Rocklike / A Quiet, Normal Life

We were waiting for the man in Minnesota, in 1976. My partner Art had a house right off Lake Minnetonka and we were broiling on his back porch, which faced west on to Brown's Bay, fronting the lake. The sun was slowly going down directly in front of us. It had been hellacious - hot and humid. We both knew we were going to be waiting for a while. It’s the first thing you learn.

Art had a massive stereo, made out of repurposed speakers from a recently failed movie theater augmented with two Altec A7 cabinets. A Linn LP12 turntable funneled the music into a McIntosh C-22 preamp which was blown through four McIntosh MC3500s. It was a sublime setup. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Secret Treaties” was slugging away at 90+dB, and Art and I were in agreement BOC were probably the only real rock and roll band working in America at the moment.

Well, the man turned up, we tuned up, and went back to the porch. The sun was setting and the temperature had dropped to a tolerable level. A nice breeze had picked up and the sultry aroma of late summer dog days wafted up from the lake through the floor to ceiling screen windows of his porch.

Then, the music stopped. It was intensely quiet. Like a boneyard.

Art went and put on another record and returned with a couple of frosty, salted greyhounds.

“You’ll like this,” He said with a smile.

But initially I didn’t. This was not rock and roll at all. It was some kind of LA Hippie music. There was a piano plinking. Someone was singing about Frank and Jesse James and how they did the best they could, which was about right, but the music was kind of off-putting. Then I recognized a song “Hasten Down the Wind”. I knew it from Linda Ronstadt’s recent album.

And then, it kind of took off. This cat was singing about having a “.38 on the shelf” and how he’d sleep when he’s dead, which segued into “Another pretty face, devastated, the French Inhaler”, followed closely by some junkie lamenting pawning his Smith Corona to buy smack from the man at the “Pioneer Chicken stand”.

"If you're lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you drop dead. That's as many pats on the back as you should expect."

Zevon's music posed the musical question: What is the difference between sarcastic and sardonic? It was like a Jim Thompson or Elmore Leonard sing-along OCD songbook. Imagine someone updating Bertolt Brecht to 1970s Laurel Canyon. The closer I listened, the more I realized all the lyrics were about broken love, deceit, danger or violence. All the wars were happy and all the songs were sad. Such was my introduction to Warren Zevon.

I was right about the LA Hippie thing. Jackson Browne had produced Zevon's eponymous 1976 album, which had just been released. I bought the tape the next day and I've been a fan ever since. If you're interested in the concept of Zevon and Browne playing together, check out The Offender Meets the Pretender, a Dutch bootleg. Browne invested heavily in Zevon, bringing him out in the middle of some of his concerts to give Zevon exposure.

Zevon was never a household name, but his fans were and are zealous and evangelic, and he was admired by many of his contemporaries. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, Don Henley and the Pixies admired and/or covered his work.

He also had friends in the literary/entertainment fields. Hunter Thompson, Dave Letterman, Tom McGuane, Billy Bob Thornton and Stephen King were all fans and friends of Warren’s. Zevon dedicated his album “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” to Ken Millar, AKA hard-boiled detective novelist Ross Macdonald.

His musical output was spotty - at least in terms of commercial sales. He collapsed right out of the gate with 1969's Kim Fowley produced “Wanted Dead or Alive”, which only hinted at what would become his most consistent themes - romance gone bad, drugs and alcohol and noirish violence.

After a second album was deemed unworthy of release, and facing serious financial straits, Zevon quit LA, and moved to Spain where he entertained at the Dubliner Bar in Sitges near Barcelona. It was here he co-wrote “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” with the barkeep, David Lindell, a former mercenary.

He was soon back in LA with Browne producing and working with quality session players including Waddy Wachtel and David Lindley with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt on backup vocals. The resulting album “Excitable Boy” was a watershed. "I always thought most of Excitable Boy was too violent for the average listener," said Zevon. Regardless, it went platinum and it contains some of his best work, including the title song, “Lawyers Guns and Money”, and of course “Werewolves of London”. Linda Ronstadt recorded “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” and Willie DeVille did a knockout version of “Carmelita”.

He regularly recorded with musicians he admired, including Browne, Lindley, Young, Dylan and George Clinton. His music started to turn up in movies and on television in everything from Midnight Cowboy to Color of Money to Dancing with the Stars.

“We buy books because we believe we are buying the time to read them.”

I only met Zevon once, in 1978, when he played a show at the legendary Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. Excitable Boy had been released and he was starting to get some serious airplay, but was still basically under the radar. He was fronting a crack band which included Waddy Wachtel - who he had worked with since both played with the Everly Brothers in the early 70s. Rick Marotta was the drummer with Stanley Sheldon on bass.

I've never been much of a collector, so I don't have so much as an autograph, but he seemed like a cool if intense guy. Some friends had come early and gotten us a table up close to the stage. I was with a gorgeous Hawaiian girl and I bought the band a round, encouraging my date to call the band’s attention to the free drinks. I think he came by with more interest in my date than for the drinks, but he did drink his (and another bandmate’s drink) before he went off to smoke. Here’s a link to a recording from within a couple weeks of the show at the Bear.

Of course, I had no idea how badly his drinking had gotten. The alcohol was in most of his songs, but I imagined he had a handle on things. I was quite wrong about that. Zevon said he hit bottom on a trip to New York for a Bruce Springsteen concert.

“Bruce is one of my dearest friends, which makes it so much worse. I remember waking up in the hotel room feeling I was going to die. I couldn't make it down the hallway. I knew I'd had it. I called Crystal (his wife) in L.A. and told her I was ready to get help, but I wanted to see Bruce first. She said, 'Warren, you've already seen him.' The idea that I couldn't remember seeing someone I felt that close to was the most frightening thing of all. It was an abuse of our friendship and of my self-respect."

Zevon made his way back to LA and his wife wound up driving him to treatment at Santa Barbara’s Pinecrest Alcohol Treatment Center, “I was kicking all the way”, said Zevon. “If those weren't the DT's, I'd hate to see the real thing". It took Zevon six weeks as an inpatient and five months as an outpatient to get dry. He fell off the wagon twice during that period. He lived to tell the tale, even while his six-year marriage to Crystal did not.

Over the next 25 years, Zevon released another nine albums, including the five year hiatus after “The Envoy” was released in 1982. Ross Macdonald repaid Zevon for the album dedication by helping stage an intervention - aided by Rolling Stone journalist Paul Nelson - that forced Zevon into rehab at Hazleden in Minneapolis and helped Zevon temporarily stop drinking and drugging.

He never had another platinum record, but every album had that cachet to it. "Cachet — isn’t that like panache, but sitting down?” "Jeannie Needs a Shooter" from “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School”, "The Hula Hula Boys" from “The Envoy”, “Boom Boom Mancini” or “Detox Mansion” from “Sentimental Hygiene”, “Run Straight Down” from Traverse City”, “Model Citizen” from “Mr. Bad Example”, “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse’ from “Mutineer”, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” from “Life’ll Kill Ya”, “Hit Somebody-The Hockey Song” from “My Ride Is Here” or “Numb As A Statue” from “The Wind”.

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