- 25 Sep 03
He created great songs out of the good, the bad and the ugly and earned the respect of people as diverse as Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson. In this previously unpublished interview Warren Zevon, who died last week after a long battle with cancer, reflects on his sweet and dirty life and times.
When Warren Zevon passed away on Sunday September 7, rock ‘n’ roll lost one of its great ironists and men of letters. Zevon coined so many brilliant lines that when his peers came up with quotes about him they tended to speak above even their own abilities. Bruce Springsteen called him “The good, the bad and the ugly… a moralist in cynic’s clothing”. Jackson Browne dubbed him “the first and foremost proponent of song noir.”
The singer was as comfortable with writers like Carl Hiaasen, Hunter S Thompson, Jonathan Kellerman and Thomas MacGuane as fellow musicians (although he had no shortage of distinguished fans and collaborators, including Bob Dylan and Neil Young).
So, the nickname F. Scott FitzZevon could scarcely have been more apposite. The son of a Russian fighter and gambler, and a piano prodigy who as a child knew Stravinsky, his first couple of albums contained expertly observed portraits of the beautiful and the damned among the ’70s LA coke and champagne set. Like Tom Waits, those early LPs sounded like quintessential west coast singer/songwriter recordings, but the core content was altogether more Chandler-esque: the barfly soap opera of ‘The French Inhaler’; the strung out junkie writer in ‘Carmelita’; the sex ’n’ drink ’n’ death vignettes of ‘Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner’, ‘Werewolves Of London’, ‘Excitable Boy’, ‘Lawyers Guns & Money’ and ‘Play It All Night Long’ (containing the classic Warren line, “There ain’t much to country livin’/Sweat, piss, jizz and blood”).
And of course, there were unbearably vulnerable alcoholic ballads such as ‘Desperados Under The Eaves’ and ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’ that were Zevon’s speciality. But nevertheless, he survived the booze, the broken marriages, the loaded guns and the interventions. Most of all he survived himself, making the mother of all rehab albums in the form of Sentimental Hygiene in 1987, backed by REM. Thereafter, Transverse City (a cyberpunk dystopian concept album written after a Thomas Pynchon binge) and Mr Bad Example were patchy enough, but he was back on form in the late ’90s with Mutineer, Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, the latter featuring guests such as David Letterman and poet Paul Muldoon, that were among the best of his career.
Zevon was diagnosed with an inoperable form of lung cancer in August of last year; his response was to forego chemotherapy and concentrate on recording his last will and testament, The Wind. His last words to his public remain posted on his website: “Enjoy every sandwich”.
Strange thing was, he’d already recorded a swansong of sorts with Life’ll Kill Ya in 2000, a morbid, moving and of course funny essay on mortality that eerily predicted his body’s decay in songs like ‘My Shit’s Fucked Up’ and the title tune. In May of that year, the present writer called Zevon at room 227 in the Sanderson Hotel in London; the following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
PM: Warren, were you born sardonic or…
WZ: Yes, absolutely. My father was a Russian immigrant and he had precisely the same sense of humour. My son does too. So I was definitely born with it.
PM: Do you think your life’s been a tough one?
WZ: Mine? I think that life’s tough, I think mine’s been pretty easy. Course, there’s those around me who might disagree, but I think it’s been pretty easy. But I think that generally the terms we’re given are pretty hard to sort out, they’re a little baffling.
PM:Going by your songs, one might reasonably suppose you’ve had some trouble sustaining relationships.
WZ: (Cracks up laughing) My girlfriend is in the next room – I don’t know how… I hope not!
PM: ‘Porcelain Monkey’ from Life’ll Kill Ya returns to the subject of Elvis’s decline, which you also sang about in ‘Jesus Mentioned’…
WZ: Well, y’know, I feel that it returns to the subject of the monkey, the ever-recurrent theme of the monkey, the mandrill, the gorilla. People keep asking me why I’m so interested in Elvis and I keep telling them I’m just interested in monkeys! And it was a picture of that porcelain monkey in Elvis’s TV room that my co-writer, my collaborator Jorge (Calderon) had glued to his notebook, that inspired the song. We researched it, both of us, took a stack of books – well, he knew more about Elvis than I did – but we researched it which is always fun. And in the end of course we had to write about Elvis because there’s only so much you can say about a weird ceramic sculpture.
PM: You had your own late Elvis period of privileged ruin, drinking and shooting at the TV.
WZ: Well, everybody has a gun in the United States, anybody can shoot their TV – it’s not a question of privilege! (Laughs) I take exception to that!
PM: The Rolling Stone cover story from 1981 was amongst the first celebrity confessionals/exposes of its time. That’s become almost commonplace now.
WZ: The public rehabilitation and fall from grace kind of parabola? (Sniggers)
PM: Was it hard to go about your daily existence in the wake of that story?
WZ: (Thomas) MacGuane said if he’d been me he woulda been on a fast horse headed for the border when that hit the newsstands. As it was I was just hiding under the bed of my hotel room.
PM: Did you know it was going to be on that scale?
WZ: Well, I knew it was going to be the cover. Did I know what the article was going to be? No, no they didn’t show it too me for approval or anything like that. I dunno if I woulda cared. You can’t get too personally involved in how you’re perceived publicly. It’s not healthy to. You have to kind of let… you can fix your hair as best you can, but then you gotta say, “Okay, it is what it is. Let me go do my job. What’s for dinner afterwards.”
Sentimental Hygiene was also a public admission of everything you’d been through, songs like ‘Detox Manison’ and ‘Trouble Waiting To Happen’. Was there a certain amount of morbid glee in documenting that stuff?
Ahhm, well, it was fun. I don’t know exactly if gleeful describes it. Again, I was sitting with Jorge, and he said, (adopts Jorge’s drawl) “I see you’re drinking Coca Cola. I guess you don’t wanna go back to Detox Mansion”. Y’know, it’s also Jorge who wrote the big words in ‘Porcelain Monkey’. I said, “Y’know, we’ve been getting considerable respect in the press for ‘sobriquet’ and ‘regicidal’,” and Jorge said: “English second language. Like Joseph Conrad.” So you can see why I follow that guy around.
PM: Is there a certain amount of brainwashing involved in having your life saved through rehab?
WZ: As far as I know there’s no support group for people who’ve survived support groups! I would enjoy talking to someone like that! “How was the food?” “Oh man. I’d a lot of starch, didn’t you?” That would be interesting.
PM: You seem to get on better with novelists than other musicians or songwriters. Jonathan Kellerman once told me you were one of the best-read people he’d ever met.
WZ: Really? Well he jams with musicians much more than I do, I assure you he does.
PM: We were talking about ‘Excitable Boy’ and he thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal of a sociopath.
WZ: Well, he oughta know!
PM: Your work has been quoted or referenced in more books than almost anyone else I can think of. Some of those books are good, some not so good. Either way, you’ve no control over it.
WZ: It’s true, you don’t have any control over it. You know, it’s not like a serial killer goes to the gas chamber with your song on his lips, but it can be a little unpleasant, ’cos sometimes you feel like people have seized on kinda the last thing you thought was important about your work. Or some unsavoury aspect of it that you thought was gonna draw people in to be redeemed, not brutalized more. And I must admit that seems to happen quite a bit with my stuff. I seem to have overestimated its redemptive qualities and be reminded of its brutal ones all the time. What can you do?
PM: There’s a shot of you and Hunter S. Thompson on the back of the I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead anthology, shooting guns in Colorado. What’s your stance on the subject of gun control?
WZ: I dunno, it’s a difficult issue. It’s so hard for anyone to answer those kinda questions about society. Someone just asked me about Los Angeles and how could I love Los Angeles and wasn’t it so restrictive and prohibitive and now it’s like a crime to smoke there. And I listened and I thought, well, y’know, I quit smoking three years ago, several people I know are having their jaws sawed off with cancer these days. And then I thought, “But he’s right too”. I remember when I was a kid you could get on an airplane and smoke Silk Cut like James fuckin’ Bond, and that world’s gone. So who is right? I don’t know.
’Cos everybody’s kinda right. We’re kinda right to miss the world of personal freedom. We’re kinda right to miss the frontier where people fought for their freedom anyway they could. And we’re also right to say, “This is nasty stuff that causes diseases unbearable to think about – let’s just stamp it out. Even if it makes you feel like you’re being repressed. We’ll take it away from ya and fine ya.” Everybody’s really right. That’s why I write the way I do. My personal hero, the Polish director, the late Krzysztov Kieslowski, he said, “Answers? I don’t even know if I’m asking the right questions!”
Is bewilderment a by-product of getting older and quote-unquote wiser?
No, I was always bewildered. And thus I was always wise! “Don’t follow leaders and watch your parking meters”: he (Dylan) always knew. He always knew the shit. “Don’t ask me who you should vote for, I was drunk for 27 years, what does that tell you?” I’m the guy who said that, remember?
PM: Before we finish, I’d like to ask you about ‘Play It All Night Long’, which is one of my favourite songs of yours.
WZ: Mine too.
PM: That tune’s a balance of outright bad taste and black humour…
WZ: Well, see of course, I think it has the redemptive quality you’re so fond of. In large measure, that’s why I like it. That and imitating David Lindley’s parts from the record is why I like it best. I think it’s that essential subject of mine, if I have one, which is that life is very baffling. And kinda fucked up. And people actually… do okay. Y’know, John Kellerman once told me something that was really extraordinarily beautiful about working with sick kids and stuff in the early part of his career. He said, “Y’know, people do better than they oughta. People do a little better than we can really account for, than we expect”. It’s a lovely thing to say and a lovely thing to believe. b