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'The Wind' is his final CD

Warren Zevon beats an icon to death
by Mark Anderson

arren Zevon could have written a great song about the marginal minstrel who dies just ahead of Johnny Cash.

Shadow casting: Warren Zevon lived to see the release of his last recording. ["warren," by Mary Bergherr]

The song would have been poignant, witty and wise. It might have explained the perfect irony of a fringe career getting lost in the shadows of an icon's death. It should have been called "Gone With the Wind."

But for once, Zevon had no such morbid premonition. And to his eternal credit, The Wind, his new CD, needs no such song.

Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer in August 2002 and given 90 days to live. Instead he lasted 14 months: long enough to record a new album and see its release. Zevon died last month at 56 – less than a week before the 71-year-old Man in Black.

Both men earned their reputations by way of a craggy voice, a preoccupation with mortality, an everyman persona and a certain roguish charm.

Cash got the cover of Time magazine and a rebroadcast of his 20-year-old 60 Minutes segment. Zevon got a documentary on VH1. Cash was a genius who wound up being easy to love. He'll rightly get his due elsewhere.

A death wish of sorts: Life'll Kill Ya, the 2000 release.

But Zevon was a unique and towering talent with a sharp pen and an even sharper wit. He wrote brilliant turns of phrase, then didn't ruin them with ordinary songs. His main instrument was piano, his early training was classical and his melodies, whether ballads or rock, were often graceful and grand.

Zevon made his first album in 1969, then recorded 13 more between 1976 and last month. Many of his songs still leave a strong impression and even his "lesser" albums contain a gem or two. A few of his albums are great.

On Life'll Kill Ya, an otherwise mostly anonymous disc from 2000 – and well before the fatal diagnosis – Zevon begins "My Shit's Fucked Up" around a loping acoustic guitar:

Well, I went to the doctor / I said I'm feeling kinda rough
Lemme break it to you son / Your shit's fucked up
I said my shit's fucked up? / Well, I don't see how
He said the shit that used to work / Won't work now

Zevon builds the joke for three increasingly pointed verses.

"Yeah, yeah, my shit's fucked up," goes the chorus. "It has to happen to the best of us. Rich folks suffer like the rest of us. It'll happen to you."

Dead man talking: Zevon's The Wind, his new CD, is a worthy epitaph.

The Wind, Zevon's final album, offers 11 deeply affecting, romantic and often rollicking dissertations on love, life, death and partying. But even without considering the story's end, things never cross into cloying melodrama and schmaltz.

"Sometimes I feel like my shadow's casting me," Zevon begins in "My Dirty Life and Times," the disc's opening track.

The album's overall effect is as if a favorite kindly professor is speaking from the grave. The pressure was ultimate and Zevon knocks his final discourse out of the park.

Guests include Tom Petty, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris and others. And, despite the close-to-the-bone material, the atmosphere is one of uplift. An underlying message: if a guy can come up with a recording like this under such pressure, well, most of the rest of us really have no reason to carp.

"Prison Grove" is a primal, haunting and fiercely appealing dirge with an all-star choir. "Rub Me Raw" is a slinky, hard-rocking blues. "El Amor De Mi Vida" is a graceful bilingual love song. And "Keep Me in Your Heart," a plaintive folksong, ends the album full of bittersweet, spine-tingling couplets.

Which is not to say the album is perfect. "The Rest of the Night" is the type of party song that Zevon himself has topped. But even a less-than-great cover of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" hardly seems out of place – especially toward song's end, when Zevon chants "Let me in, let me in, let me in ..."

The effect is somewhere between hilarious and spooky.

I found Zevon in the mid-1970s. Without many northern Minnesota resources, I'd become an avid reader of Rolling Stone record reviews at an early age. Zevon's eponymous '76 album was produced by Jackson Browne, got an enthusiastic review and the local Woolworth's had a copy. Good enough for me.

Soon thereafter Linda Ronstadt, a main star of the day, recorded several Zevon songs, including "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me." She named an album after his "Hasten Down the Wind."

When bad is good: Zevon's 1991 release, Mr. Bad Example, includes "Searching for a Heart."

A couple years later, I accompanied my prized vinyl collection to a second year of college. One of my new housemates, an east coaster, flipped through the stack, a hundred-some strong.

"Who's Warren Zevon?" he chided. "I think you bought this to finish the alphabet."

But later that year, when Zevon released Excitable Boy, word finally got out. "Werewolves of London" became an animated, evergreen party anthem, and the entire album is filled with smart, tuneful songs. Many sound refreshing to this day. Zevon seemed well on his way to something.

Unfortunately, that something turned out to be booze. And, after another album or two, I pretty much lost track of Warren Zevon.

Legend has it he lost track of himself.

Fifteen years went by. Early 1990s. I was living in Jersey City and often taped David Letterman's old NBC show to watch the next afternoon. Once, with Zevon as a guest, Letterman couldn't stop quoting a line from Zevon's "Searching for a Heart."

"They say love conquers all," goes the chorus. "You can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun."

Warren Zevon, the 1976 release.

Letterman loved the line and repeated it throughout the course of the show as he shook his head and grinned. The show's end, when Zevon performed, was the first time I heard the marvelous song that goes along with. It's well worth seeking out.

Ten more years passed.

At a wedding this summer (and with no prompting from me), two of my best friends – father and daughter – picked Zevon's "Tenderness on the Block" to kick off the dancing at the daughter's reception. The father is mid-40s, the daughter mid-20s. Amazing choice.

In VH1's recent documentary, there's a perfect moment where Bruce Springsteen alters his holiday plans, flies to L.A. and overdubs some guitar on Zevon's lively new "Disorder in the House."

Springsteen's crooked solo makes sparks fly from the strings. Hand-held cameras roam the room. It's a real, true moment of rock 'n' roll magic, captured live on videotape. Even Springsteen has to grin once the song ends.

"You are him!" is Zevon's spontaneous quip to Springsteen, almost as if the line had already been written.

Excitable Boy, the 1978 breakthrough.

Another priceless moment from the documentary displays a clip of Letterman's show last October – Zevon was the night's only guest, a rare honor in itself.

The situation's gravity makes it no wonder that the interview edges toward awkward. But Letterman was the singer's longtime champion – not only had Zevon made many guest appearances over the years, he'd also filled in for Paul Shaffer as bandleader 20-some times. Letterman even performs a voiceover cameo on "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" from Zevon's 2002 album.

With Zevon sitting at the desk, Letterman starts in with the questions until, at one point, he solemnly asks: "Do you know something about life and death that maybe I don't know?"

"Not unless," says Zevon, after an excruciating pause, "I know how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

And with that it seems safe to suggest that reports of Warren Zevon's death have been greatly exaggerated, and it's unlikely he'll be gone with The Wind.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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