A number of thoughtful readers have written recently to remind me it will be the 10th anniversary in September of Warren Zevon’s death, not that I was likely to forget.
I came slowly to his music, but then fell hard for it, Warren quickly occupying a high-ranking place in my personal pantheon, up there with the more frequently acknowledged greats of American songwriting.
I actually have Peter Buck to thank for turning me on to him. In June 1985, I was in Athens to interview REM for a Melody Maker cover story, ahead of the release of Fables Of The Reconstruction. We were at a night shoot for a video the band were filming for “Can’t Get There From Here”. It was about 3am. Michael Stipe was asleep in a ditch. The film crew were packing up their gear. Mike Mills and Bill Berry had just split. Buck, meanwhile, was knocking back a beer and telling me, among other things, that in a couple of days, he, Bill and Mike would be on their way to Los Angeles to record an album with a singer-songwriter named Warren Zevon, who at the time was managed by an old college friend of Peter’s, Andrew Slater.
Warren Zevon! I was frankly shocked. At the time, Zevon for me was part of a discredited West Coast culture of cocaine and excess, self-regarding balladry and narcissistic wimpery, the kind of bollocks punk was meant to have killed off. I had a vague memory of seeing him, perhaps 10 years earlier, supporting Jackson Browne at London’s New Victoria Theatre. The only song I really knew of his was “Werewolves Of London”, which I took to be a novelty number.
Anyway, Peter listened to me rant and listens some more when I start ranting again, getting a second wind after becoming momentarily breathless. “Allan,” Buck said then. “Just listen to the fucking records and get back to me.” I told him I would and eventually did. Back in London, I began to track down Zevon’s back catalogue. There wasn’t much of it – just six albums at the time since his 1969 debut, Wanted Dead Or Alive. It took a few weeks but I found copies of Warren Zevon (1976), Excitable Boy (1978), Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (1980) and The Envoy (1982). There was no sign anywhere , however, of his 1980 live album, Stand In The Fire, which I eventually discover, years later, in a second-hand store on Polk Street in San Francisco.
What I heard fair blew my mind. I had been expecting the winsome warbling of some flaxen-haired minstrel, and here was this apparent cross between Randy Newman and Lee Marvin – a sardonic songwriting genius with a legendary taste for vodka, guns and drugs. His talent, I discovered, was matched only by a capacity for self-destruction that had provoked one critic to describe him as “the Sam Peckinpah of rock’n’roll”, and it didn’t take long to find out why. Spread across those four albums were some of the most amazing songs I’d ever heard – toxic epics about headless machine-gunners, mercenaries, murder, Mexican revolutionaries, rough sex, rape, necrophilia, Elvis, baseball, heroin, heartbreak, incestuous hillbillies and hard-drinking losers.
I was hooked on them, as I would be on the albums that followed – among them the record he’d made with REM, one of his best, Sentimental Hygiene. There was a period when he didn’t record, but he was prolific towards the end, even making his masterpiece, The Wind, as he was dying.
The only time I met him was in September 1992, after a fantastic show at The Town & Country in Kentish Town. We made small talk in a dimly lit backstage corridor, Warren as well groomed as a Mafia don, politely listening to my fanboy blather. I mentioned that my wife, Stephanie, also a fan, had been looking forward to seeing him, but was ill at home. Would he sign something for her?
“Let’s do it,” he said. I gave him my ticket. He held it against the wall and started writing.
“Is it terminal?” he asked.
“Your wife is ill,” he reminded me. “Has she got anything terminal?”
Uh, no… Why?
“Because I was just about to write ‘Get well soon’, and I didn’t
want to sound facetious,” he said, and with an unforgettable smile
and a brisk handshake he was gone.
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