When music buddy Stephen-in-the-Adirondacks asked about Warren Zevon last week, memories and music ganged up on me, starting with a 1978 Page Hall show – and not just because he jumped off the piano.
He climbed to his feet slowly then, with painful effort. “I think I hurt myself, doing that Michael Jackson shit,” he rued.
Zevon had leaped off the piano, hoping, I think, to land in a split but instead crashing in an awkward heap.
He was hot then, more than he was hurt. His star-making third album “Excitable Boy” had just hit, dragging listeners through dusty back alleys of LA, out of the sun and into the gloom – a grown up record, in other words, and quite perfect.
So was his band, including Waddy Wachtel – has ANYBODY ever looked more like a rock-star guitar hero than Waddy? – also bassist Bob Glaub, second guitarist Michael Landau, a drummer and a keyboardist – maybe Russ Kunkel and Kenny Edwards. Waddy’s website lists the album credits: http://waddywachtelinfo.com/WarrenZevon2.html. All those players orbited around Linda Ronstadt who recorded many Zevon songs, helping him become known.
The student concert board ran Page Hall then, a jewel-box theater on the old uptown campus in the Pine Hills student ghetto. The board aimed big bucks that semester at rock acts with big futures including Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and Zevon, whose partial set-list here sparkles with trenchant tunes writ very large by his killer band and his hard-edged voice.
He came back around, a few times; but as his records fell short of “Excitable Boy,” he had to let the band go and become a solo performer, a “mobile gestalt unit” he dubbed himself. His life, his music and his career traced ups and downs tall as the Alps, deep as Grand Canyon: divorce, drink, drugs, being dropped by record labels.
Stephen sent me this link to a pretty good profile.
Before one tour, I did a phone interview with him. He answered candidly: humbly relating his oblique associations with Igor Stravinsky and the Everly Brothers. But then, something he said made me think of a book I’d just read.
“The Songlines,” by Bruce Chatwin, an explorer-writer of lapidary, micro-precise prose, tells of Australian aborigines’ belief that songs describe in detail the geography of the entire continent from end to end. Each tribal band’s folk-lore takes up the tale from the last so a traveler could chart the entire physical reality of that vast island by the songs. Moreover, and here’s where things got magical and Zevon became fascinated with the idea, the aborigines believe not only that the songs describe the land in its physical features, but the songs maintain its very existence. The songs make the land live.
So, I bought him a copy.
As it happened, his local stop on that tour coincided with another show that I had to see, in preference to his – probably NRBQ. So, I gift-wrapped “The Songlines,” wrote a note expressing my regrets at missing Zevon’s show and had a fellow music writer deliver it to him backstage.
Time passed, bringing more Zevon albums and tours, and an interview or two.
The next time we spoke, he started the interview saying, “The Songlines.” Confused at first – I’d actually forgotten giving him the book by remote control – I marveled that he had remembered it.
My last Warren Zevon show was in the winter of 1991 at Saratoga Winners, a sizable road house on Rt. 9 north of Albany and south of Saratoga Springs that has since burned down.
In an interview before that show, Zevon said he was excited about making a new album, that he had found the producer he wanted: Gurf Morlix.
I thought he’d made up the name until I found Gurf in the Austin phone book. Like New Orleans musicians who remain unknown out of town because they never play elsewhere, Morlix is an Austin guy who at first seems an unlikely choice, their vocal styles are so different. Bold and brassy, Zevon all but shouts, while Morlix murmurs or half-whispers in a morose moan. What unites them is a straightforward guitar rock sound and a dangerous wit, as on my favorite Morlix album, “Finds the Present Tense.”
Zevon died before he could make the album, in September 2003.
A documentary on him (included that interview on Letterman’s “Late Show” where he advises “Enjoy every sandwich,” also a lunch with Carl Hiassen. Zevon was already deep into the cancer that would soon kill him, way too soon. As he pulled a vial of morphine from his pocket, Barry remarked, “I admire a man who brings his morphine right to the table.”
Zevon could have used some of that when he jumped off the piano at Page Hall, back in his drinking days.
But his songs brought everything to the table.
In the songs on his 15 albums (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Zevon_discography – and the two-CD 1996 compilation “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” Zevon stepped bravely in front of a mirror that revealed himself, in all his failings and strengths, unashamed as an X-ray. He looked around at the world with the same fearless candor and a film-maker’s eye that sketched characters as vivid as Tom Waits’ or Harry Crews’.
We won’t see another like him.