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.
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
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.
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.
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."
wound back to the bad, boozing days - how he got into them, and how he got out.
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."
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.
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
MASSACHUSETTS, FEBRUARY 2000: MANIAC COP
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"
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.
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?
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."
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.
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!"
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.
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
And he’d gone again.
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.
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."
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?
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?
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."
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
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."
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?
even when he first listened to Dylan?
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,
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.