Thirteen years ago today (Sept. 7), The Music lost one of its most extraordinary songwriters. So this week, I will Muse upon the works of Warren Zevon.
I think I read about Zevon before I heard him — probably a record review in 1978, the year that he released his third album, “Excitable Boy.” (That was at the time when I had drifted out of the orbit of Radio Free Madison [Wis.], and didn’t hear as much new music as I had a few years earlier.) The piece made a reference to the line “he smeared the pot roast all over his chest,” from the album’s title track; I thought, “this sounds interesting.”
I didn’t run right out and buy the album, but Zevon’s songs started showing up on FM radio, either performed by the artist himself or covered by others. Hearing the rest of the song “Excitable Boy” took me from the laughably weird (the smeared pot roast) to the darkly disturbing (the movie theatre usherette’s bitten leg, the prom date gone horribly wrong).
The hits and the other songs that got FM radio airplay also tended toward the strange, most notably “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Werewolves of London.” An inveterate album cover reader, I noted other Zevon compositions on LPs that I recorded on cassette or otherwise heard.
Those songs kept rattling around in my head, and after the CD revolution began, I picked up a copy of “Excitable Boy.” There I found that Zevon wasn’t just a writer of weird and jaundiced lyrics; there were not-quite-straight-up rockers (“Nighttime in the Switching Yard,” “When Johnny Strikes Up the Band”), a slightly off-kilter love song (“Accidentally Like a Martyr”) and a poignant, historical ballad (“Veracruz”).
“Excitable Boy” was a critical and commercial success, but Zevon’s work in the subsequent 25 years tended more toward the former and less the latter. Part of the reason for that could have been fairly-frequent changes in record labels, in turn perhaps the result of the artist’s battles with substance abuse and other demons.
Commercial success of his or her own recordings is only one measure of a songwriter’s craft. Another gauge is how other artists vote with their studio time and space on their albums, and Zevon got the respect of being covered by a number of other performers, particularly Linda Ronstadt.
The Arizona songbird wrote few, if any, of the songs that helped her sell more than 100 million records and earn 11 Grammies. She usually had impeccable taste in the artists she covered, though, and those selections included four by Zevon: “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and “Mohammed’s Radio.”
In Zevon’s case, as often happens when I Muse upon The Music, I learn things about artists I didn’t know. His backstory helps explain the darkness of some of his work, his interest in film noir and detective fiction, his musicianship and also his gentler side.
His father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia (birth name Zivotovsky) who worked as a bookie and was an associate of mob leader Mickey Cohen; his mother’s family were Mormons. Zevon hung out at the home of Igor Stravinsky and studied modern classical music for a time, and started his performing career in high school.
But he soon dropped out of school and moved to New York City, with the aim of being a folk singer. That didn’t happen, but Zevon wrote commercial jingles and worked as a session musician.
Zevon’s compositions starting turning up in the culture, songs he wrote being performed by the Turtles and used in motion picture soundtracks (including “Midnight Cowboy”). He was part of the Everly Brothers live band, playing keyboards and serving as bandleader and music coordinator, and also performed with the brothers after they split and tried to start solo careers. (Little Susie in “Excitable Boy” is believed to be a callback to the subject of the Everlys’ song of the same name.)
After his solo career initially stiffed, Zevon went to Spain and performed in a club owned by a former mercenary, who helped him pen “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” When he returned to the U.S. and started to have artistic and commercial success, he drew the friendship and musical support of people like the members of Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Jackson Browne and others.
Zevon became good friends with TV show host David Letterman, made regular appearances on his Latenight program and sometimes subbed for the show’s bandleader. He also served as musical coordinator and sometime guitarist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band made up of writers, including syndicated columnist Dave Barry and novelist Stephen King.
But Zevon also struggled with alcoholism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (collecting identical Calvin Klein t-shirts was his hangup). In the end it was a form of lung cancer, mesothelioma — and his neglect of routine medical care — that brought him down.
His condition was terminal from the time of diagnosis, but Zevon handled his demise with the attitude one would expect of him. After admitting that he “might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years,” he offered this observation on impending death: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Zevon did get to enjoy the birth of twin grandsons before he passed, and also saw the release of his final studio album, “The Wind.” That work earned him the most commercial success he seen since “Excitable Boy.”
All in all, an extraordinary artist who lived an interesting life. And someone more of whose music I will have to add to my collection.