Monday, September 08, 2003


BY Wayne Robins

Warren Zevon
"The Wind"

You are going to die.

Not just in the abstract sense, like the fat guy wearing the t-shirt that says, "life sucks then you die." Not in some midlife crisis kind of way, like the Botox-brained bozo screaming at his mistress on the cellphone all the way to East Hampton, who has no clue that the t-shirt he is wearing ("the one who dies with the most toys wins") is God's little bit of whimsey at his expense.

On August 28, 2002, the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon got the word that he had a terminal lung cancer, and had maybe three months to live. Which reminds me of Henny Youngman's second oldest joke (right after "take my wife...please.") It is, of course, about the man who goes to the doctor, doctor tells him he's got six months to live. "Doctor," the man says, "I don't have enough money to pay the bill." So the doctor says, "all right, I'll give you another six months."

Warren Zevon died Sunday, Sept. 7, a year and ten days after getting the fatal diagnosis. Though privately he may have had a few "poor poor pitiful me" moments, Zevon's public face was brave beyond compare. He did what any great artist would do with the time: Gather kindred spirits, his musical peers, friends and admirers, and kick the music up a notch for a final fanfare. His newly released final album, "The Wind," (Artemis) was completed against the wind. Reflective but not without the occasional smirk, a sturdy reminder of why Warren will be missed.

"Dirty Life and Times" strikes exactly the right tone of rueful defiance, Zevon sounding a little like Billy Joe Shaver, the Texas musician who knows more than a little about life's downs and ups. Don Henley on drums, Ry Cooder on guitar, and Billy Bob Thornton and Dwight Yoakam on background vocals underscore the southwest freight-hopping feel; Zevon's voice sounds parched by dusty roads.

The wonderfully raucous "Disorder in the House," written with gifted compadre Jorge Calderon, features more sterling support from Jim Keltner on drums and a feller named Springsteen on electric guitar and vocals. The hallucinatory lyrics contain vivid images of "zombies on the lawn staggering around," but also, perhaps, conmingle the personal and the political: "The big guns have spoken/And we've fallen for the ruse" could well be about what is turning out to be the bad gag in Baghdad.

"The Wind" also has some ballads that are even more poignantly affecting now than they were a few days ago, like the finale "Keep Me in Your Heart," in which the transition between life and death seems to be recorded in real time. ("Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath"). "Please Stay" would be maudlin in anyone else's hands: When Zevon sings, "Will you stay with me to the end," he touches on the raw fear of mortality that the rest of us get to keep repressed most of the time.

And you've got to love "Numb As A Statue," in which, perhaps fortified by morphine, he sings somewhat sardonically, "I'm pale as a ghost": Zevonesque humor as wry as it gets.

You might think "Knocking On Heaven's Door" an obvious choice. One of the guitarists from the large cast is Tommy Shaw. No doubt they were friends or acquaintances, but was Warren enjoying a little cosmic joke featuring on 12-string a guy from Styx on a song about heaven? Anyway, this is the most authentic sounding version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" you'll ever hear, unless Neil Young performs it in good health.

(c) 2003 Wayne Robins, all rights reserved.

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