It can never do any harm to remember Warren Zevon once again. His wordplay was sublime in so many unexpected ways. It included such gems as the dark but deliciously assonantal recitative “a little old lady got mutilated late last night” (say it out loud) in Werewolves of London. Or the measured “And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will, I predict this motel will be standing – until I pay my bill” set against a stately Tex-Mex meets Nelson Riddle arrangement .
His topics were often mordantly humorous, as in his geopolitical analysis in a stinging crank-it-to-11 number from 1982 (yes, 1982), whose verse blasts:
Nuclear arms in the Middle East
Israel is attacking the Iraqis
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese
And Baghdad does whatever she please
Looks like another threat to world peace
For the envoy…
Zevon’s range was as protean as it was uncompromising. Take his antidote to Paul Simon’s Graceland, where Zevon proposes going to Memphis, disinterring the dead Elvis and “begging him to sing… about those heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned”, or the tale of the retributions of the spirit of a deceased African mercenary, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, or being cuckholded on holiday by Hawaiian hula hula boys, or the gap year gone wrong in Send lawyers, guns and money, or having his drug dealer shot “by some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills”.
Warren presciently called one of his albums Life’ll kill ya – and undiagnosed mesothelioma did, 11 years ago next September. He just had time enough to put together one last album called in truly Zevonic style The Wind — as he had little enough of it is his diseased lungs to sing. And when a dying man sings Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door you know he’s thinking about where to hang his hat and whether to wipe his feet once inside that door.
Though pharmaceutical and alcoholic meanderings deprived Zevon of the recognition he deserved, he left us with a supremely Zen summation of what it’s about. When asked on the David Letterman show (it’s on You Tube in its entirety, as are many of his songs), whether his illness had taught him anything of life, the dying Zevon replied “How much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich”. As Letterman said after Warren Zevon died: “If this guy’s not a poet, who is?”