This year will mark the 16th anniversary of the death of Warren Zevon. His final album, The Wind was a triumph of imagination over impending disaster. Walking in the valley of the shadow of death and pale as a ghost, Warren feared no evil, as he delivered up “another bad one”.
Dependable to the end was Warren Zevon. Brilliant, witty, infused with rock and roll to the core, coming up with killer lines unequalled by anyone in the lyric writing game: such is the stuff of The Wind, which was his last release, recorded short months before he died of mesothelioma. Some of his stuff will break your heart (‘She’s Too Good For Me’) and make you wonder why he never really broke into the big time. Others, well, they’ll leave you gasping with envy and astonishment (‘Prison Grove’) at the sheer force of his musical inventiveness and insight.
Warren died September 7, 2003. The record had been released a scant two weeks previously.
One thing is for sure: these songs are gonna last a long time. Somewhere, sometime, some young kid is going to discover the Warren Zevon catalogue and make his or her name with a tribute album. It won’t be nearly as good as the originals of The Wind or Excitable Boy or Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School but it will be regarded as a major musical event. In the meantime we can remember what we had and what we lost with Warren’s passing.
Warren rounded up his finest friends to help him out on The Wind. It’s more than a stellar assembly: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Joe Walsh, Don Henley, and Jim Keltner appear, providing exceptional accompaniment to new material. And while Warren’s voice was considerably diminished by his rapidly deteriorating health, the intent, the vigour and his indomitable spirit shine throughout the record. ‘Dirty Life and Times’ and ‘The Rest of The Night’ echo some of his early tracks such as ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’, and ‘Excitable Boy’, while providing the disquieting knowledge that he wouldn’t be around much longer. Speaking of which, Warren’s cover of the Dylan classic ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ is alone worth the price of admission to this album – and while Warren was not noted for doing covers (he simply wrote too many great songs of his own) this track demonstrates he was a splendid interpreter of others’ material. Yes, and while it’s bitterly ironic and fitting that he chose this song to offer up in his final work, Warren’s vocal demands at the end of this track “open up, open up, open up” demonstrate something only he would do. He played everything for all it was worth.
You may not be aware what an exceptional pianist and composer the classically-trained Warren was. He was a teenage prodigy who had received both instruction and friendship from Igor Stravinsky. Warren often tried to make himself and us forget that he had once nourished symphonic ambitions. There’s an old saying that “life is what happens while you’re making other plans”, and life, in the form of drugs, alcohol and the road were what happened to Warren. Still, he never lost his real gifts, which were contradictory: a passion for rousing the populace from their ordinary lives, and a talent for digging deep into the vagaries of the human heart.
Not since his first self-titled record were the twists and turns of Warren’s elusive character better displayed side by side than on The Wind, which moves from the tender ‘Please Stay’ to the bluesy raunch of ‘Rub Me Raw’. Then there’s the closer ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’. He’s in fine vocal form on this track, and the lyrical content is heartbreakingly beautiful.
The Wind won two Grammys, with the album itself receiving the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, while ‘Disorder in the House’, Zevon’s duet with Bruce Springsteen, was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These posthumous awards were the first Grammys of Zevon’s thirty-plus year career.
No more need be said but this: Warren, you are greatly missed.