Doomed Rocker’s Swan Song Is Fitting Epitaph
If doctors diagnosed you with a terminal illness and only gave you about three months to live, what would you do?
Spend more time with family and friends? Contemplate your life? Travel to places you always wanted to go? Relax and enjoy the time you had left? Immerse in self-pity ‘cause life’s dealt you a cruel hand?
Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon, 56, who first emerged on the rock music scene 27 years ago, was faced with that dismal dilemma last summer when doctors told him he had mesothelioma — a rare form of lung cancer. But that three months is now a year. His health deteriorated, but not before he was determined to do what he does best and enjoys most — writing a batch of new songs and making one final album.
In his own words, "This is the best way I can think of to say goodbye to my friends and kids."
I’m certain only the most ardent pop music fans over 40, or classic rock station listeners, even heard of Warren Zevon. He has a loyal following, but has never been a stable commercial success though some of his work has garnered critical praise. But even casual music radio listeners may be familiar with the single song for which he’s best known — "Werewolves of Lon-don" with its catchy "wah-ooo" re-frain.
Realizing his physical condition would gradually deteriorate, Zevon be-gan writing songs last fall and scheduling studio time to record them last winter and spring. The finished product, titled The Wind, was completed in April and was released this week.
There is a reference to the title in the song, "Please Stay," where Zevon pleas for a lover to remain until "there’s nothing left but you and the wind." Nevertheless, knowing Zevon’s proclivity for sardonic wit and dark hu-mor that have permeated his eleven previous albums, the title may also be his leave-taking – gone with the wind.
In a new VH-1 special, "Inside/Out —Warren Zevon," in which the singer allowed cameras to follow him as he recorded his final project, Zevon discusses his obsession, citing Ernest Hem-ingway, who said, "All good stories end with death."
Some references to the subject have cropped up in Zevon’s extensive re-pertoire, including the songs "I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead," which is also the name of his two-disc 1996 anthology, and "Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead," and album titles, Life’ll Kill ‘Ya and My Ride’s Here, the latter a witty reference to the arrival of a hearse. Characters in several of his songs are aggressive and meet violent ends.
Avoiding references to mortality, which might have been anticipated considering his previous fondness for death and violence, The Wind is at times vigorous, yet Zevon also bares his vulnerability. The lone reference to death, in fact, is a modest cover of Bob Dylan’s classic tune about a dying cowboy, "Knocking On Heaven’s Door." As the song fades, Zevon demands, "Open up, open up!"
A lifelong heavy smoker and a former alcoholic, Zevon also looks back on his life in several songs, including the obvious, "Dirty Life and Times," the CD’s opening track, and the gentle "El Amor De Mi Vida (Love of My Life)," about a former love he let slip away.
Ironically, the album’s final song, "Keep Me In Your Heart," was reportedly the first song Zevon wrote after learning his diagnosis. While the song is clearly addressed to a lover or family members, Zevon is also inviting listeners to remember him, not forever, just "for a while." Nonetheless, fans won’t soon forget Warren Zevon.
Some of the guests on The Wind are veteran musician colleagues and friends, who’ve worked with him in the past, such as Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Eagles’ Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, actor/singer Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Springsteen, who turns in some searing guitar licks on the track, "Disorder in the House."
Artists typically leave a body of work that sustains their talent when they depart this life. Warren Zevon’s last recording may, in years to come, be judged one of, if not, his best. For a tunesmith who produced many haunting songs, but never garnered a mass audience, The Wind is certainly a fitting, memorable epitaph.