Warren Zevon: The Man Who Wrote "Lawyers, Guns and Money"
Talks About Anything But
Saturday, Mar 18, 2000 5:00 PM UTC
by David Bowman, Salon.com
Warren Zevon’s new record, “Life’ll Kill Ya,” is prime Zevon. Toxic. Sardonic. Melodic. One song’s refrain is, “My shit’s fucked up.” In another, Zevon unsuccessfully saws a woman in half. He covers that old Steve Winwood hit “Back in the High Life Again” with the resigned detachment of someone sitting on death row in Texas wearing a “Bush for President” button.
Zevon is an acquired taste, like sloe gin … or capital punishment. He is best known, perhaps, for his musical stints for the David Letterman show. You may even remember “Werewolves of London,” his novelty hit in the 1970s. But Zevon is a highbrow. When he was a young man, he was befriended by Igor Stravinsky. Zevon himself can write a symphony in his sleep. His best rock songs are literate elegies about lawyers and love and detoxing in Los Angeles.
I had lunch with Zevon recently on the other coast. In New York. At first Zevon seems as terse as an L.A. private eye.
“Where are you living?” I ask.
“Los Angeles.” Zevon spits out the name.
“The same place?” I ask. (I’m unintentionally speaking in shorthand. Thirty years ago he lived in Hollywood. Is Zevon living in the same place?)
“The same place for a long, long time,” he answers.
“Where?” I ask again.
“Where in Hollywood?”
He frowns. “I’ll never be more specific than that. It’s just a squalid apartment in Hollywood.”
“Like Tom Waits at the Tropicana?” I say.
“No,” he says, with an edge to his voice. “I don’t think Tom Waits lives in the Tropicana anymore.”
Oh course. Waits hasn’t lived there since the 1970s. The same decade that introduced Zevon records to the world. I’ve followed Zevon’s personal mythology for more than 20 years. I would have imagined that we’d lunch in a joint with proximity to lawyers, guns and money (to appropriate one of his song titles). But we’re not. His record company set us up in a tea shop in Chelsea.
Yes, tea. I could have imagined Zevon speaking tenderly of the perfect grip of the Smith & Wesson model 41 match pistol, but instead I’m sitting here and he’s having a conversation with our waitress about goddamn tea.
When she asks me what I want, I say, “I’ll just have coffee.”
“We don’t serve coffee,” the waitress says. She says this pleasantly, but she says it like I must be an idiot.
I order hot chocolate. “No whipped cream or anything,” I insist.
I’m having hot chocolate with Warren Zevon? At least let us talk about handguns. But when I bring up the subject, he’s evasive. I ask if he owns a gun.
“I wouldn’t answer that if I did or didn’t,” he says. “If I had enemies I might want them to think I was heavily armed and fortified. As opposed to readily available and cheerfully, good-naturedly available as we know that I am.”
I change the subject. “The new record is great. Are you hearing that from people?”
“Not too many have really heard it,” he says. “I kinda made the record for six people.” He says he recorded it for the most part at home. “I thought this might be my last album. I gave a tape to David Letterman and he plugged it on the air. At some point, I played it for Jackson [Browne]. ‘I don’t think I’m gong to do anything with it, but I think you should hear it.’ We sat in my car and I played it for him. He said, ‘Are you going to do anything with these?’ I said, ‘I dunno. Maybe not.’”
Browne knew a guy starting a label and Zevon popped a tape in the mail. As ambivalent as Zevon was, he had a new album.
“Your last few records sounded too much like ‘Warren Zevon’ records,” I say. “The new one sounds like you’re trying.”
“I’m always trying exactly the same thing,” he says. “I don’t have any agenda. No commercial ones.”
While the waitress sets up the tea and hot chocolate, I ask Zevon for personal details. He has a “significant other.” He has two grown children — a son who’s a film producer and an actress daughter. Zevon then asks the waitress for “phony sugar.” I look at the menu for food. Everything is fishy. Does fish go with tea? I don’t want fish. I ask for something “bread-ish.” She suggests scones.
Zevon doesn’t want anything to eat.
“Is your health OK?” I ask.
“I hope so,” he answers slowly. “I think so.”
“I’m not asking because you’re not eating,” I tell him. “There are three different songs about health on the new record. ["Life'll Kill Ya," "My Shit's Fucked Up" and "Don't Let Us Get Sick."] It made me think, ‘I hope he’s OK.’”
“It made me think that, too,” Zevon says, sipping tea. “But I try not to think about it too much. I write songs about things that I’m simultaneously trying to not think about.”
I’m silent a moment. “Do people expect you to be a Graham Greene type?” I say.
“I’m more like Mao,” he answers. “He was a nicer fellow. He was a lot better writer. Don’t you think?” I don’t answer right away. “Can I get a witness?” he asks.
I smile. “My favorite Mao quote goes something like, ‘After the enemies with guns have been wiped out, it will be time to wipe out our other enemies who do not have guns.’”
Zevon smiles. He won’t talk about guns. He takes a long sip of tea, then says, “The fact of the matter is, what I am actually, no one ever talks about. I’m actually an art guy.”
“An art guy?” I repeat.
“Yeah. An art guy. That’s my job. That’s what I know. I know an encyclopedic amount about visual art. Poetry. And music. Classical music especially. All that stuff. That’s the actual rest of my life.”
“Didn’t you go to Juilliard?” I ask.
“No,” he answers softly, “I didn’t finish high school.” He then reveals he wrote a classical piece a couple of years ago.
“What happened to it?”
“Could something happen if you wanted it to?”
“I suppose so. It’s an orchestral piece. Maybe there are orchestras that will play a kind of pleasantly modern piece by someone mildly famous. I assume it’s kind of good. I played it for a couple of people. I’m missing an ambitious link in the presentation.”
I ask him what that means. He tells me, “I have a tendency to finish things and say, ‘That’s good.’” He pauses. “Frankly, when I finished the initial part of this record I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do anything with it. One is conflicted by the need to make a living, too. Something presents itself and you have to write this theme for a TV show. And they’ll humiliate you and it will be hard work and you’ll get paid and it will be great.”
“Have you done that?” I ask.
“Yes indeed,” he says, and tells me about writing music for William Shatner. Zevon even does a wicked imitation of Capt. Kirk saying, “Wait! Don’t we need more driving guitars here?”
“Hollywood is the big nipple for writers,” I say. I get my scones. “I’d sell out in a New York minute if I actually had something anybody wanted to buy.”
“You should,” Zevon says. “You should. Distinctions are kind of vague between art with a capital A and art with two R’s, don’t you think?”
It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t answer. Instead I dunk my scone in my hot chocolate.
“Which is better,” Zevon asks, “the screenplay that William Faulkner wrote for ‘The Big Sleep’ or ‘Absalom, Absalom!’? Which is better: ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Tender Is the Night’? I had this discussion with Ross Macdonald once.”
“The last one is easy,” I say. “‘Chinatown.’”
Zevon gives a friendly smile. “That’s what he said. Absolutely. And Macdonald was a great Fitzgeraldian. In other words, I don’t think you can sell out. No one is interested. It’s important to have those kinds of issues for yourself every day, but no one really cares. They shouldn’t care. The distinction between a decent sitcom and what went on in the Brooklyn Museum of art are for others with idler hands than ours to play around with, don’t you think?” Without waiting for an answer, he continues, “I started out in life writing serial music when I was 12 years old. Writing [Pierre] Boulez and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. So I know a little something about self-declared fine art.”
“What exactly is ‘serial music’ anyway?” I ask.
“Twelve-tone music,” he says, then rubs his face. “Oh God, you don’t want to know. It’s a paradigm. A technique. It’s a way to cloak an uninspired composition. With simple melodic music, you know right away it’s bad.”
“How did you learn it as a kid?”
“Just like a model airplane kind of deal,” he answers.
I ask, “Were you a prodigy?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think I was prodigiously talented. But people took an interest in me. Robert Kraft. Know who he is? He’s a writer and a conductor. I think he tried to get a grant for me when I was a teenager.”
“How did you go from 12-tone to rock ‘n’ roll?”
“Peer pressure. Puberty. There’s more that’s better in popular music than classical music. Classical music was popular music in the 19th century.”
I ask him, “What led you to stake out the noir ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’ genre?”
He answers, “It just sort of happened. I wrote like what I’d always read and what was in the movies. I read every word of [Norman] Mailer growing up. And [John] Updike. And not being in school I hadn’t read the classics. [Thomas] McGuane once told me that he read Flaubert for my sins. If I thought about it, and I may have, I thought, ‘I’m sure popular music is supposed to be like this.’”
“Did Jackson Browne help you get started?” I ask.
He doesn’t really answer the question, but he does. “I was always starting. I always worked as a musician one way or another. Jackson Browne comes along every 15 years and helps me get a job as Warren Zevon. I’ve done other things. TV themes. The first thing I did in the 1960s, when I was a kid, was write commercials.”
He tells me that he scored the famous ketchup commercial where a whole tomato sits on the bottle and then magically appears inside. As he talks, Japanese flute music starts playing. (God, I really hate this tea joint!) At this point, Zevon notices that I’m carrying a book about suicide with me. I tell Zevon I once interviewed the woman who wrote it. “She claims only maniac depressives kill themselves,” I say, and then tell Zevon, “I’ve always believed if things got really bad — if my shit ever got really fucked up — I’d kill myself rather than go to a concentration camp or something.”
“Do you?” he asks me, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” I answer. I polish off a scone.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Zevon says.
“We don’t know enough shit.” He says that and the Japanese flute starts really wailing away like the soundtrack to an Akira Kurosawa movie. “We don’t know enough to make any decisions. I wouldn’t set myself up to make those decisions.”
“My wife is into the Eastern shit,” I say, pointing at the air as if the flute music was visible.
“And she doesn’t agree with you, does she?” Zevon says.
“No,” I answer. “The karma of it –”
“No,” he says quickly. “It’s not just the karma. The Tao says, ‘Old men like being old and young men like being young. And good is good, and bad is good too.’ As my father used to say in his late 80s, ‘It’s all good.’ But I don’t get depressed. I don’t know.” He raises his teacup. “I’m insane. I’m fucked up. I have problems. But I don’t get depressed and I don’t get bored.”
He downs the rest of his tea in a single gulp. No gongs ring, but I guess my lesson is over.
Life’ll kill ya …