Critical Mass

Zeroing in on Zevon: Some would call him a one-hit wonder, but Warren Zevon was so much more than 'Werewolves of London'

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette illustration/NIKKI DAWES

"In the songwriting field, there isn't a section for fiction and a section for nonfiction. It's all mixed together."

-- Warren Zevon

I heard a story about a 13-year-old Warren Zevon drinking Scotch with Igor Stravinsky.

It was a long time ago, probably in the 1970s. That was a cool image, the kid who'd grow up to be the most outre and Hunter S. Thompson-esque of all the Linda Ronstadt constellation of Southern California singer-songwriters hanging out with the great "inventor of music," the Russian who'd scandalized Paris with The Rite of Spring in 1913, getting together in a modest house in the Hollywood Hills a couple of years before anyone had heard of The Beatles. That house is up a little hill from the Sunset Strip, maybe half a mile from the Viper Room.

You can pack a lot of poetry in that image, it's like that photograph of Boys' Stater Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy. It seems impossible but somehow inevitable in a secret handshake way.

It's like getting a glimpse of how the world really works.

It wasn't until much later that I got confirmation of that story in Crystal Zevon's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, her oral biography of her ex-husband published in 2007, four years after he died from mesothelioma. Very early on in the book she includes a snippet from the notebooks of Robert Craft, the composer and conductor who went on to become Stravinsky's collaborator and Boswell.

Zevon was briefly Craft's pupil and Craft took him to see Stravinsky a few times.

"Mr. Zevon on that first visit reminded me of my own first meeting with Stravinsky, though I was 10 years older and much less intelligent," Craft wrote. "As always, Stravinsky was warm and hospitable, and Mr. Zevon, whatever he thought, was in perfect control. Part of Stravinsky's late-afternoon work ritual was to drink scotch and eat a piece of Gruyere and some smoked salmon on small squares of black bread. I might be conflating this first of Mr. Zevon's visits with a later one, but I think that Stravinsky invited his young guest to join him in the nourishment. Mr. Zevon betrayed no effects from the liquid and we chose a time to meet again the following week."

Composer Igor Stravinsky applauds at the close of a performance of his "Rite of Spring" by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Paris in this May 1952 photo. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Composer Igor Stravinsky applauds at the close of a performance of his "Rite of Spring" by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Paris in this May 1952 photo. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

But Zevon was not Stravinsky's pupil, much less his friend. He was in his house a few times, and given the testimony of others in Crystal Zevon's book, it's unlikely the scotch he sipped there was the first alcohol he'd ever consumed. Zevon didn't mind journalists thinking he'd had a relationship with Stravinsky, but in his own notes he stressed that he was "in no way an intimate friend" of the composer. Stravinsky was probably cordial to a lot of would-be musicians.

Whatever relationship there was was brief. Craft and Stravinsky soon departed on a concert tour, while Zevon's Mormon mother took him back to Fresno, Calif., to high school.


Why do so many people seem to care who is or isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Rock 'n' roll (we style the term differently than the Hall of Fame, which sometimes uses "rock 'n' roll" and sometimes employs an ampersand, but usually insists on "and") isn't the sort of culture practice that lends itself to sanctimonious awards banquets. It embraces freaks and outlaws or people who like to pretend to be freaks and outlaws. While we all know that it's an industry designed to squeeze from us every discretionary dollar, we agree to make believe that there's something important and potentially life-saving about three-chord songs.

I probably wouldn't know who was or wasn't in the Hall of Fame if it wasn't for social media and people being outraged that Kate Bush or Kraftwerk aren't in and/or that ABBA, Madonna and KISS are.

Every year social media feeds light up with people complaining that Zevon isn't in the Hall of Fame, and I wonder if I'd really like to see him there. It would be nice, although the Hall is an oxymoron in violation of the spirit of the unregenerate pose that is rock 'n' roll. As much as I can appreciate the work that goes into establishing and maintaining museums that celebrate cultural heritage and birthright, the country clubization of rebel music seems wrong.

Plus, what metric are you using? Sales figures? Number of times on the cover of Rolling Stone? Influence on other artists? Critical acknowledgment?

Zevon didn't sell many records. He had only one song that casual listeners are likely to remember, 1978's "Werewolves of London," which was a throwaway he allegedly knocked out in 20 minutes with help from bassist Roy Marinell and guitarist Waddy Wachtel (but which was apparently incredibly difficult to record; producer Jackson Browne tried seven different combinations of musicians before Mick Fleetwood and John McVie put down the drum and bass parts).

But he was loved and appreciated by musicians, and not just the Los Angeles studio clique that included Browne, the Eagles and Ronstadt. Zevon had two genuinely great albums. One was 1976's Warren Zevon which might stand as the greatest debut album of all time were it his actual debut. In 1969, nine years after drinking Stravinsky's scotch, under the tutelage of notorious scenemaker Kim Fowley he'd released the weird and awkward Wanted Dead or Alive. His other great album was 1978's Excitable Boy, which contains "Werewolves" and his other best-known songs, "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner."

After that, the quality arguably fell off; the conventional wisdom is that the drugs and alcohol and rock-star lifestyle that he'd been living since shortly after he vacated Stravinsky's living room finally caught up with him.

Musician Warren Zevon performs on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colo., on May 14, 2001.
Musician Warren Zevon performs on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, Colo., on May 14, 2001.


Young Zevon wasn't long for Fresno. His parents divorced when he was 16. He moved back to L.A. where he more or less roomed with his gangster father, a gambler who worked for and with Mickey Cohen. Apparently dad wasn't much of a parent, but he had a bankroll and Warren had flashy cars and his own apartment soon enough. He formed a folk duo -- lyme and cybelle -- with a friend from school, affecting the lower-case styling of the poet e e cummings. (Who in real life signed his name "E.E. Cummings," saving the typographical playfulness for the page.) He called himself Steven Lyme. He wore green suits. He painted his apartment green.

He worked with producer Bones Howe (The Fifth Dimension, The Association, Elvis Presley, Tom Waits) who got the Turtles to record a couple of Zevon's songs ("Like the Seasons" and "Outside Chance") and got his song "She Quit Me" into the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, where it was cut by Leslie Miller as "He Quit Me."

After the non-event that was Wanted Dead or Alive, Zevon took a job working with the Everly Brothers as their musical director. He learned about country music and methamphetamine.

If you want to know what the '70s was like, you should listen to Zevon's albums from the decade. His songs are deceptively simple; rhythms are straightforward but his music is like Hemingway's writing. Hemingway believed, and maybe demonstrated, that if you really know what you are writing about, you can leave out a lot. You can make it spare and simple and the ballast of your secret knowledge will somehow impress itself upon the reader. You don't have to ornament. Ornament weakens the work.

Zevon's work is like that. Listen to "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," the closing track off Warren Zevon. The chords are simple but the wistful melody is Coplandesque. The string arrangement that flows in giving the track a cinematic sweep echoes the piano notes that at the beginning of "Frank and Jessie James" (an oblique nod to Phil and Don Everly), suggesting that the album might be read as a kind of suite. There's a quiet sophistication in these songs; they're beautifully constructed but unshowy to the point that sometimes musicians had to play them before they could fully appreciate them.

Singer Linda Ronstadt recorded four songs from 1976’s Warren Zevon album, elevating public awareness of the singer-songwriter. Ronstadt titled her album "Hasten Down the Wind" after one of them.
Singer Linda Ronstadt recorded four songs from 1976’s Warren Zevon album, elevating public awareness of the singer-songwriter. Ronstadt titled her album "Hasten Down the Wind" after one of them.

Warren Zevon, immaculately produced by Jackson Browne, is a tough and snarly record in which the self-aware poseur manages to dredge up deep feelings. While its wasn't a commercial hit, several of the songs on the 1976 album have become quasi-standards. Ronstadt covered four of them: "Carmelita," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Mohammed's Radio" and "Hasten Down the Wind." While the last one is sometimes cited as one of Zevon's more prolix efforts, it marries an earnest, seeking intelligence to heartfelt emotion. It might be the weakest track on the album, but it's still pretty strong. I don't think there has ever been a better album to come out of Southern California.

Excitable Boy made him sort of famous, but he followed that up with a record that felt curiously underwritten, Bad Luck Street in Dancing School (1980). It didn't do all that well, even though Zevon collaborated with Bruce Springsteen on "Jeanie Needs a Shooter." It felt flat, mechanical, though Zevon's cover of Ernie K-Doe's "A Certain Girl" was almost a hit (probably a chart record for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stat accumulation purposes).

Rolling Stone liked it, though. Jay Cocks (who had introduced Zevon to Martin Scorsese a couple of years before and maybe wasn't the ideal critic to review the record) wrote:

"Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School could be Zevon's best album. Certainly, it's the best-sounding record he's ever done, with supple guitar work by David Lindley and drumming by Rick Marotta that gives no quarter. There are various instrumental guest appearances -- by Jackson Browne and Joe Walsh most strikingly -- and string arrangements ... that show, as clearly as anything ever has, the results of his adolescent pilgrimages up behind the Whisky a Go Go to visit Igor Stravinsky.

"Included are several string-section meditations -- a brief introduction and two 'Interludes' -- that might be fragments of Zevon's much-rumored and long-promised symphony. This music isn't pompous, grandiose or meant to demonstrate that the artist 'rise above' rock & roll 'serious' things. Rather, the interludes are exciting because they meld so nicely with the other 'Interlude No. 2' courses easily into a hard, prideful little number about Montreal Expos pitcher Bill Lee. It does everyone proud -- the master, the pupil and the baseball player."

Maybe it was in that same issue of Rolling Stone that I read Zevon was on a fitness kick, that he had decided he would no longer just live "from the head up." There was a suggestion that he was giving up the rowdy life. He was newly divorced. Read Crystal Zevon's book if you're interested. Or listen to "Gorilla, You're a Desperado."

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School was not his best album. "Bill Lee" was a cool little song. "Jesus Mentioned" was eerie. But it disappointed me at the time and it's not a record to which I often return.

Singer song-writer Warren Zevon plays a synthesizer in his West Hollywood, Calif., apartment Oct. 25, 1989.
Singer song-writer Warren Zevon plays a synthesizer in his West Hollywood, Calif., apartment Oct. 25, 1989.

On the other hand, The Envoy (1982), which no one ever talks about, is a nearly great album. "Charlie's Medicine," another sort-of-true story about a kid who worked in a pharmacy and sold Zevon illicit prescription pills, is one of those little miracles of compression that great songwriters are able to pull off from time to time. There's not an extraneous note in it.

He lost his major record deal with Asylum when the record didn't perform. He quit California for a time, moving to Philadelphia. He did rehab. He toured on the cheap, doing acoustic solo shows. I saw a couple of them.

The last one was in Little Rock in 1994, at the old Juanita's on Main Street. It was just Zevon and his road manager/multi-instrumentalist Duncan Aldrich, who Zevon introduced as "Dr. Babyhead." It was a great show, with Zevon pounding a rented Yamaha grand piano and surprising some of us with his chops on 12-string guitar. (A young Zevon once boasted he could play every instrument in the philharmonic.)

It was one of the best I've ever seen.

While he bantered from the stage, one of Aldrich's duties that night was dissuading over-eager fans from approaching Zevon -- he pointedly avoided taking slips of paper offered from the audience. He went back to the Excelsior Hotel that night, reportedly with a famous local groupie, and someone broke into his equipment van and stole some recording equipment, his Nikon camera and a headstock-less Steinberger guitar. Luckily he'd taken his Gibson Hummingbirds and his Ovation 12-string up to his room.

"I don't want to talk about it," he growled at our police reporter when asked about the burglary. "I'll just say it could have been a lot worse."

Yeah, it could have been. Like he once said, he got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than Morrison did.

He never became the big star he might have, though he went on David Letterman's show at lot. Some people think he's a one-hit wonder, and it's no use arguing with that.


I don't want to argue for Warren Zevon's place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I'm jealous of his work. He's not Bon Jovi. You can use his name like a password in that most people won't know anything about it, but every now and then you'll hit and you'll have that private thing with someone. Some people care about the difference between sardonic and sarcastic, others just snark.

Zevon's place in the culture might be settled -- he might be widely considered a journeyman who made a flash in the '70s -- were it not for the trio of albums he released in the three years before his death. Remarkably, the first two -- 2000's Life'll Kill Ya and 2002's My Ride's Here -- were, despite their preoccupation with mortality, made before Zevon received his fatal diagnosis.

Work on the third, The Wind, began weeks after Zevon had been diagnosed with the cancer that killed him.

You can call that a brave gesture, and it was -- Zevon turned his time of dying into a beautiful farewell tour, bearing up with grace and dignity and owning all the pain he'd ever caused. But it was also good business, and he enjoyed being a star.

That last album got a big budget and a lot of famous guest stars. But I can't be cynical about it, even though I bet Zevon could. He recorded Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on a whim because he'd been to a Dylan show and Dylan had covered a couple of his songs. He told friends he knew the end was near.

You can hear Billy Bob Thornton singing along on that version of "Heaven's Door." And the 12-string guitar is being played by Tommy Shaw, the little guy who fronted Styx.

I don't know that he ever got that far away from it, but in the end Zevon went back to Scotch. Scotch and liquid morphine, but he saved the latter for last. According to Carl Hiaasen, the newspaper columnist turned novelist who wrote a foreword to Crystal Zevon's book, he drank Glenlivet.

Somehow I think Stravinsky was a single-malt guy.


Style on 01/20/2019