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  • Harry the Wheelchair Renegade

    Note: This article is no longer available on its original server - retrieved from the Internet Archive

    Zevon Is A Rugby Player
    By Harry the Wheelchair Renegade
    "Tell those rugby guys they can stay and listen to Warren all night if they want,
    but they're gonna have to get down off the tables . . ."
    --Common refrain from friendly bar managers in Atlanta, circa 1983

    Zevonfan1 and I recently had an e-mail conversation about what might have motivated Warren Zevon to start using the "smoking skull" image on his album covers. We figure that its source may go back some years and is likely to be related to Hunter S. Thompson, but after some discussion, we agreed that we don't know with any certainty what made him start using it in the late eighties to adorn his albums. I have a working theory of its motivation which I'll explain with some historical perspective. Please understand that this is speculative - based on a true story yes, but speculative none-the-less -- so if someone out there knows for sure otherwise (like the honorable Mr. Zevon himself) please accept my apologies.

    Back in the early eighties I played rugby for the Atlanta Renegades Rugby Football Club and, as a team, we invaded a Zevon concert one night in a now nonexistent Atlanta club named the Harvestmoon. It was a general admission concert that started rather early so we needed a volunteer to hold a place in line for the team. I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech at the time and was therefore able to break away from school easier than my working cohorts so I stepped forward. Armed with a bottle of Wild Turkey, another student and I went to the bar in the late afternoon and started the line out front. Not long after, Warren came along and greeted us casually as he went inside. That was cause for another shot which we liberally obliged ourselves. People showed up behind us as the afternoon turned to evening, but every time a teammate arrived we signaled them to come directly to the front of the line where we held sway. Those behind us grumbled but there wasn't any real confrontation. When the doors finally opened, we had at least twenty guys assembled. We crashed like a wave through the doors and proceeded to take possession of all the tables bordering the stage which was very close. That night Warren played solo with only an acoustic guitar. I've never seen anything less than a perfect show in the half-dozen concerts I've attended, but that one was particularly impressive because only he and his true talent were visible up there alone on that stark stage. We drank a lot of beer and made a lot of noise which I think he genuinely appreciated. At the suggestion of the single roadie accompanying him we even sang the "Time, time, time, for another peaceful war ..." background vocals when he sang "Roland." Somehow in the midst of the festivities, my teammate Dirt convinced me to take off my Renegades tee-shirt and during an intermission we gave it to the roadie as a gift to Warren. I guess I had started early enough not to know better. Anyhow, all hell broke lose when he came out to perform the encore wearing it. We were definitely hooked on Zevon music thereafter.

    From then on, for about ten years, whenever he came to town, we'd gather the team and go. Got to the point where he would come on stage and shout "Renegade!" and commonly wore one of our jerseys which we gave him each time. Many times he ad-libbed the famous line in "Werewolves of London" to be "Little old lady got mutilated late last night, Renegades of Georgia again." One of our teammates who owned a bar in Atlanta (Aunt Charley's alas, also no longer in existence) moved in local entertainment circles so, with his connections, at least two times we got to hang around after the concert and meet him. With that he kind of became the patron saint of our team which was fitting because rugby players are not known to walk straight lines (especially for an officer of the law) and Warren is the ultimate outlaw.

    We didn't reserve our fandom strictly for concerts either. Hardly did a Saturday night following a home game pass during our Fall or Spring seasons that we didn't gather around a keg in our team bar and serenade the other patrons with the entire album of "Excitable Boy." Whether they liked it or not. It didn't hurt, of course, that one of our teammates owned the bar, but even with that the refrain was heard more than once, "Tell those rugby guys they can stay and listen to Warren all night if they want, but they're gonna have to get down off the tables . .. ." Warren's lyrics were very apropos to our game and our rowdy attitudes and one can only hope it kept us out of a brawl or two.

    Those were golden years for many of us who look back from the future now, but they weren't without tragedy. In April of 1988 we played a championship match against the Boston Rugby Football Club in Philadelphia and, in an ill-formed scrum I broke my neck, permanently paralyzing me from the chest down. The difficulty my family and I experienced as a result is profound, yet the comradery of my team went very far in easing the burden. And we certainly didn't let it keep us from Zevon concerts. The following winter, either late ‘88 or early ‘89, Warren return to Atlanta where he played a small bar named "The Cotton Club." He was accompanied by Timothy B. Schmidt of Eagles fame and some other fine musicians whom I regret I cannot now name. It again was a vintage Zevon performance and came to be very special for me under the auspices of my injury. Somehow one of our team members got word of my situation to Warren back stage during a break and when he came out for the second set he dedicated the next song to me. It was the inspirational "Mohammed's Radio." Big ugly rugby players had tears in their eyes. And the tremendous beauty of Warren's music is that it lives - I can listen to that song now as I write these words and be back there for moment with my wife by my side and those big men showing more emotion than they would probably care to admit. After the concert we had the privilege to hang out with Warren for a short time. Across a table in that darkened bar I got a rare opportunity to speak to him of his music. My graduate study years before was in physics and I asked him about "Run Straight Down" which talks about entropy. I found that he didn't throw concepts such as that around idly just because they sound good. It was gratifying to experience the depth of his lyrics first hand.

    There were other concerts after that and of course other albums. I cannot overstate the euphoria born amongst my teammates when Mr. Bad Example was released with the song "Renegade." Surely, with its decidedly civil war tone and haunting lyrics about rebellion and standing together against all odds, he included it in recognition of our presence throughout the years. Then, in an interview published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspaper around 1990, he confirmed that the song was written as an acknowledgment of our support. At the time we also came to accept that the smoking skull was motivated by our team logo which is a skull and crossbones and is featured on the shirts and jerseys we gave him over the years. We actually got free entrance to a 1990 show and the passes were black laminated clip-on badges with the skull in the background. Its white letters read "Warren Zevon Tour ‘90 V.I.P. Renegades." I have two of them on my desk as I write this. To reiterate, I can't confirm this point with any certainty. But our patron saint had smiled upon us and we took it as a nice gesture.

    It has now been several years since I attended a Warren Zevon concert. Other Renegades and I moved away, younger players took our places on the rugby pitch, and the collective way we shared his music has diminished. Occasionally when I get to Atlanta we crank up "Excitable Boy," toss back some beers, and disturb the bar patrons. Of course it's not the same. But Warren Zevon gave us the gift of his music and that will remain. Old rugby players don't die - they just smell bad and listen to Warren Zevon records.

    Corroboration of my story can be made through the Atlanta Renegades Rugby Football Club. Although I don't know a lot of the current players, many members from my era still live in the area. The team website is  www.atlantarenegades.com. If you are ever in Atlanta, go to the bar "Mike and Angelos" on East Paces Ferry Rd. The owner, Mike Duggan, is the bar owner I mentioned above and he was at all the concerts. Tell him "Harry the Wheelchair Renegade sent me" and you'll make a friend. I'm sure Warren never knew my real name. I truly believe, however, that if you were ever to ask him if he has any vague memories of me by my nickname, he'd say "yes" and confirm this story. And I suppose he could tell you the history of the smoking skull as well.