There is a telling moment in tonight's poignant VH-1 special on Warren Zevon, just a few seconds that sum up the bitter irony of a 56-year-old artist staring down death.
He's in the back of a limo in New York on his way to the David Letterman show where he is to be the only guest on the hour-long program hosted by his old friend. His publicist tells him the New Yorker magazine would like to do an interview and Zevon's face darkens.
“Too late,” he says quickly, staring out the window. “Too late.”
For the last 20 years or so Zevon's career lagged from its high point in the late '70s and early '80s when he was on FM radio all the time with classics like “Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy,” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Diehard fans were still listening to one of the most popular singer-songwriters of his generation, but he wasn't exactly national magazine fodder and his records sold horribly.
Now the New Yorker wanted to interview him and tell everyone what we've known since last year:
Warren Zevon is dying.
Since the announcement he suffers from a rare, incurable form of lung cancer, the witty, literate rocker whose epic battle with alcoholism was chronicled with painful detail in a Rolling Stone cover story in 1981, has received more press and attention than ever before.
He was featured in the New York Times magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, People, Rolling Stone and MSNBC. VH-1 filmed the documentary as part of its Inside/Out series - “Warren Zevon: Keep Me In Your Heart” - that airs tonight. The film, which breaks your heart while making you laugh because of its subject's dark, wry humor and straight-forward honesty, chronicles the making of his last disc, “The Wind,” which comes out Tuesday on Artemis Records.
Zevon didn't go anywhere after his peak from 1976 to 1980, when his albums “Warren Zevon,” “Excitable Boy” and “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” were climbing the charts. A notorious boozer, Zevon straightened up and plugged away, releasing new work regularly in a market that didn't have much use for his brand of twisted lyricism and perverse pop sensibility.
Playing solo acoustic gigs in clubs, stone-cold sober and living the life of a working musician, he wasn't exactly fodder for sexy magazine articles. Now that he's dying, they're knocking down the doors.
The irony, of course, is that Zevon confronted death routinely over the years, from his flirtation with it during the wild years of his drug and alcohol addiction to its use as a recurring theme in his work, and you can't write about Zevon without writing about death. A few examples:
Born in 1947 to a father who was a professional gambler, he learned piano in his formative years, studying briefly with composer Igor Stravinsky. That training would inform his music throughout his career. Many of his best songs were piano driven and he sprinkled albums with symphonic interludes that allowed him to transcend the folk and rock idioms in which he generally worked.
By the mid-1970s he was in California and had fallen in with Jackson Browne. His two solo albums from that period - “Warren Zevon” in 1976 and “Excitable Boy” in 1978 -don't sound dated decades later. Both sold well and represented the high-water mark in his career in terms of popularity.
Zevon's songs were as literate as Dylan's, but funnier and with more linear story lines. Many of his songs had a sense of place and he took listeners all over the world from the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel to Havana, Biafra, Veracruz, London and Echo Park.
Never content to write simple love songs, he populated his tunes with headless mercenaries, broken down actresses, crazed drug dealers, excitable boys, unapologetic misanthropes and, of course, a werewolf.
It was the latter that gave Zevon his most notoriety. Released in 1978, “Werewolves of London” was his biggest hit. It could have been a novelty tune, a cutesy ditty about a wacky werewolf, but for the tight arrangement and lyrics.
Kicking off with a swaggering piano and bass line, “Werewolves” is an exercise in economical writing and arranging. The rhythm section, which just happened to be John McVie and Mick Fleetwood stays in the pocket for 4 minutes, Waddy Wachtel's guitar saws away and Zevon gleefully fires off lines like “little old lady got mutilated last night” and “he's the hairy-handed gent, who ran amok in Kent,” ending each chorus with a howl.
But for every gonzo rocker that celebrated life on the edge like “Lawyers, Guns and Money” or “The Envoy” there was a beautiful piano-based ballad like the heart breaking “Accidentally Like a Martyr” with its sublime chorus or the quiet, twisted beauty of “Hostage-O.”
For “The Wind” Zevon recorded feverishly with a number of his buddies, including Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, and Browne. A solid, but spotty effort that contains some works of genius - especially the tender goodbye “Keep Me In Your Heart” and the raucous “Disorder in the House” with Springsteen roaring away on guitar - it includes a cover of Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door,” a classic example of Zevon's weird sense of humor.
Despite the hype associated with the new release, Zevon likely will be remembered for the full body of his work rather than any one album.
He wrote with Springsteen, Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiassen and the Irish poet Paul Muldoon. He recorded with heavyweights like Neil Young, the Eagles, REM, Browne, Jerry Garcia, and Dylan.
These people didn't work with him just because he was fun to hang out with; they were sharing his brilliance which will endure in his recorded work.
His last days are being spent with his pals, his girlfriend and with his two children, Jordan and Ariel. The latter gave birth to twins, so Zevon, who has hung on much longer than his original diagnosis got to see his grandchildren.
He's long been one of the good guys, a person who can dance around with death, and make his logo a smiling skull with a cigarette hanging from its mouth, and still say without a hint of morbidness when he's dying of cancer, “I think it's a sin not to want to live.”
"From the president of the United States/To the lowliest rock and roll star/The doctor is in and he'll see you now/He don't care who you are/Some get the awful, awful diseases/Some get the knife, some get the gun/ Some get to die in their sleep at the age of a hundred and one.
Life'll kill ya
That's what I said."