Happy Birthday to Warren Zevon, patron muse of Collateral Damage

The inimitable* Andrew Watson reminded me that yesterday would have been the 61st birthday of the late great Mr. Z.

ZLike a lot of people, my first exposure to Zevon was the album Excitable Boy. The title track was probably his biggest hit. It was a strange and bloody tribute/hommage to the great story songs written by Lieber & Stoller for The Coasters.

The album was narratively blood soaked — with Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner about a mercenary, Werewolves of London which is about exactly that, and Lawyers, Guns & Money. The last was further proof that in pop music no irony goes unpunished as it was later adopted by frat boys who screamed it as an anthem of privelege. In this it shared the same misunderstanding that dogged Randy Newman’s Short People and Springsteen’s Born In The USA, a vividly anti-war song adopted as an anthem by members of the armed services during the first Gulf War. (Stanley Clarke did an astoundingly great rap cover of “Born In …” As far as I can tell it was only ever released on vinyl and I have been looking for a digital copy of it for years )

Zevon didn’t just mock the portrayal of violence, he also had a deeply empathetic feeling for its victims, as on Veracruz

Someone called Maria’s name
I swear it was my father’s voice
Saying, “If you stay you’ll all be slain
You must leave now – you have no choice
Take the servants and ride west
Keep the child close to your chest
When the American troops withdraw
Let Zapata take the rest”

This is really the song that got me hooked on Z. Not only did we share an ironic/cynical sensibility and deep romanticism, but he knew from obscure historical incidents too! Find me another pop song about the US incursion into Mexico. OK, there’s Pancho & Lefty but that’s about it.

Here’s a some of my other favorite Zevons

  • Mohammed’s Radio, a 1976 song about the militarism & Islam
  • Desperados Under The Eaves, which mocks how easy it is to look tough
  • Carmelita, which mocks the romantic view of drug addiction
  • Frank & Jesse James (“They rode against the railroads/And they rode against the banks/And they rode against the governor/Never did they ask for a word of thanks”)
  • Bill Lee, as in the baseball player
  • My Shit’s Fucked Up, yeah I’ve had that day
  • Dirty Little Religion, about the joys of love
  • The Envoy, a tribute to a diplomat — how’s that!
  • I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (“I’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all”)
  • I Was In The House When The House Burned Down
  • For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer

A Rolling Stone article about Zevon in the mid-80s described his getting sober with the help of Ross McDonald, the great writer who created the detective Lew Archer. The article stuck in my head for years and later proved that there were other sensibilities that Zevon and I shared, for good and ill.

His last album, recorded as he was dying of cancer, was The Wind. I think it works best as the other half of the documentary of the same name made while Z was recording the album. I listened to it frequently last year as my aunt Cathleen and cousin Deirdre both died of cancer. The songs are filled with the fire of someone who doesn’t want to die and the questions of someone who knows he can’t avoid it.

The last song on the album hurts to hear, but I have found great consolation in it as well:

Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for a while

When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done
Keep me in your heart for a while

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while

Finally what I remember is Zevon’s humor and his refusal to take himself too seriously. Two quotes from his last appearance on David Letterman:

“I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for the last 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn’t pay off.”

On being asked if he now knows something about life that Letterman doesn’t: “Not unless I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”

Miss you, dude.

(*Given how seldom I actually get to see him I’ve also started thinking of him as the invisible Andrew Watson.)

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One thought on “Happy Birthday to Warren Zevon, patron muse of Collateral Damage

  1. Good selection of Zevon songs there. I’d add “The French Inhaler” for its moody, wonderful tone, something that his later stripped-down guitar songs never really recaptured; “The Indifference of Heaven,” with the great lines, “They don’t live around here … Billy and Christie don’t … Bruce and Patty don’t …”; “Hit Somebody” (about a hockey player who is a “goon,” but just wants to score a goal); and of course, “Mr. Bad Example” (“laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score”).

    That said, though I never liked the later songs as much as I loved his work through “Mr. Bad Example,” I do love that last album, and especially that very last song, which it seems to me strips away all of the bravado and cynicism he reveled in and speaks from his heart to his family and his fans.

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