Allison and Her Music #3 (Warren Zevon)
My father’s top bands of all time are: tie for first, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; third, Warren Zevon; fourth, Steely Dan; and tied for fifth, Jimmy Buffet and Zed Zeppelin. These six bands defined much of my childhood of washing dishes or doing yard work. These six bands were played on road trips and in my dad’s office. These six bands are iconic. I’m not sure how many WPR listeners are familiar with Warren Zevon. We Sabo’s grew up with Zevon political and morbid commentary on life.
Zevon was born in 1947 in Chicago. His family relocated to California. At 16, he dropped out of high school and moved to New York to become a folk singer. After poor sales of his freshman album he moved to Spain and in the summer of 1975 he composed “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” with David Lindell. Back in Los Angeles by September 1975 Zevon collaborated with Jackson Browne who produced and promoted Warren Zevon’s self-titled album. It was practically an ensemble work featuring Stevie Nicks, Lindsay Buckingham, Linda Rondstadt and Bonnie Raitt. My favorite Zevon song, “Carmilita,” is on his self-titled album. I remember singing the chorus walking through the halls of Valley Junior High School and censoring my 14 year-old self when I sang the words, “And I’m all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town.”
In 1978 Zevon released Excitable Boy. It features many of Zevon’s most popular works including “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Werewolves of London” and the title track. The album peaked an #8 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart and the song Werewolves of London topped at #21. The album was certified gold in 1978 and platinum in 1997. Excitable Boy is as close to perfect as anything can be. It starts with “Johnny Strikes Up the Band,” a beautiful piano piece. That is followed up with my favorite track on the record “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” The bridge is particularly lovely, splitting into harmonies and overlapping singing. It makes me feel like water is rushing over my head and I’m powerless to stop it. Next comes the title track which I always find humorous. Even in my youth I understood that the excitable boy (who is never named in the song) was a rapist and murderer yet I still laughed. His most popular and well known song “Werewolves of London” is next. It is his most recognizable work but it’s not my favorite. The A-side of the record finishes with the ballad “Accidently Like a Martyr.” The B-side starts with the funk song “Nighttime at the Switching Yard.” It’s a nice, upbeat, danceable way to start the B-side. I like this track because if listening to it on a CD it’s a nice break being different from all the other tracks on the record. If you’re listening to it on a vinyl and a turntable it’s a fresh and fast start to the beginning of the B-side tracks. Then comes “Veracruz” and “Tenderness on the Block.” The final track on the album is “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” I won a dispute with my 50 year-old former boss about the title of this song. After we settled our differences (and even sang bits of the song) he asked me how old I was and how I knew Warren Zevon.
The rest of Zevon’s albums never found as much commercial success as Excitable Boy. Zevon learned his label, Asylum Records, was letting him go through the gossip section in Rolling Stone Magazine. This and other personal trauma in his life caused him to relapse into drug and alcohol use. He admitted himself into rehab, forsook the music industry and several years later reemerged clean and sober. Zevon always had a phobia of doctors. In 2002 he fell ill and was convinced to see a physician. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, cancer from asbestos exposure. The cancer was inoperable and Zevon refused treatments. So he did what he knew, wrote his final album which is titled The Wind. While listening to “Keep Me In Your Heart” I cried.
Throughout the years Zevon was frequently a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Zevon even filled in as band leader for Paul Shaffer when Shaffer was needed elsewhere. When Letterman heard of Zevon’s illness he invited him on the show and was the only guest for the evening. He sang several songs and stated “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.” When Letterman asked for any words of advice Zevon said, “Enjoy every sandwich.” Zevon’s final public performance was on Letterman’s stage and the song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”. After his performance Letterman was presented with the guitar Zevon used on every Late Show performance.
When diagnosed, Zevon was only given a few months to live. He survived another year and lived long enough to see the release of his final album, the VH1 documentary Warren Zevon: Keep Me in Your Heart (which made me cry like a baby) and the birth of his twin grandsons. Zevon passed away in late 2003 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 56. My dad’s world was rocked when he heard of Zevon’s diagnosis. He often says, “A drug addicted, manic depressive, alcoholic was done in by cancer from asbestos exposure.” Musicians have looked to Zevon for inspiration and publicly acknowledged his significance. His music has been used in films and television since the 1980s. Warren Zevon was an icon that was taken too soon.