Monday, September 08, 2003

WZ: 1947-2003

I heard the news this morning that songwriter Warren Zevon died last night.

Zevon - most well known for "Werewolves of London," a 1978 song that paid him well, but took its toll artistically for the rest of his career - was diagnosed last year with a rare and inoperable form of lung cancer. He was an anomaly, a literate rocker, a longtime favorite of critics and other artists - even "real" writers and poets - but terribly unknown except for the one song a quarter century ago.

All through his career he was a songwriter of rare imagination, one whose grim humor made his diagnosis painful and ironic. In an album before he learned he was sick (the sterling "Life'll Kill Ya,") he wrote: "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."

I've been listening to Zevon since 1977, when a school pal lent me a copy of Zevon's self-titled second album. On that album, and on many of the ones that followed, Zevon distilled life in California, pouring that experience into his songs. I spend this time today on Zevon because my interest in poetry and places begins with the rock lyrics that consumed me beginning in my early teens. Zevon, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones - among others - were the first poets I knew.

From "Warren Zevon," circa. 1976.

Desperados Under the Eaves

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn't lyin'
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I'm gonna drink 'em up

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Don't the sun look angry through the trees
Don't the trees look like crucified thieves
Don't you feel like desperados under the eaves
Heaven help the one who leaves

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I'm trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you're never really free
Don't the sun look angry at me

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went hmmm...
Look away...
Look away down Gower Avenue, Look away...

Copyright ©1976, Warner-Tamerlane/Darkroom Music BMI

In the last year of his life, Zevon finished and released a terrific collection of songs called "The Wind." When my wife reached me on the road, I was hurtling up a small highway in Missouri. On the CD player was the first line of the first song of the last album he ever made:

"Sometimes I feel like my shadow's casting me."

Warren Zevon