“I like to have a good time, and I don’t care who gets hurt.”—“Mr. Bad Example,” 1991
If you mention the name Warren Zevon to someone, they usually give you a look that indicates that they have no idea whatsoever who he is or that they know him as the “Werewolves Of London” guy. His music is admittedly an acquired taste for most. But his crusaders, supporters, fans, and nut jobs (present company included), are all of a similar vein. To quote one of his many underrated later songs, their shit was also fucked up. Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen King, David Letterman (he filled in on more than one occasion as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was away), Carl Hiaasen, Jackson Browne, Judd Apatow, and Bruce Springsteen all possess Zevon’s outlaw iconoclasm. His audience could be the biggest cult this side of Parrotheads and much like Jimmy Buffett (also a Zevon confidante), Warren has never even been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not even fucking nominated! But, while Buffett has maximized (and monetized) his niche beyond his wildest dreams, Zevon was only afforded a victory lap after his lung cancer was detected in 2002.
It was cruelly ironic that a guy who sang so often about moral frailty, physical illness and mortality had to publicly take that walk towards what Stephen King called in The Dark Tower “The Clearing At The End Of The Path.” Then again, maybe his fate was pretty fitting. When he sat down with Letterman for an episode of The Late Show in which he was the only guest, Zevon admitted that he had intentionally avoided doctors for years. But after refusing treatment, Warren was able to end his life as he lived it—on his own terms. When asked by Letterman what lessons he’d pass on as he looked death in the face, he simply responded “enjoy every sandwich.” That became the title of an excellent tribute album to be released after his death. His own final album, “The Wind,” included collaborations with many of the same artists and the VH-1 documentary “Keep Me In Your Heart” chronicled its creation. Somehow, as Zevon shared with the New York Times in 2003, he became “the travel agent for death.”
Yet somehow Warren William Zevon has never even sniffed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004, I took to the pages of Glide to plea for a re-examination of Lynyrd Skynrd. Fortunately, that injustice was rectified two years later. Had Cheap Trick not just been inducted this year, I might have considered authoring a similar piece about them. But Zevon’s absence from even the ballot is the most egregious omission of all. The closest Warren has come was when Springsteen mentioned him as Cain to Jackson Browne’s Abel when he inducted Browne in 2004. He was intimating that Zevon was represented the dark side of the singer-songwriter persona of the 1970s. As usual, the Boss hit the nail on the head.
The longevity of “Werewolves Of London” doesn’t seem to have done Zevon many favors, either. Even though the lyrics contain all of his characteristic black comedy, the song was more of a millstone around his neck than anything. There was a classic episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Warren discussed the burden of always having to play it on television. He also had a genius turn on two episodes of HBO’s much-less celebrated Dream On as well. Springsteen, as usual, was really on to something when he hinted at Zevon being the evil version of Jackson Browne. Browne performed with Zevon in 1976 and produced his “breakthrough” album Excitable Boy. Yet, Warren said and did things that do not lend themselves to mainstream success. In many ways he was the rock n’ roll version of Hunter S. Thompson. His logo was a skull in aviator shades smoking cigarettes. His second biggest hit was entitled “Lawyers, Guns, And Money,” for Christ’s sake.
These attributes are part of what makes Zevon so appealing, but also what kept him out of the mainstream. His songs were all authentic. The characters he created seemed like they could all be stand-ins for him. The ones that weren’t were just the product of his awesome writing and delivery. The baritone of his voice was the linchpin of that delivery. When he sang, you knew he wasn’t fucking around. If NFL Films’s John Facenda was the “Voice Of God,” then Warren Zevon was the rock n’ roll equivalent. Of course, he was hardly pure, so maybe Bruce was onto something in his aforementioned speech. Warren Zevon was the voice of something else. He represented the outlaw in all of us. As “Mr. Bad Example” sang, “I’ like to have a good time and I don’t care who I cross.”
In his speech, Springsteen referred to Jackson Browne’s songs as the one’s he wished he’d written. Warren Zevon’s songs could all have only been written by him. One of Bruce’s many discarded tracks from the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions, “Janey Needs A Shooter” was eventually given to Zevon after he heard the title from Bruce’s manager. Springsteen even helped him finish the track and it later appeared on Zevon’s 1980 LP Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and there are many great live versions of the track online.
Zevon wasn’t an easy guy to collaborate with. His ex-wife Crystal’s book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead tells all. According to Crystal, that’s just what he asked her to do when he was diagnosed. Even Jackson Browne, who put his own money up to get Zevon recorded, said in the book that his role as benefactor took its toll on their friendship. Needless to say, the hard drinking and physically destructive guy in his songs wasn’t purely fiction.
The Grateful Dead would seem to be appropriate conspirators for Warren’s peculiar brand of mischief. They covered “Werewolves” shortly after its release and had Zevon open for them at UC Santa Barbara for one of Bill Graham’s many multi-artist bills featuring the Dead. There are some nice photos that survive of that day (one with Phil Lesh smiling over Zevon’s shoulder) of Warren decked out in a sweater and collared shirt sitting at the piano. But his appearance hardly went over well. On the surviving audience recording, it’s clear that Zevon was once again very drunk. He is goading the sound crew and crowd from the get go. He gives the audience a big “AH OOO!” even though he doesn’t play the corresponding song until the end of the show. During his band introductions, he goads the crowd with “I guess you applaud louder when you peak.” Before finally playing “Werewolves,” Zevon jokes to the crowd that even though they are “fucking acid casualties” and “vegetables,” they can still sing along. He goes on to introduce Bonnie Raitt as a guest vocalist, even though the audience “doesn’t deserve her.” As he often did, he pointed out his road manager, George Gruel, and told the crowd that he see that all drugs were “properly disposed of.”
George Gruel is still keeping Warren’s spirit alive today. His book, Lawyers, Guns, & Photos: Photographs and Tales of My Adventures With Warren Zevon, is a must-read. He also helped with a tribute concert earlier this month to promote not only Zevon’s music, but the issue of asbestos awareness. In another ironic twist that seemed typically Zevon, his cancer (despite popular belief) wasn’t the result of a lifetime of smoking. The carpet store owned by his father that he sang about in “Mr. Bad Example” was filled with asbestos. During his famous final Letterman appearance, Zevon pointed out that mesothelioma was also what killed Steve McQueen. While the excellent new documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans suggests that the old protective racing suits may have affected the famous actor, it was Warren’s years of rehearsal in the attic above his dad’s store that led to his sickness. George and Warren’s son Jordan are doing everything they can dissociate mesothelioma from the late-night ambulance chaser commercials that populate our airwaves.
Of the Santa Barbara show, George confirms that there were “tons” of drugs to be confiscated that day. If anyone would like a copy of the show, I’d be happy to pass it on. As a veteran of 138 Dead shows, I can attest that the opening band wasn’t often afforded a real opportunity to shine. Of course, this didn’t offend the Dead one bit and they chose Warren to open for them again in 1980 for their official 15th anniversary shows in Boulder and Phoenix. Gruel’s greatest memory of those shows was getting to hang out with his former roommate, Bob Weir (George lived with him before his Zevon adventures). Jerry guested on Zevon’s 1989 Tranverse City album and Zevon appeared on the 1991 Deadicated tribute disc. Ironically, he and David Lindley chose to cover “Casey Jones,” which is the Dead’s equivalent to “Werewolves Of London.”
Zevon’s misguided attempts at joking Deadheads wasn’t unusual for him onstage. I wore out a bootleg from Georgetown in 1979 (which I haven’t been able to find digitally if anyone has a lead) where he threatens to shoot a constant heckler. It seemed like every time he was presented to another band’s audience, it became clear that the only one that appreciated him was his own.
I count myself proudly among that group. I first “got” Zevon in 1994 after hearing his “unplugged” live album, Learning To Flinch. I found myself partying in a random girl’s apartment in Albany during its annual LarkFEST. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was right in the middle of a typical Warren Zevon scene. As the chords to “Splendid Isolation” shot through a pair of cheap speakers, I was immediately struck by the pictures this powerful voice painted. Like the song’s subject, I also lived on the Upper East Side and wanted to never go down the street. Michael Jackson being led by Goofy through the world of self was typically insane Zevon imagery. He was the ultimate storyteller, which is why the best writers of the page, song, and screen admire him so much. He could even interpret other artist’s words to perfect. His cover of “Raspberry Beret” with the majority of R.E.M. (“Hindu Love Gods”) is fantastic, although Prince’s management had it pulled from the web even before his untimely death.
I saw Zevon live the following year at Irving Plaza. As the linked New York Times review mentioned, he was backed up by an Irish band, Something Happens, that night. As a result, I felt like I wasn’t getting to see the real Warren. Luckily, I saw him twice in 1999 at the same venue without any accompaniment. The show opened with my favorite song “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” (which was used as the title for an underwhelming film) and was a monster all the way through. He was supporting his album Life’ll Kill Ya, which remains as underrated as Zevon himself.
The last time I saw him in concert was at the Bowery Ballroom with Jill Souble opening up. As he did throughout that tour, he joined her onstage for a duet of her hit “I Kissed A Girl” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson.” It was the night before St. Patrick’s Day and the crowd was pretty rowdy. During “Werewolves,” a guy ran on the stage and a fight broke out. Zevon calmly looked at the audience and said “I bet this never happens at Sting concerts.” While I’m sure the incident would have prompted a different response from a younger and drunker Zevon (he got sober in 1986) , but it was a perfect Warren moment nonetheless. I brought my then-girlfriend to the show that night after raving about what an underrated genius Zevon was. After waking up in my Avenue A studio completely naked the following morning, she told me she now got it. Once again, I found myself in the middle of a scene from one of his songs. That girl and I have been married going on thirteen years with two amazing kids who are constantly surprising us.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw Zevon. I was all set to see his next Bowery show, but the date was shortly pulled from his website. Soon thereafter, Zevon revealed his illness to the world. Mr. Bad Example” sang that he’d live to be a hundred and go down infamy, but the tune’s final line seems more apropos.
“I’ll see you in the next life, wake me up for meals.”
Earlier this year, Judd Apatow and Jackson Browne put on their own Zevon tribute concert in Los Angeles, which included artists like Souble. Fortunately, the setlist was filled with deep cuts and avoided “Werewolves” entirely. Apatow’s use of “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” during the spin the bottle game in Freaks and Geeks remains one of the best uses of Warren’s music. But somehow, Zevon can’t even get on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. He’s on every “Top 10 Omissions” list. Maybe not being in there is the most Warren Zevon thing that could happen to him. In fact, “Mr. Bad Example” described this very type of institution in song:
“Where very few are chosen, and fewer still are called.”
Fuck that. Rectify the travesty. Induct Zevon.