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Warren Zevon, The Wind
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Bang The Drum Loudly
I’ve observed Warren Zevon’s 25-plus year career from a largely disinterested perspective. While I liked what he was up to in general (a master of great little narratives that veer off the beaten path, his records had a twisted, dark sense of humor that was obsessed with the slightly seamy), and a few of his songs, like the playful and obvious “Werewolves of London” and “Excitable Boy,” were cool enough to make me borrow Zevon LPs from friends so that I could include them on mix tapes(file-sharing, old school), when push came to shove, I just couldn’t imagine myself wanting to listen to his stuff often enough to shell out the cash for an entire disc. I’ve never bought a Warren Zevon disc, and figured I never would.
Zevon’s final record, The Wind, has changed all that for me. Smart, funny and defiant, it is a perfect example of how rock and roll songwriting can be decidedly grown up—even whole. More importantly, however, The Wind is an example of a man using his art to come to terms with what really matters in life and love.
You see, Zevon wrote and recorded The Wind after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer late in 2002. While he might have prolonged his life with certain therapies, the songwriter chose to forgo treatments in order to have the strength (and voice) to make this record—a choice that allowed him to document his feelings and experiences while making his “peace” with a kind of emotional precision and intentionality that is both heart-wrenching and laugh-out-loud funny. (It also allowed him to gather a band of all-stars that sounds like a who’s who of classic 70s folk-rock, including David Lindley, most of the Eagles, at least one member of Styx, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, and even The Walton’s John Waite.)
As someone living with incurable cancer I can tell you that this musical “testament” rings very true. But I can also tell you that you don’t need to be sick to find a whole bunch of grace, wisdom and kindness in this disc.
The Wind opens with “Dirty Life and Times,” a folk-country sing-a-long reminiscent of an old Hank Williams lament that features the tweedy background vocals of Dwight Yoakum and Billy Bob Thorton and a classic Ry Cooder slide guitar counter-melody. A playful appeal for companionship in the waning days of life, the song establishes a perfect balance of self-deprecation and genuine desperation, straddling the deadly serious and laughable with a plea to find a “woman with low self-esteem to lay me out and ease my worried mind while I’m winding down my dirty life and times.”
“Disorder in the House” expands upon Zevon’s desperation—a full-on bruiser of a rock song that strings together a collection of metaphors for his body’s dysfunction that features Bruce Springsteen’s harmony vocals and a razor-sharp, viciously executed guitar solo that near-perfectly captures the physical dissonance at work in Zevon’s body. So too “Rub Me Raw,” an old-school electric-blues-boogie-romp that finds Zevon at his contrarian best, insisting that “I’m gonna sit up straight I’m gonna to take it with class” while demanding that his death-obsessed, internet chat-room fan base get a life and stop obsessing on his disease.
This is welcome insight. While some might be tempted to spend their final days pondering the mysteries of the universe, karma, injustice and “why bad things happen to good people,” Zevon clearly saw those “big” questions as distractions from what really matters most. Trust me, I know about these things—those broad philosophical quandaries (whether framed in secular or theological terms) might be interesting in the abstract, but they offer absolutely no comfort or mercy. And so Zevon wisely gives them a pass, and focuses on more immediate, intimate and ultimately much more profound territory.
“Numb as a Statue” finds Zevon at a loss for words and feelings in the face of his diagnosis, declaring that he will “beg, borrow or steal/ some feelings from you/ so I can have some feelings too.” It’s a declaration of emotional neediness that is as dead-on as it is tender, a realization that however independent he might have been before his illness, detachment is a luxury he can no longer afford. In the face of certain death, everything becomes a function of community and companionship—even the limits of sentiment.
A good, if surprising example is “The Rest of the Night,” an invitation to pure revelry and comraderie that in another context might seem a caricature of rock and roll excess. Against the backdrop of “numbered days,” however, it rings as absolutely responsible. Zevon understood that the certainty of death must not stand in the way of a full, throaty and defiant laugh and a long night of merriment. Indeed, death demands such things.
But most moving about The Wind, is its straightforward sentimentality. If death demanded playfulness it demanded even more tenderness from Zevon, and he responded in droves, crafting a few of the most poignant, immediate love songs in recent memory.
“She’s Too Good For Me” is the romantic equivalent of an evangelical “testimony” song, and finds Zevon overwhelmed by the pure grace he has experienced from his lover. He knows he doesn’t deserve the love he’s received from her, and that makes him cling all the more. “El Amor De Mi Vide” is a rich and lovely hymn to the constancy of his lover—the kind of heartbreaking, soul-satisfying love song that would make even Shakespeare blush. “Please Stay,” meanwhile, is a song of desperation, pure and simple; a yearning for company and companionship and “the other side of goodbye.” The disc ends with “Keep Me In Your Heart,” a song that in lesser hands might have veered into the maudlin or pathetic. Here, however, it becomes a simple, prayer-like plea that Zevon be remembered and cherished after he’s gone.
Now, I admit I’m way too close to this record. The Wind was released just a few weeks before I learned my own cancer was resurgent, and since then it’s become a kind of emotional primer for me, a means to acknowledge sentiments (good and bad) that otherwise might have remained painfully inarticulate. This has been especially true as I’ve found myself overwhelmed by my wife’s patience and kindness—these songs have allowed me words where there might have been only dumb, stilted pathetic silence.
But as good as this record might be as a companion to those who are sick it is a better mentor to the living. The fact is that in his death (he died just a few weeks after The Wind was released) Zevon found his way to the heart of things that matter most: laughter, a loose grip on things, the company of friends and the steadfastness of a lover who values you more deeply than you deserve. These are lessons you should not have to wait for death’s approach to learn, and Zevon’s chronicling of them offers an invaluable short-hand to anyone who wants something like wisdom.
I wish you these things.