One of these days, not so very long from now, we’ll be reading of the death of Warren Zevon, who has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. When you see words like mesothelioma, you know it’s bad. What is mesothelioma? Cancer. From his lungs to his liver. Maybe he’ll kick it. Maybe.
I first saw Zevon perform in the early ’80s. In Rockford, Illinois. Home of Cheap Trick. It was at the 10,000-seat Metro Centre. You’ve got to watch it when places spell words like center as though they are, what?—Canadians? The Metro Centre was one of Rockford’s moves to revitalize the city center. The slab-sided structure hard on the banks of the Sinnissippi River is an aluminum siding salesman’s wet dream. The wonders of urban renewal. When Zevon took the stage, the place was damn near empty. Maybe the potential audience didn’t get the word about the renewal. “ROCKford! ROCKford! How can you miss with a name like ROCKford!?!” Zevon shouted. The man is nothing if not ironic. Which probably explains a lot of things. Like the empty seats.
Zevon is one of those people who is in the singer-songwriter category. Which pretty much means that he doesn’t sell many recordings. Perhaps the last one who did was Carole King. Carole would never write a lyric like “Roland was a warrior from the Land of the Midnight Sun/With a Thompson gun for hire, fighting to be done.” You’ve got a friend—for a price. Zevon is one of those people who is in the category of songwriter’s songwriter. Which means that he is respected by people who tend to sell a hell of a lot more recordings than he ever will. Among those he has worked with include, in no particular order, Lindsey Buckingham, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, David Lindley, Phil Everly, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Jackson Brown, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Jeff Porcaro, Graham Nash, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Neil Young. [Plus, he’s a good friend of Hunter S. Thompson! – Ed.] Eclectic, to say the least.
Although he sings of mercenaries, lawyers, guns, money, detox, boxers; although he has penned particular songs of love “Well, I met a girl at the Rainbow bar/She asked me if I’d beat her… Poor, poor pitiful me”, “She’s so many women/He can’t find the one who was his friend/So he’s hanging on to half her heart… So he tells her to hasten down the wind,” he is, unfortunately, I think, best known for his “Werewolves of London,” which is his one-and-only bona fide “hit.” If I was in a less charitable mood, I’d describe it as being nothing more than a Ray Stevens novelty song that Zevon’s been carrying around in his bag since 1978. But to put a moderately better spin on it, I’ll say it is analogous to what has happened to Ray Davies with “Lola,” a throwaway that became a hit that he must play. Of course, “Werewolves” probably helped pay for his kids’ college educations. I wonder how many copies of the Excitable Boy album are out there with virgin surfaces with the exception of that single track—OK, maybe the other songs were played. Once.
When he dies, there will undoubtedly be reference to his titles including “Life’ll Kill Ya” and “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” But I think the last word, from one of his many cautionary tales, should come from his song “Genius”: “There’s a face in every window of the Songwriter’s Neighborhood/Everybody’s your best friend when you’re doing well—I mean good/The poet who lived next door when you were young and poor/Grew up to be a backstabbing entrepreneur.”