before his pal/patron Jackson Browne netted him a deal — and oversaw his astounding debut — in 1976. His drinking, coupled with a gun fetish that almost rivaled Phil Spector's, wreaked havoc with his professional prospects but never blurred the quality of his work or the keenness of a satirical edge that, in the context of the LA scene, was as bracingly intelligent as Randy Newman's or Steely Dan's.
Unlike the majority of his LA peers, Zevon was fearsomely well-read and witheringly intelligent. In an era of bland Californian hedonism he was a party-pooping Elvis Costello training a naked lightbulb on LA's noir underbelly. Most of the Laurel Canyon in-crowd, recognising he was effortlessly their superior, wanted to hang with him or sing his songs.
Like most of those SoCal peers, Zevon floundered in the '80s, a decade that was unkind even to singer-songwriters as august as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Despite the endorsement of fans from R.E.M. to crime novelist Carl Hiassen, not even hard-won sobriety could steer his career back on track.
Acting on a nudge from Jackson Browne, Artemis 'Danny Goldberg came to the rescue in 2000, just as Zevon was scuffling between demoralizing tours and the shabbier end of the corporate-gig market. Goldberg quickly saw the quality of the songs for Life'll Kill Ya, with their prescient investigations of death, disease and self-destruction, and paired him with grunge producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade.
As a comeback it more than stands up next to his '70s albums, full as it is of rich riffs and acerbic couplets that clutch at Zevon's dark view of human existence. From the unplugged thunder of the Bruce-ish "I Was in the House When the House Burned Down" to the uncanny (and blackly funny) premonition that is "My Shit's Fucked Up," Life'll Kill Ya never flinches from a kind of exhausted despair. "If I have a philosophy," Warren once said, "it's that life is a very rough deal, a very unforgiving game, but people kind of do the best they can."
Like Danny Goldberg, I don't much care for My Ride's Here. The production strains to sound contemporary and winds up merely sludgy; musically the songs lack grit and fire, even if "I Have to Leave" would have fit on Life'll Kill Ya and even if "Hit Somebody" (featuring David Letterman) is a funny song about a Canadian hockey goon incapable of doing anything bar sending opponents flying. The album was released just before Zevon was diagnosed with an inoperable lung cancer known as mesothelioma.
Which leaves Zevon's extraordinary last album, The Wind, recorded as he was not only dying but (forgivably) reverting to old mind-numbing behaviours — sort of akin to Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Roping in a crew of superstar fans (Springsteen, Browne, Henley, Petty, Cooder et al.), Zevon and his staunchest ally Jorge Calderon honed and filleted brave, death-shadowed songs like "Dirty Life and Times" and Dylan's "Knockin 'on Heaven's Door." To hear the anticipatory loss in such farewell songs as "Please Stay," "El Amor De Mi Vida" and "Keep Me in Your Heart" is almost unbearably sad.
"There's a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done," Zevon sings in "Keep Me in Your Heart," the album's final track. It's a truth we all know and a shadow that darkens all our days. To hear a man like Zevon staring his own death in the face is something that makes life worth living.