Capable of both coruscating wit and heart-tugging poignancy, Warren Zevon was an odd-man-out in the crude world of rock‘n’roll – not that he was immune to the genre’s recreational excesses. As a revealing new biography by his former wife hits the shelves, David Davies profiles a true one-off whose work has received overdue reassessment since his death four years ago.
Born to a decidedly unusual parental combination (a minor underworld figure of Russian Jewish heritage and a Mormon), Warren Zevon’s life was never destined to be run-of-the-mill. Revealing a natural feel for music from an early age, Zevon became an accomplished pianist and songwriter in his early teens, when for a while he benefited from one-to-one lessons with great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
Resolving to pursue a career in music, Zevon’s late teens/early ‘20s found him securing gainful employment writing for The Turtles, and touring with Manfred Mann and the Everly Brothers. He also found time to cut an ill-fated, Kim Fowley-produced solo debut (1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive), but it wasn’t until after a sabbatical in Spain and the forging of a long and rewarding friendship with Jackson Browne that he finally began to find a direction
Collated from songs that had built up over many years, 1976’s Brown-produced Warren Zevon is almost frighteningly well-realised, peaking with two very different portraits of addiction – ‘Carmelita’ and ‘Desperadoes Under the Eaves’. The latter’s haunting depiction of a worsening alcohol problem owed much to Zevon’s own life which, as revealed in a newly-published biography by his wife Crystal (more here), was beginning to spin out of control. Not that it affected the follow-up too detrimentally: buffed to a fine sonic sheen and showcasing Zevon’s full range of abilities as a songwriter, 1978’s Excitable Boy also represented a new commercial peak. Trailed by ‘Werewolves of London’, the album mixes darkly funny character portraits with tender ballads. Crisply produced by Jackson Browne and frequent Zevon co-writer Waddy Wachtel, it would prove a tough act to follow.
Not that 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and 1981’s live Stand In the Fire didn’t contain their share of superlative moments. The latter, in particular, strikes up sparks in its recently-remastered incarnation, containing an edge-teetering blast through ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ that confirms Zevon’s credentials as a powerful live performer.
His next studio album, 1982’s The Envoy, was largely overlooked at the time – not surprisingly, perhaps, given that its uncertain atmosphere and droll wit couldn’t have been more at odds with the ‘ra-ra-Reaganism’ spirit of the times. Heard with fresh ears however, The Envoy’s thrilling ride through geopolitics, romantic desperation and substance abuse renders it a minor classic.
As it turned out, it was the last anyone heard of Zevon for nearly five years as his alcohol and drug use finally caught up with him. The mid ‘80s was a period of repeated attempts to kick various ‘life sweeteners’ – he finally managed it in 1986 – and, not being one to dispense with such rich source material, the rehab experience prompted one of the key tracks on 1987’s ‘comeback’, Sentimental Hygiene. Though the album sounds slightly brash and overproduced 20 years on, ‘Detox Mansion’, ‘The Factory’ (featuring Bob Dylan on harmonica) and the gorgeous ‘Reconsider Me’ confirmed that Zevon’s gift had nothing at all to do with the bottle.
Sadly, despite heavy promotion by Virgin and relentless touring, Sentimental Hygiene’s quality did not translate into sales. Zevon arguably didn’t help his case with the curious science fiction concept of the follow-up, Transverse City, while 1991’s Mr Bad Example – although consistently strong – faded rapidly from view in a manner that must have distressed its famously self-critical creator.
The new biography makes it clear that Zevon felt his career to have become something of a joke by this point, and certainly the mid ‘90s marked a new low in his profile. An acoustic live set (Learning to Flinch) and low-key studio album (Mutineer) appeared – and swiftly disappeared. Playing occasionally with famous authors’ hobby band the Rock Bottom Remainders and quietly turning out music for TV, Zevon had become a marginal figure in the industry.
All of which made the firecracker energy of 2000’s stripped-back Life’ll Kill Ya all the more surprising. Hooked up with sympathetic hip indie Artemis by Jackson Browne, Zevon delivered the album of his life – bitterly funny, touching and eerily prescient (‘Don’t Let Us Get Sick’). Sadly, Zevon’s questionable luck was not about to turn, and – despite excellent reviews – both this album and its successor, My Ride’s Here, failed to sell in great quantities.
Things were about to get much worse, however: booked to perform a string of shows in Canada during the summer of 2002, Zevon began to suffer from worsening breathlessness that was eventually attributed to mesothelioma – a rare and especially deadly form of lung cancer. Given only months to live, and with the help of old friends and collaborators including Jorge Calderón, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, Zevon actually managed to complete an entire album outstripping his doctors’ direst predictions and living for nearly another year. Released shortly before his death in September 2003, The Wind is as elegant, darkly humorous and often plain goosebump-inducingly sad a final album as is ever likely to be recorded.
With a cruel irony that would not have been lost on one of the form’s true masters, it was also Zevon’s most talked-about record for decades. Acres of magazine coverage, a VH1 documentary and a David Letterman special ensured that his ‘stock’ was higher than at any time since the late ‘70s. The attention has not abated since, with a batch of reissues and a highly readable biography suggesting that Zevon has finally achieved recognition as a highly original songwriter with a lyrical eye that is rivalled only in the serious literature he admired so much. About bloody time, too.
Remastered versions of Excitable Boy, Stand In the Fire and The Envoy are available on Asylum/Rhino. Preludes: Rare And Unreleased Recordings is available on New West and Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon is published by Ecco/HarperCollins.