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Published: Friday, 7/17/2009

Celebrity culture: in praise of Zevon's death

Welcome to the new Blade blog Culture Shock, a three-times-a-week riff by Pop Culture Editor Kirk Baird on pop culture news, events, and trends. The blog will appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings here, with the odd night or off-day posting if something is merited..

Perspective. That s what these this clip and others of Warren Zevon s final appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman offer.

The singer-songwriter appeared on Letterman on Oct. 30, 2002, 11 months before his death from lung cancer. Zevon, who by then knew his time was short, was the only guest on the talk show that night. Letterman, being a huge fan of the musician best known for Werewolves of London, Lawyers, Guns and Money, and Excitable Boy, clearly wanted to give the perennially underrated and cultish Zevon the big-audience showcase he deserved for his grand finale.

He performed several songs that night, and during his interview with Letterman, the sardonic Zevon maintained his gallows humor, including a crack about how his fear of physicians kept him out of a doctor s office for 20 years.

It was one of those phobias that didn t really pay off, Zevon joked.

After Letterman s show, the musician turned his back on years-long sobriety. What s the point, he reasoned, in a terminal man abstaining from drugs and alcohol?

Zevon was given the opportunity to choose how he lived his final days. It s a gift not many people receive certainly not celebrities.

Farrah Fawcett made the most of her limited time. She documented her courageous battle against terminal anal cancer with a highly viewed documentary on NBC. If nothing else, the special resonated with anyone who still perceived her as a vapid 1970s glamour girl, or as the spacey guest on Letterman in 1997.

What about celebrities who exit this world unexpectedly? What if they could choose how to live their final days? If James Dean, for instance, knew his death was only months away and he could do nothing to prevent it what would he have done with his life? Would he have enjoyed every last moment with wild abandon, or would he have quickly filmed the role of a lifetime, one that might garner him a posthumous Oscar? The latter option is how Heath Ledger lived his final days, before dying from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

Prescription drugs have resulted in the untimely deaths of many big names, including Elvis and Michael Jackson, Mount Rushmore figures of 20th century pop culture. But if Elvis and Michael Jackson learned of their deaths a few weeks ahead of time, how would they have approached their lives? Would there have been big concerts? Perhaps PSAs denouncing drug use? What about a massive PR spin campaign to shape their final image? Or, would they have gone on a late-night talk show to say good-bye to their fans?

I tend to think a combination of one and three. And four seems that it would be too small for them, which is a shame; Zevon s graceful exit on network TV is one of the best celebrity swan songs so far. There s a poignancy in Zevon s acceptance of his fate especially in his quiet but sage advice to those of us still living to enjoy every sandwich.

But there s nothing particularly poignant about the deaths of the King and the King of Pop just cautious reminders of the perils of fame dime-a-dozen advice in today s celeb-struck world and hardly worth remembering.

And certainly that s no way for musical royalty to go out.

Agree or disagree with a posting? Lemme know. Have a topic or suggestion? Lemme know that, too. Send an e-mail to kbaird@theblade.com or call 419-724-6734.



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