Life’ll Kill Ya – Nick Hasted
(From the September 2002 issue of Uncut)


“His last hit was in 1978," says a stagehand, out of earshot of the fading star.

“He doesn't put out,” agrees another, sadly.

"But Zevon, you gotta listen to his lyrics," demurs stagehand three.

"What is this, a cafeteria?" asks the star's guitarist, stage left.

If it’s Sunday, this must be Pittsburgh -the latest date on Warren Zevon's last American tour of the Eighties. The venue in this burnt-out steel town looks more like a school assembly hall than a cafeteria, with plastic chairs and zero atmosphere. In a corner of its stage a man with a body that looks gutted, and a face pale with exhaustion, drinks Coke and plays "Moon River". This is the most hardboiled, harshly undervalued, hysterically funny songwriter in America, Warren Zevon. Not many could have known, even then.

It wasn't always that way. The Zevon legend had already been written by 1989, the year of my first of three testing encounters with him. The songs were one part of that legend, "Werewolves Of London" (1978) the hit. "Better stay away from him -he'll rip your lungs out, Jim" Zevon hysterically warned, in a jaunty tune about lycanthropic mayhem intended as a homage to his hero and eventual friend, Hunter S. Thompson. His other near-hits of the Seventies veered from lush ballads like "Accidentally Like a Martyr" - a hit for Linda Ronstadt - to lyrics of more desperate romance: "Desperadoes Under the Eaves", "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead", "Lawyers, Guns And Money". Though he was recording in LA at the time of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and such musicians were on his records, he was clearly a punk at heart. "Excitable Boy" in particular, the title track from his 1978 LP, was the most guiltily funny US pop song till Eminem 20 years later, predicting his tone with its prom date from Hell: "... he raped her and killed her, then he took her home/Excitable boy, they all said/ Well, he’s just an excitable boy.”

By the time our boy had dug his date's body up and decorated the trees with her bones, you knew you'd left the Hotel California. When Zevon casually admitted in an interview that this psycho's memorable smearing of pot roast on his chest at dinner was something he'd done himself, you feared his own life might be as great an outrage on decent values.  And so it was.

Zevon was born in 1947, the son of a Jewish pro gambler father and respectable Mormon mother. He grew up in California and was acclaimed as a prodigy almost as soon as he could talk. He knew Stravinsky in LA, but put his classical ambitions aside to try out as a Dylanesque folk singer in 1964 Greenwich Village. When he failed, he returned to the fringes of LA's pop scene. Then in 1971, the Everly Brothers made him their band-leader, and "the road, booze and I became an inseparable team". Seeming to want to live out Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, in 1974 he dropped acid with his girlfriend Crystal and, guzzling vodka all the way, drove through the night to marry in Reno. The next year, they moved to Franco's Spain - "Looking for trouble," he told me in Pittsburgh, "where they still point machine-guns in your face." Back in LA, his friend Jackson Browne had convinced David Geffen to give Zevon a contract, and his most successful records, Warren Zevon (1976) and Excitable Boy (1978) followed. But the booze had crept up on him, and made him a monster. He played gigs he couldn't remember, and woke in the night to count the bullets in his gun, fearful of what he might have done. His wife got up once and found him shooting holes in the picture of himself on the sleeve of Excitable Boy. It took a kindly visit by his Californian crime-writing idol Ross MacDonald to save his life. He confessed all in Rolling Stone in 1981, then took the piss out of celebrity confessionals on Sentimental Hygiene (1987), with R.E.M., Neil Young and Bob Dylan in his band. But, somewhere in the mirk and mayhem, he had lost his audience.

When I took a Greyhound to Pittsburgh that weekend in 1989, a 22-year-old beginner looking for a story (which would not be told, until now), Zevon's final attempt on the mainstream was failing. His expensive concept LP Transverse City, inspired by William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and the alienation of mall culture, had had the plug pulled by Virgin before he could finish it, and would not trouble the charts. When I met him in his hotel room, he looked worn and had a crippling headache. But, in the wreckage of his career, he told me he was happy.  "When people say to me, 'Don’t you wish you were more successful?"' he said in his sardonic, uniquely snappy Californian drawl.

“I say, ‘No.’.  My comparison is with real people doing their jobs as best they can, they dorm t worry about how many people like it. And I'm very pleased to have this job. At the time I was very young-under 10, as early as I can remember - I had this sense that I would be an artist ... a fine artist, as opposed to a pop artist. And as such I assumed that I would survive, and be content with that. I did, and I am."

Then we wound back to the bad, boozing days - how he got into them, and how he got out.

"I'd come away from my youthful fascination with Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson with the idea that the more one performed one's work in one's life, the more integrity the work had," he recalled. "Eventually I decided that maybe the more you needed to perform, the less you were creating, and the more you were just trying to stumble through a Salvador movie of your own experience. I'd become like a Time magazine profile of a real person, like a novel. l realised all that matters in the end is, are you bad to people? Are you honest, or are you not? I guess you can be drunk and tend not to be dishonest, not be unkind - just be drunk. But when I stopped behaving that way, I liked it like this. Be most unfortunate if I had to tell you I didn't."

Before we went outside to the .show, I asked him about his songs. It would be the first shot in a decade-long duel to make him admit they meant anything at all.

"Every song I write I try to make sound like the songs I like," he deadpanned. "The main purpose of 'Boom- Boom Mancini' [about the Eighties boxer who killed a man in the ring] was to sound like 'Start Me Up'. Lyrics can be something morally adequate to sing for three minutes when I feel like it. 'Boom-Boom Mancini' is about saying the guy's name. None of it's very conscious, and there are no resolutions. This is the material world, Nick, and there are no resolutions anywhere."


"I maybe old and I maybe bent/But I had the money till it all got spent... I had to stay in the underground/ I was in the house when the house burned down." Warren Zevon - "I Was In The House When The House Burned Down"

Eleven years on, and we're talking again. Commercially, time's only been cruel to Zevon. Four more excellent albums - R.E.M.-backed covers LP Hindu Love Gods (1990), Mr Bad Example (1991), Learning To Flinch (1993) and Mutineer (1995) - all sold so poorly that he effectively retired. He'd been a spectral presence throughout the decade, present only when followers evoked his name.  "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead" (from Mr Bad Example) became uncredited inspiration for the movie; Larry Sanders and David Letterman gave him gigs; former wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura surreally invited him to sing "Lawyers, Guns And Money" at his inauguration as Governor of Minnesota.  But from this washed-up phase, almost accidentally, Zevon would compile the songs which eventually became 2000's Life'll Kill Ya, a snarling comeback about losing your fame, health and life, in roughly that order.

This time, I located him in a speeding car on a Massachusetts highway. Speaking on his mobile phone, he was more reluctant than ever to explain himself.  So that inauguration, I enquired, was it odd?

"Only because singing 'the shit has hit the fan' to government inauguration reminds you that there's some kind of strange progression in American politics. The fact that I was wearing a suit and the governor was dressed like Jimi Hendrix was also bizarre - pleasantly so."

Then I tried getting deeper into the work - this time for an album as deathly funny as Dylan's Time Out Of Mind, worthy of endless discussion - and Zevon clammed up again. It took a passing Massachusetts Highway Patrolman to revive him when, mid- interview, the cop pulled him over and pulled out all his old gonzo flare.

"Why are we stopping?" he suddenly gasped to his driver. "Were you speeding? They don't want to know you're with me! What are you counting on, some kind of mercy? Yeah, sure, tell'em, this is Warren Zevon. He's talking to the English press. They'll drag us out and beat us like crows! What, are you going to start giving him promotional material now? We'll be sodomised in prison before the sun goes down!"

It didn't come to that. The Highway Patrolman, it turned out, was a Zevon fan, that rare, secret breed. But when I tried to resurrect the interview, Zevon had had time to plot his escape.

"I can't hear ya, Nick," he wailed, "can't hear ya at all. The phone's buzzing horribly. There are wires across the highway. Horrible, horrible buzzing…”

Click.  And he’d gone again.

Take three, and things aren’t looking up. Zevon and I are sitting down for the first time in 11 years. It's late afternoon, and we've retired to a London hotel's dark, empty bar, glinting with hundreds of varieties of his former liquid ruin. He drinks coffee, but it doesn’t seem to clear his head. Our phone encounter had tickled him enough to want to try talking to me again, to really answer my questions this time, for Uncut. But when the tape rolls, once more his head starts splitting, and words won’ t come. One of the most articulate men in rock, something in Zevon’s brain rebels at the whole concept of interviews. Taking pity he at last explains what it is.

 "I want to find the least obnoxious way I can of not participating in too much discussion of my work," he admits. "I believe that artists are essentially idiots whose ideas are painfully innocent, or dangerous. I'm not going to try to give anyone answers."

So for our last 30 minutes together, I try the scattershot approach, going over Zevon’s life one final time, trying to find what's in the head of rock's most hardboiled songwriter by sleight of hand. It's strained, awkward. But, sliver by sliver, he lets his true thoughts on rock, art, excess and America slip out.  What, for instance, does he think of his hellraising days now?

"In a lot of ways it was a lot of fun," he confesses. "And it was all interesting. Even the agony. It made me reckless, which is always good, if it doesn’t kill ya. And if it kills ya, it doesn't hurt anybody - it's just unfortunate for you. Or so we assume." And is it really fair to blame the romantic self-destruction of his favourite writers - Mailer, Thompson, F Scott Fitzgerald - for a life that careered so close to the alcoholic edge?

"Well, no. Their real influence was that, when Mailer and Hunter wrote in their own voices, they were writing about an intensely experienced moment­to-moment existence. That's what art's supposed to be about. It's not about how you should behave, or what you should vote for. Artists are supposed to be people who are thunderstruck by the sheer awe of existence. That's all. It's like when me and Crystal went out to Spain - we went because it was exciting, it was cheap, we had experiences. That's how everyone thinks, isn’t it? Where am I going to have a good night that's fun? When I'm tired, I'll sleep. And if they don t think like that, it's the artist's job to remind them that life is short, but can be intensely sweet.  So you'd better think of something to do tonight."

What about when he started out, as that Greenwich Village folkie? What were his hopes? Did he want to change the world, like Dylan? "What appealed to me was bringing the resources and references I felt I had as an intellectual to pop. And when I say intellectual, I don’t mean anything good, I don’t mean smart. But I do know what I know, a vast, useless amount about 20th-century art, more than you could ever imagine. And I wrote that way. And I thought it might be interesting to people. And someday, maybe it will be."  Then he moved back to a Seventies LA scene that was an object of loathing in punk Britain. Could he feel punk hitting from where he was? Could he understand why so many wanted to bring his friends and peers crashing to the ground?

 "No. It's all showbusiness to me. And when you talk about showbusiness, to me there are only two things you can be - hypocritical or not hypocritical. Is there a distinction between The Eagles and The Sex Pistols? Do the chaps in The Sex Pistols think they're in showbusiness? I'm sure they do. I have faith they do. They'd be the first to tell you. They're every bit as much showbusiness personalities as the Rat Pack."

But many still consider rock'n'roll separate from showbiz, I say, because, once, it seemed like it could change the world. Surely, in his near-four decades in American rock, he's believed that too?


Not even when he first listened to Dylan?

 "No. Well..." For the first time in 11 years, he lets his defences drop. "Maybe I'm being a little hypocritical now. I guess it depends on the social changes. The issues that matter in America are racism, genderism and poverty. Are my songs about those things? They might be about the things that produce those results in civilisation. Like the endless human capacity to bullshit yourself. I'm better than them because I'm this colour, I'm better than them because I'm an intellectual." He indicates the result. "Bang, bang."

2002: My Ride’s Here

When his new album My Ride's Here -continuing Life’lll Kill Ya's dark revival, with more laughs - arrives this year, Zevon chooses not to pick up the phone and speak again. Maybe he regretted his sudden candour. Or maybe he decided he's finally said enough.