A fitting soundtrack for our times, as the black, acrid smoke rises over the pyre of our civilization; at this point, what could be more on the money than this rollicking, hard-driving saga of long good parties coming to an end, being in the right place at the wrong time, and knowing when to cut your losses and get the hell out of Dodge?
Known to casual listeners mainly for Werewolves of London – a good enough song, but oh, how he must have grown sick of it – Zevon was one of those talents cursed, like Randy Newman, to appeal mainly to those who had more than their fair share of wits about them, didn’t balk at looking ugly truths in the face, and figured that sometimes it’s just as well to laugh as cry. Listen, it’s not easy conquering the charts as a Thinking Person’s Songwriter – you try getting to the top of the pops when your stock in trade is wry observation, sardonic commentary, and black humour – but he wasn’t a complete stranger to commercial success. His 1978 album Excitable Boy made it into the top 10 on Billboard, and covers by other artists earned him a fair stipend. It helped, of course, that he rocked as hard and as cleverly as he did, while sprinkling heartbreaking ballads amid the rougher numbers, like, say:
Again the parallel with Newman: Zevon wrote what passed for love songs only on condition that he got to play the lousy boyfriend. Self-aware, maybe, perhaps even sympathetic (especially when brought up short by one of those uncomfortable bouts of self-awareness), but lousy all the same. Anyway, romance, broken or not, wasn’t half as fun or interesting as, say, geopolitics, religion, crime, skullduggery, or clinical depression – the human condition embraced so many themes worth writing about, all of them, apparently, quite shitty, yet often hilarious as well. Why compose something along the lines of “I love you / yes I do / and I hope / you love me too” when instead you could start a song like this:
Hell is only half full
Room for you and me
Looking for a new fool
Who’s it gonna be?
It’s the Dance of Shiva
It’s the Debutantes ball
And everyone will be there
Who’s anyone at all
Gonna lay my head on the railroad tracks
I’m waiting on the double E
The railroad don’t run no more
Poor poor pitiful me
I went home with the waitress, the way I always do
How was I to know, she was with the Russians, too?
I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money, dad, get me out of this
It might not have lit up the charts, but it was the sort of catalogue that earned you a hard-core following, especially among his peers, who clamoured to record his songs and contribute to his albums as session players and back-up vocalists. He had fans in the broader show-biz community too, David Letterman, on whose show Zevon appeared often, most prominent among them. It was fitting, then, that it was during an appearance on Letterman, in 2002, that Zevon disclosed there was one last bitter truth to be faced: he was dying. Somehow, along the way, he’d contracted mesothelioma, an appalling and generally fatal respiratory condition brought on by exposure to asbestos, possibly during his childhood when he used to play in the attic spaces of his father’s carpet store. He told Dave that there was an upside, in that “they certainly don’t discourage you from doing whatever you want, it’s not like bed rest and a lot of water will straighten you out”, and gave the audience a very Zevon-esque prescription for seizing the day: “Enjoy every sandwich”. He was the only guest that night, and played a number of songs, including Mutineer, attached above, and Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a typically, er, eccentric number about a Norwegian national who becomes a mercenary, and finds himself in the thick of what became known as the Congo Crisis, a nasty African conflict of the 1960s in which the protagonist gets his head blown clean off, but remains in the fray as a vengeful ghost. Letterman’s request.
Afterwards, Dave spent some time with him backstage. This is him quoted in Rolling Stone:
After the show, it was heartbreaking — he was in his dressing room. We were talking and this and that. 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.
Likely nobody abhorred clichés more than Zevon, yet, as a close listen to his music made obvious, he personally embodied one of the oldest, the gentle soul with the wounded heart, hiding behind the brittle and cynical facade.
He lived just long enough to see the release of his final album, The Wind, which included contributions from Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Jim Keltner, T-Bone Burnett, and others. It’s final song was Keep Me in Your Heart, in which he wrote his own epitaph:
Sometimes when you’re doin’ simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while
No more laughing at fate, just sad acceptance, and the heart to exit with grace and dignity.