by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 7, 2002
DEATH OF THE PIANO FIGHTER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Warren Zevon is dying the way he lived: without tears.
Zevon, who is 55 and not going to see 56, has always been cynical, irreverent, funny and brutally honest. He's one of the great musicians and songwriters of our time, but since he never achieved widespread fame and big money, some might say he's had a cult following.
What a cult! He's collaborated with Neil Young, Bob Dylan (who recently added Zevon songs to his sets), Linda Ronstadt ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Carmelita") Jackson Browne, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Bobby Keys, Glenn Frey, David Lindley, Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Bruce Springsteen, Chick Corea, Jerry Garcia, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, George Clinton, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Hornsby, Graham Nash... the list goes on forever.
And don't forget Igor Stravinsky. As a youngster, Zevon, a classically trained pianist, used to go to Stravinsky's Hollywood Hills home to play. Or the Everly Brothers. One of Zevon's first jobs was as their music director.
"My fondest memory of touring with Warren was the time we were staying in a hotel in Canada and we had to be brought to our rooms on the luggage carts," Don Everly said in the liner notes to one Zevon anthology. (Another one, "Genius," just came out on Rhino.) "We'd had a little too much to drink,"
Zevon also has non-musical friends, like Hunter H. Thompson and Clint Eastwood. Carl Hiaasen collaborated with him on "Rottweiler Blues." I don't know which one of them penned the immortal line, "Don't knock on my door if you don't know my Rottweiler's name," but it should be on a bumper sticker.
Back in the 1980s, Zevon was one of the first to openly admit he had addictions - a quart of vodka a day - and to conquer them. But when he later wrote "Detox Mansion," he approached the topic with his usual upbeat and cynical cheer: "Well, I'm gone to Detox Mansion, way down on Last Breath Farm. I've been rakin' leaves with Liza, helping Liz clean up the yard."
Zevon nailed it when he called himself "a heavy metal folksinger." While other singer-songwriters wrote ballads about ships lost at sea, train wrecks, and loves lost at home, Zevon wrote about a Norwegian mercenary who gets his head shot off in Biafra and wanders around Africa looking for revenge. Damn if he didn't get it, too.
Machismo was always one of Zevon's best subjects, but it was never the machismo of the swaggering bully or the I'm-on-top-screw-you fool. It was always the painful machismo (or machisma) of outsiders fighting to the death for what usually turns out to be a losing proposition.
His fans identified. Every time I saw him play, men cheered and waved their fists when he sang the opening line of "Lawyers, Guns and Money": "Well, I went home with the waitress, the way I always do." As if these fans were going to do the same thing, instead of go home to an empty apartment or a wife demanding to know where they have been.
In his brilliant contribution to the minuscule category of folk boxing songs, "Boom Boom Mancini," Zevon succinctly captured this world view: "Some have the speed and the right combinations, but if you can't take the punches it don't mean a thing."
Zevon was what Billy Joel wanted to be. Joel was only a piano man, but Zevon rode his piano like a Harley. "I'm a holy roller, I'm a real lowrider, hold me tight honey, then hold be tighter," he wrote in "Piano Fighter."
Death has always rode with Zevon. He called one of his songs "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." They made a movie out of the title of "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead." His last two albums were "Life'll Kill Ya" and "My Ride's Here." His prophetic logo is a grinning skull wearing his trademark sunglasses and smoking a cigarette.
You might think all this is posturing. After all, he wouldn't be the first musician to hide behind a swaggering image. But now, with inoperable lung cancer spreading through his body, Zevon isn't singing "poor poor pitiful me," or whining about "the vast indifference of heaven." He's going out bravely, and he's going out publicly.
In September, he announced he was dying. Last week, while he could still walk, a great-hearted and brave David Letterman devoted an entire "Late Night" to him. It was television at its purest and finest. Zevon looked like hell. His neck had shrunk and he had dewlaps. When Letterman said he looked remarkably well for someone who would be dead in a few weeks, he said it was the makeup.
Zevon's deep, sexy baritone was gone, and he was too weak to rock. So they backed him with flutes and strings and he sang three songs, including the tender "Mutineer," which always tears my heart out. It was so painful to watch that at one point I turned it off. But I quickly turned it back on, because, after all, if you can't take the punches it don't mean a thing.
According to the L.A. Times, a friend has set up a small recording studio next to Zevon's bed, and he's spending his last days hanging out with his children, reading a flood of admiring tributes just like this one, and writing and recording new songs.
"I have a little mischief in mind," he told the reporter.
Zevon's death will be a great loss. We'll never again hear him complain that Pearl Street in Northampton, Mass. is "a filthy pit," or threaten to kill anyone who asks him to play "Werewolves of London" again.
I'll always love Zevon and his music. He might mock that kind of affection, but he's the one who said about love, "You can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun."
In "Boom Boom Mancini" Zevon wrote, "They make hypocrite judgments after the fact, but the name of the game is be hit and hit back." Zevon took the punches and he's riding out on top. I admire his style.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.