Excitable boy’s narcissism, addiction with no regrets
IT was the perfect subject for a Warren Zevon song: A down-on-his-luck songwriter gets a terminal cancer diagnosis and turns his death march into a victory trot. But Zevon never got to write it; he ran out of time.
Zevon died in September 2003, from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. Diagnosed the year before, he was given just a few months to live but was determined to record a final album and see the birth of his grandchildren (his daughter, Ariel, gave birth to twins in June 2003.) He managed to do both, and in the process lived long enough to enjoy the kind of career validation usually reserved for posthumous box sets. During the final year of his life, Zevon was Dead Man Walking -- and the manner in which he turned his impending death into the ultimate marketing opportunity was a diabolical final turn in a truly twisted life.
The son of a Jewish gangster known as “Stumpy,” Zevon bounced around the fringes of the L.A. music scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s -- penning jingles, playing piano in the Everly Brothers’ touring band. He had less success with his compositions, but he became a sort of bad-boy id to Laurel Canyon’s cowboys and girls -- Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt. He countered their touchy-feely introspection with a lyrical sledgehammer.
Touted as “the Dorothy Parker of rock” after his self-titled release for David Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1976, Zevon reached a commercial peak two years later with the album “Excitable Boy,” which landed in Billboard’s top 10 on the strength of the hit single “Werewolves of London.” Although his commercial appeal plummeted over the next two decades, Zevon’s rock ‘n’ roll appetite never abated. His life was a blur of booze and broads, of endless club tours to pay the bills, a “comeback” every five years or so hyped by sympathetic writers and an occasional glory bask with David Letterman, who remained a loyal champion to the end.
By the late 1990s Zevon was just a guy whose resume included a singular moment or two, which granted him infinite access to periphery of the business. Then came the diagnosis: Suddenly, 55-year-old Warren Zevon was hot, sexy, and had just months to live.
At last, Zevon had his angle. He spoke to the press, allowed a VH1 camera crew to film his last months and began a final album. “The Wind,” released in August 2003, became his biggest seller in two decades and featured famous friends like Bruce Springsteen and Browne paying their final respects. His son, Jordan, remembers his father saying: “ ‘Okay, I’m going to die but I’m not going to go out John Prine-style with the record that sells ten thousand copies.’ He knew what he was doing.”
Zevon probably would’ve appreciated the sometimes disconcerting candor with which friends, family, lovers, acquaintances and, most damningly, Zevon’s own diaries, unpeel the complicated layers of the songwriter’s life in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Crystal Zevon penned the no-holds-barred oral history at the request of her ex-husband during one of their final conversations. The book reveals a smartass satirist whose inner core was as bankrupt as the characters he documented in his songs. That Zevon was a songwriter held in the highest esteem by peers cannot mask his inability to connect with others on a basic emotional level. “Nobody with a decent circle of friends could have gotten away with what my dad got away with,” his son said. “But he did get away with it because he was him.”
He was a difficult guy to root for. According to the testimonials of the scores who knew him, he was a gifted artist who destroyed everything in its wake, leaving miles of scorched earth and emotional debris in the rearview mirror. He had the requisite demons -- alcoholism, sex addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He could be brutally abusive, both physically and emotionally. In the 1980s when he and Crystal divorced and when he got off booze, his addiction to sex became that much more pronounced. Though he had trysts with the likes of Eleanor Mondale and songwriter Karla Bonoff, he preferred strings-free sexual romps.
Zevon’s diaries serve to painfully reinforce others’ points of view. So it comes as no surprise when, on his deathbed, he asks his son to safekeep his collection of homemade porn tapes he’d shot with various partners.
Zevon was a strict adherent to the rock star rulebook: He was a classic narcissist of the no apologies, no regrets school. And the story gets ugly, but Crystal Zevon embellishes the darkness with enough Zevonian gonzoness as a reminder why so many were so fond of him: getting married in Vegas while on LSD; shooting cockroaches in his home with a .45; palling with Hunter Thompson, Ross Macdonald and Thomas McGuane.
Even Zevon may have believed he was larger than life. But in spite of the in-character bravado he exhibited when faced with death, he was as scared as any of us would be. He broke 17 years of sobriety, sometimes concocting cocktails of liquid morphine and scotch.
In spite of his last-gasp of self-destruction, he was stubborn enough to hold his grandkids and finish his final sonic statement. Zevon was an excitable boy to the very end -- summing it up nicely to his friend, author Carl Hiaasen: “I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did.” This book chronicles a debauched rock ‘n’ roll life, simultaneously puncturing through Zevon’s self-created mythology while enhancing his legend in the process.
Erik Himmelsbach, a writer and TV producer, is at work on a book about the radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) and the alternative-culture revolution.