An appreciation of the extraordinary songwriter behind “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Carmelita,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” and “Werewolves of London,” with a playlist of favorites.
Even over the rhythmic chatter of the three- and four-round bursts blasting out of the submachine gun in my hands, what I heard was the funereal piano of the last song Warren Zevon played in his final public performance.
It was an appropriately gray and drizzly late September afternoon, though not quite the “dark and stormy day” of the lyric that would repeat itself in my head for hours afterward. I was in Cody, Wyoming, as a guest of Park County Travel Council enjoying a three-day greatest-hits tour of the town that included a hands-on demonstration of an array of weaponry, climaxing with the emptying of a restored vintage Thompson submachine gun’s 20-round clip into a silhouette target, at Cody Firearms Experience.
Having been a fan of Zevon’s music since my dad introduced me to him in seventh grade, I relished this once-in-a-lifetime chance to shoot the titular weapon of perhaps my favorite Zevon song, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” That song was also David Letterman’s request for the last number of Zevon’s unforgettable October 30, 2002, full-show appearance on the Late Show. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” has so many elements of a classic Zevon song: war and globe-trotting geopolitical intrigue, camaraderie, betrayal, death, gallows humor, drinking in an exotic locale, and a folk hero’s supernatural revenge.
The occasion of Zevon’s birthday last week got me thinking about his music again. His offbeat hit “Werewolves of London” is another fine example of his wit and wordplay — the dry observation “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s/And his hair was perfect,” the delightful alliteration of “little old lady got mutilated late last night” — as well as his gift for an earworm melody. “Roland” was the B-side to the single.
Zevon never had another hit like “Werewolves,” but he collaborated with and had songs covered by many respected and successful musicians: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Dwight Yoakam, Flaco Jimenez, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and Neil Young, to name just a few.
His alternately hard-boiled and tender songs reflected the duality of his own chaotic life. Zevon’s father was a mobster who was the best man at the notorious Mickey Cohen’s wedding, his mother a frail Mormon who encouraged his classical piano lessons. He struggled with alcoholism, difficult relationships, guilt over his perceived failures as a father, and stretches of career doldrums.
Many of Zevon’s songs were about mercenaries, boxers, junkies, outlaws, and drunks, but he wrote sentimental songs about heartbreak and love, too. For every badass with an Ingram gun, there was a hard-luck case in a cheap hotel or a dying lover saying goodbye. Just try to listen to “Keep Me in Your Heart” without getting a little misty.
Musically and during the interview of that last Late Show appearance (he was the show’s only guest for that episode), Zevon was in great form. He was dying of mesothelioma, and everyone in the studio knew it, but that dark humor brightened the mood throughout. “I might have made a tactical error by not going to a physician for 20 years,” he deadpanned. “It’s one of those phobias that didn’t pay off.” Discussing his upcoming album The Wind, which would be released to great acclaim the next year, he joked about how his doctors had given him the go-ahead to continue working, a thought that probably applied to his personal life as well: “They certainly don’t discourage you from doing whatever you want. It’s not like bed rest and a lot of water will straighten you out.”
But Zevon was reflective, too. His simple advice when Letterman asked about his outlook in the face of imminent death has stuck with me and many of his fans. It’s humorously mundane and profound at once: “Enjoy every sandwich.” I’ve seen it on tattoos and diner menus.
Zevon’s ride came for him 10 months later, September 7, 2003, three months after the birth of his twin grandsons and less than two weeks after the release of The Wind. He was 56.
That evening after the gun range visit, I was alone in my motel room, missing my family, and feeling sentimental after a few beers. Warren Zevon was all I listened to that night, including everything on this playlist. It felt appropriate somehow.