Open Up The Gates: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame May Not Deserve Him, But Let Warren Zevon In

During the interviews that comprised his fantastic memoir Hard To Handle, Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman recounted to Steve Hyden the night he worked on Warren Zevon’s The Wind.  After announcing to the world that he had mesothelioma in 2002, Zevon pledged to not only record his final album, but to see the next James Bond movie, and witness the birth of his grandchild. He hit that trifecta, even as the disease took everything including the sobriety he had fought so hard for. During his final year, Zevon joked that he had become the “travel agent for death.”  

In true Zevonian irony, he was covering “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” the night Gorman played with him. As he explained to co-author Steve Hyden, he was initially star struck that it was “Warren Fucking Zevon,” before witnessing how sick he actually was. The story didn’t appear in the book, but rather Hyden’s essay for The Ringer on Zevon.  However, Gorman has shared the anecdote for years in interviews, even before the Crowes broke up, calling it “the most incredible night” he’d even spent in the studio. Zevon may have been tongue-in-cheek when selecting the song, but by the end of it, the track was possibly the most earnest thing he’d ever recorded. When he improvised “open up” during the tune’s final refrain, it was clear that the intended audience was something far more divine than usual.

Hyden’s piece, published on the 15th anniversary of his passing in 2018, references the lonely pursuit of being in the “Zevon church” of fans. I proudly put myself in that group, but have found that it isn’t as lonely as Warren’s lyrics would suggest. Two years earlier, I wrote about Zevon’s glaring omission from even a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination for Glide and was overwhelmed by the response to the piece. The article received 72 comments in a matter of days and I quickly realized how many others belonged to this “church.” 

I received kind messages from Warren’s family and his long-time road manager and “aide de camp,” George Gruel.  I was offered many explanations as to why Zevon is still yet to get into the Hall and just as many assurances that it didn’t matter since the institution is a joke anyway. Last year saw the release of what I believe to be the definitive biography on Zevon, Nothing’s Bad Luck by C.M. Kushins. After reviewing the book, I had a chance to speak to Kushins on several occasions.  At first we talked only about Zevon, but discovered we shared other common interests as “Fans of Warren” so often do. When addressing the topic of the Rock Hall, Kushins echoed the common sentiment that Jann Wenner carries a grudge to this day.

Why, you ask?  When “Excitable Boy” became a hit in 1978, Wenner met Zevon backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  Zevon, whose alcoholism is now common knowledge, was a mess that night. Crystal Zevon’s book on her ex-husband recounts this as well. Any of the circulating concerts from that tour, which Zevon’s son Jordan has generously made available on, further reveal how deep Warren was into his drinking. Wenner allegedly decided to ban Zevon from the pages of Rolling Stone after their initial encounter. His Jack Wolz/Johnny Fontane-type vendetta seems more than little puzzling when you consider all the allegations made about Wenner’s behavior over the years. Critic Paul Nelson was able to finally get Zevon on the cover of the magazine with his now-infamous 1981 story “The Crackup And Resurrection of Warren Zevon.” The piece practically became Nelson’s Apocalypse Now and its eventually publication would end his Rolling Stone career.  

The article had a secondary title, “How He Saved Himself From A Coward’s Death,” which also referred to his alcoholism. Unfortunately, by the time it was published, Zevon had already relapsed and Nelson was even asked to participate in the intervention. In addition to bad blood with Wenner, Kushins also points to bad blood between Warren and Wenner’s Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame co-founder Bob Krasnow. In short, Krasnow wanted to rely on “new” talent after taking over at Zevon’s label Elktra/Asylum. This would not only apply to Zevon, who had become a niche act by this point, but even heavy hitters like Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The two were seen as “dinosaurs” by Krasnow and Henley (and his manager Irving Azoff) even sued Krasnow. Kushins’ book suggests that is why Henley and Frey have never been enshrined as solo artists and Zevon hasn’t even been nominated.  

I know this seems a little hard to follow and requires a leap of faith to accept, but the facts speak for themselves.  Even Azoff had become Hall of Famer this year, along with Jon Landau. Beyond being Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Landau is the chairman of the Hall’s nominating committee. Landau’s brother, David, also played guitar with Zevon on his landmark, yet typically overlooked live album, Stand In The Fire. The Springsteen-Zevon connection is significant and I dedicated a lot of space to it in my 2016 piece.  After its publication I received a message from “Amstercat” via the Backstreets (Springsteen fan community) message board. He recounted a backstage meeting with Landau in Milano:

“He was surrounded by people asking for pictures or autograph. I waited last and went over to him, and told him ‘Jon, I have a request for you. When are you going to induct Warren Zevon in the Hall of Fame?’ He laughed and took my hands and said ‘we’re working on it, it will happen.’ I kept his hands and said ‘You know that it’s up to you, you and Bruce are in charge for this one.’ He replied ‘You are obviously very aware of the legacy we have with Warren…’ I said: ‘Yes of course,’” implying also about David, and he said ‘yes, we feel we have a sort of moral obligation towards this.’ I told him ‘You have to do this, because Warren’s music has not crossed over to another generation… yet.’ He very friendly concluded on the same lines, saying that it’s on their priority list and they’ll work hard to make it happen.”

Yet Zevon has still not appeared on a ballot.  Only Jan Wenner truly knows why, but it’s undeniable that something has kept it from happening. Zevon was by all accounts horrified by his drunkeness upon first meeting Springsteen.  However, Bruce never seemed to hold Zevon’s demons on that night or any other against him. In another session for The Wind, Bruce dueted on “Disorder In The House,” which won a posthumous Grammy. You can see the session first-hand in the VH-1 documentary “Inside Out.” Springsteen had just played Indianapolis on and was scheduled to fly back to New Jersey for Christmas.  As Zevon recalled, “instead he chartered a plane and came to see me.”  You can see in the film how much the gesture meant to Zevon. When he passed away the following year, Springsteen paid tribute to him by performing “My Ride’s Here” to open his next show at the Skydome in Toronto.  He later offered the soundboard recording up for the posthumous Zevon tribute album, “Enjoy Every Sandwich.”  Before he began releasing shows officially, this was hardly the usual for Springsteen.

Springsteen hasn’t talked much about Zevon since inducting Jackson Browne into the Hall the following year.  Browne’s instrumental role in Zevon’s life is well-documented as well. During his speech, Bruce called Zevon and Browne the California version of Cain and Abel, and added “we miss you Warren.” 

Obviously, this was a passive-aggressive reminder of Zevon’s being ignored by the Hall. Bruce has always been very cognizant of the guys he passed by on his way to the top or those who didn’t make it. On his latest album, he sings extensively about it. Springsteen has always attempted to bolster Zevon’s legacy while Warren’s own demons were trying to tear it down. His 2020 release of “Janey Needs A Shooter,” which almost made two of his own albums, is also another nod to Zevon.  Springsteen revealed that he prepared this 50-year old song for release for a Record Store Day project a few years back before realizing it was too good to “give away.” The song became the impetus for an entirely new album.

I think Zevon would be more than proud.  When talking about their now well-documented “collaboration” his song “Jeannie Needs A Shooter,” Zevon said in told Graham Reid of the New Zealand Herald in 1992:

“There may be a whole other version of a song recorded with good musicians, and then I toss it out because I hear a whole other song with the same title.”

If you’ve never heard how Springsteen helped create two songs from the same demo, that’s the gist of it. The same year Zevon gave that interview, he was recording a solo live album Learning to Flinch. As I mentioned in my previous op-ed, this was the album that first exposed me to his work.  When I heard that voice booming amongst a raucous crowd, I knew I had to see him in person.  I did, the following year, but I didn’t know at the time that Warren couldn’t even afford to tour with a backing band, as this was during his “second comeback.”  Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone called it nothing more than an “unplugged” greatest hits album.  I won’t even dignify that characterization.  You can listen to the it yourself and decide if the magic I’m talking about is real, especially on one of the three new (take that, Rolling Stone) songs on that album, “The Indifference Of Heaven.”

Like so many of Zevon’s compositions, it’s about what Stephen King called “the clearing at the end of the path.” The story of mortality and morality takes place from the point of view of a shooter standing at the counter of a 7-11.  It’s one his best songs that (in its own words) “contemplate eternity.” Not only was Zevon battling for his career at the time, but he’d just endured a tough breakup, which is referenced in the song. But in the middle of all this (and the song itself), Zevon rues that “they say everything’s all right, they say better days are near,” they don’t live around here.  Who’s “they,” you ask?  Zevon name checks “Bruce and Patti.” He also references “Billy and Christie,” but we’ll ignore that.  There’s no evidence that Zevon was commenting on Springsteen’s decision to move to Los Angeles with his then-new wife. No one was more L.A. than Zevon, even if he represented the underbelly rather than the glitz.  But it’s hard not to imagine his looking at Springsteen at that moment while assessing his own career struggles.  Zevon and Springsteen have a little Cain and Abel thing going on, too.

Springsteen and Jackson Browne aren’t not alone in their constant championing of Warren.  When David Letterman subbed in for Neil Young to induct Pearl Jam to the Hall of Fame in 2017, he used his platform to state his wish that one day he could return for the induction of his “good friend Warren Zevon.” When Letterman received his Mark Twain Prize later that year, Eddie Vedder honored him by covering Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” from The Wind.  Pearl Jam later released the song as part of their annual holiday singles collection.  

When Eddie Vedder appeared on Howard Stern last Monday, he even played the song at Stern’s request.  He then shared a nice tidbit about Crystal putting aside a few of Zevon’s books, which she has been selling since 2017, for Vedder. It’s great to see Vedder join “the church” after being initially turned on to his music by Letterman.  Zevon was always a novelist as much as a musician and Stephen King even dedicated his sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep, to Zevon.  Zevon read as much as he wrote and his legendary collection is another way his legacy survives.  At this point, I could write twenty more pages and cite a bunch more notable figures who all think Zevon should be inducted.  Sadly, it won’t matter until the Hall itself gets over itself.

Jann Wenner finally stepped down from Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.  Could that open the door for a Zevon induction?  When HBO aired the aforementioned Letterman speech, the Zevon reference noticeably was taken out, so I wouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point.  We’ll see in 2021, I guess.  That seems to be a familiar refrain these days. 

Judd Apatow has also been keeping Zevon’s legacy alive since meeting him on The Larry Sanders Show.  COVID postponed it, but Warren Zevon’s Greatest Hits (According To Judd Apatow) finally came out for Record Store Day a few weeks back.  The second side draws extensively from Zevon’s other live album, Stand In The Fire.  That album, recorded at the Roxy in 1980, will also get a special release next year.  The vinyl-only remaster will include six previously unheard tracks from a stand of shows that allowed Zevon to prove his live prowess when sober.  The original album wasn’t a commercial success and was out of print for years.  I even had to order a cassette copy of it in the mid-90s.  It was finally put out on disc in 2007, with four extra tracks.  These songs were another true revelation.  “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” and “Play It All Night Long,” which were somehow omitted from the original album, give way to a pair of solo tracks which were clearly recorded at the end of one of the five performances it is culled from.  “Frank and Jesse James” reveals Zevon barely holding onto his voice, but still singing from the heart.  He then introduces “Hasten The Wind” by admitting how low he was when he wrote it.  

“Speaking as one who’s abused the privilege for a long time, it’s great to be alive.”

The last line of his New York Times obituary also echoed that sentiment.   “This was a nice deal: life.”  It may not be as catchy as “enjoy every sandwich,” but it’s a reminder that Warren Zevon wasn’t just the guy who wrote about death.  He sang about life and did it as well as anyone ever has, maybe better.  Even if Jann Wenner’s not the reason Zevon has been shunned, it’s long overdue.  Open up the gates and let him in, for fuck’s sakes.



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