b Papa Dog's Blog: Warren Zevon

Papa Dog's Blog

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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Warren Zevon

I was fumbling around for something to listen to whilst putting away dishes this morning, and stumbled across my copy of Warren Zevon’s last album, The Wind. We were listening to this all the time when it first came out, and through the mourning period after Zevon’s demise, but I guess we kind of played it to death (mordant smile) and I haven’t put it on in a raccoon’s age. I looked it up and was not terribly surprised to find that it’s more than a year since Zevon’s passing – a year and eleven days. Funny the album didn’t come to mind a week ago Tuesday. But I guess that was the day my parents arrived, and I didn’t do much but go to the airport and back.

What a weird career Warren Zevon had. He spent almost 30 years as not-quite-a-star, not-quite-a-cult-figure, and then in the week before he died, he had his biggest commercial and critical success. There was something creepy, I suppose, about the Warren Zevon Death Watch…and a lot of cynical marketing bullshit underlying the whole thing. The impending death of Warren Zevon made great promotional copy and moved a lot of product. Lots of people made lots of money off his terminal illness, and most of them weren’t named Zevon.

Still, there’s nothing the least bit cynical about that last album itself, and a year after the hype and the tributes and the VH1 specials, the album rings wrenchingly true as the last public statement of a man unflinchingly confronting his own mortality and finding the right way to say goodbye to his loved ones. Nobody has ever appropriated a song from Bob Dylan so thoroughly and authoritatively as Zevon did here with his version of Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Bob had Peckinpah’s elegy for the west to inspire him. Zevon could sing it as an elegy for himself. At the end, during the final “knock-knock-knockin’” chorus, when you hear him, rather distantly and mutedly say, “open up!” it should by all rights come off corny, but it doesn’t. It comes off spooky. Listening to it now, it’s like he’s singing a ghost story about himself, and he’ll continue to haunt as long as people like me continue to play his songs.

The album’s closer, Keep Me in Your Heart, is astonishing in its humility. In saying goodbye to his loved ones, but particularly to his children and his much younger girlfriend, he doesn’t ask for eternal love and devotion, or even to be thought of on a regular basis. All he asks is, “keep me in your heart for a while.” Not forever, just for a while. Every time I think of it, the sheer bravery of that stops me short. He had the clarity and the honesty to recognise that his time was ending early and that the people most important to him would have years and decades to go on without him…and he's telling them that it's okay to do that. He's saying that’s what they should do and what they have to do, and he doesn't want to be the baggage that weighs them down forever. That song always sticks in my head for days after I listen to it. It’s sad and elegant and filled with the promise of life in the face of death. I think it was probably his single best piece of writing, and I’ve always considered Warren Zevon a damn fine writer.

I guess I was about 14 when I first heard Zevon. My brother or somebody had a copy of Excitable Boy, which was one of the most perfect albums for wiseass teenage boys in the late 70s. It made me, for one, feel like a gawky kid with glasses and a bad haircut could end up being cool after all. I listened to later albums here and there, and even owned copies of a few of them, but I never obsessively collected his every last recording the way I did with, say, Tom Waits or The Pogues/Shane MacGowan. I saw him once in concert, at the Omni in Oakland (which hasn’t existed in years). Twenty-five years he's been at least vaguely on my radar, and it still seems strange to me that there won’t be a new album from him this year, filled with funny and morbid ditties about stuff nobody else would think to put to song.


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