It was a late spring afternoon when I returned home, my body humming with illicit substances. I was playing a cassette tape of Warren’s song “Empty Handed Heart,” and singing along to a descant he shared with Linda Ronstadt near the end of the song: “Then I’ve thrown down diamonds in the sand…Leave the fire behind you and start/I’ll be playing it by ear/Left here with an empty-handed heart.”
The song sounded beautiful beyond belief. The day was beautiful. Even I was beautiful. It was all so wonderful I started shouting “Glorious!” in the parking lot, attracting attention as I was wont to do in those days. I followed Warren’s career and emulated his debauched lifestyle. I was young and eminently stupid enough to pull it off.
But Empty Handed Heart was a glorious song, and still is one of many jewels in the body of work of the man born as Warren Zivotofsky - not Zevon. Warren’s ancestors were of Ukrainian and Jewish heritage. Upon landing in Brooklyn they changed their last name to Zevon.
I didn’t like everything Warren did, but invariably there were several songs on each album striking for their beauty, lyrical eloquence, or hysterical humor. Perhaps it is Zevon’s humor that sticks with me the most. His wit was by turns acerbic and slapstick – sometimes both at the same time. Songs like “Life’ll Kill Ya,” “Things to do in Denver when you’re Dead”, “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down,“ “Detox Mansion“ and “Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School (both references to Warren’s drug rehab) or the riotous “Gorilla You’re a Desperado”, a satire of James Taylor's album Gorilla:
“Big Gorilla at the L.A. Zoo / Snatched the glasses right off my face / Took the keys to my BMW / Left me here to take his place /“I wish the ape a lot of success / I’m sorry my apartment’s a mess / Most of all I’m sorry if I made you blue / I’m bettin’ the gorilla will too …“They say Jesus will find you wherever you go / But when he’ll come lookin’ for you they don’t know / In the meantime keep your profile low ? Gorilla you’re a desperado…”
Jesus looked Warren up a few times during his “Dirty Life and Times” (the sub-title of a biography of Zevon by his former wife Crystal Zevon, entitled "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," from which the quotes in this article are taken). Warren could, and perhaps should have died several times during his life. His failure to expire was not for want of trying. He was a raving alcoholic who never met a drug or a pill he didn’t like. Warren was a special friend of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. They both had a fondness for large hand guns, and for shooting them at things. When Warren got too insanely drunk or too addled on Darvon or Percocet or any number of drugs legal or otherwise he would – in a rare lucid moment – manacle himself in a corner so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did,” Zevon bragged in 2002, shortly after finding he had only months to live, courtesy of inoperable cancer. His peers considered Warren a musical genius. Critically acclaimed throughout his career, popular success eluded him until his death – with one exception. A little ditty Warren knocked off in less than an hour called “Werewolves of London” became his only hit song, a fact that annoyed Warren intensely. Perhaps it is proof that when it comes to humor, God always has the last laugh.
I saw Zevon in concert after we had both given up alcohol and drugs. He was energetic and happy to entertain the crowd in a good-natured way. The concert took place in Minneapolis the night of the first World Series game between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves. For an encore Warren came on stage with a Twins jersey on – and announced they had just won Game One. Then he launched into “Werewolves” and we all danced. It was a happy night.
Zevon seemed outwardly content with his new life of sobriety, but beneath the surface his addiction to alcohol was replaced by an addiction to sex and obsessive compulsive disorder. Part of Warren's OCD concerned bad luck or bad omens, which could be revealed only by asking “Is it bad luck?” not once, but twice.
So Warren was a tortured artist whether he was drunk or sober. When drugs were off the menu there was still sex and rock and roll to fall back on. Zevon also found occasional solace in religion. His first wife Crystal remembers how she and Warren used to sit in a church in Spain and hold hands. Warren told her he was going to convert to Catholicism and they would have a dozen babies. He sounded serious.
If religion had the power to periodically puncture Zevon’s cynical, sardonic wit, it was at other times the court of last resort. In 2000 Zevon lost his voice right before a show. As he tells the story: “Something told me to find a church. I walked right in on a mass in progress, left $100 in the poor box and prayed to sing. It was very bright outside and I felt light…The show was good. I know why. Peace be with you.”
Anyone tempted to canonize Zevon should hear the other side of the story. He could be an absolute bastard, selfish and cruel to the point of inhumanity, who used people to further his career then forsook them, who abused his wife, and once kicked her and their baby out of the house, leaving them in the snow on Christmas morning. He persevered in his craft for decades, but perseverance seemed always to duel with chaos and adversity in his personal life, almost as if suffering was a necessary ingredient of the perseverance – or vice versa.
Warren eventually landed a regular gig as head musician on the David Letterman Show, which is probably how most people remember him (aside from “Werewolves”). In 2002 when Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer Letterman devoted a show to Warren. As the vultures circled Warren started to get a taste of the fame that had eluded him all his life. He went into the studio to make one last album, the monster album, the best seller he would probably not live to see. This struck him as hilarious.
He grew weaker by the hour. There was real doubt whether Warren would live long enough to finish the album. “It’s a sin not to try to stay alive,” Warren told Bruce Springsteen during a session. What Zevon did not say was that he was drinking liquid morphine and chasing it down with $500 bottles of scotch. Impending death did what life could not – it knocked Warren off the sobriety wagon. Yet death did not shake his quiet undercurrent of religiosity. According to a friend, “his belief in God was unwavering. Never once did Warren question why this was happening to him.”
Zevon finished the album and called it “The Wind.” He lived long enough to be a grandfather when his daughter gave birth to twin boys. After the delivery Warren and Crystal went to the hospital chapel so Warren could “thank the Big Guy in the sky.” He died not much later, on September 7, 2003. He left behind a lot of people who had grown to love him over the good years and bad years. I still listen to Warren and I have good memories of the good years and bad years I had growing up and growing older with him. For every lyric of his that makes my heart ache there is another one that gives me a belly laugh. May God bless and keep you, you damned old werewolf. Warren Zivotofsky, Requiescat in pacem.