Remembering Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 2, 2003) -- They don’t make them like Warren Zevon anymore. The rock singer-songwriter, who died several weeks ago, was an uncanny original with a unique voice and sensibility. His extensive talent and the depth of his songwriting ability were forever overshadowed by the fluke success of his 1978 novelty hit, “Werewolves of London.” Listeners who dared to venture beyond that hit discovered much deeper and more profound gifts.

It was easy to overlook those gifts, given the way Zevon’s career played out on the laid-back, Southern California rock scene in the 1970s. He was in some ways an integral part of that scene, providing hits for Linda Ronstadt (“Poor Pitiful Me,” “Carmelita”) and collaborating with the likes of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne.

But Zevon was no mere Southern California lightweight, and it would be wrong – as well as inaccurate – to hold his musical friends against him. Earlier in his career, Zevon’s running mates included the Everly Brothers, for whom he served as pianist and bandleader, and Igor Stravinsky, with whom he briefly studied while still in high school. Later on, he’d wind up partnering with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and members of R.E.M.

But his friends and influences, musical and otherwise, are beside the point. Zevon was a remarkably astute, literate writer, whether he was waxing sentimental in songs like “Hasten Down the Wind,” also a hit for Ronstadt, or being riotously satirical, as in “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” His early work captured the sun, sweat and sex of Seventies California with such glistening, evocative detail -- “I hear mariachi static on the radio,” he sang in “Carmelita” – that even someone utterly indifferent to that scene was drawn in by the color and drama his songs evoked.

Years before anyone began using the term with -- or without -- irony, Zevon was poking fun at liberal political correctness in songs like “Excitable Boy.” He had his favorite characters to whom, like a short story writer, he returned again and again – an odd menagerie of mercenaries, psycho killers and vagabonds – but he also touched universal chords in memorable ballads such as “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” in which he sang, “Never thought I’d ever pay so dearly for what was already mine.”

He had his favorite chords, too, and he used some of them over and over again (to the frustration of some of my family members). But his early work, especially, is also full of musical surprises. One often stumbles upon instrumental orchestral passages of astonishing beauty and complexity embedded in what otherwise sounds like signature SoCal, country-rock. His albums boast gorgeous piano playing, and he could play blues as easily as funk.

Zevon was an artist of contrasts, and the classical composer and arranger often wrestled with the former jingle writer. What came out was a unique blend of both, as well as some of the greatest pop music of the rock era. And he kept it up until the very end. His final album, The Wind (Artemis), ranks up there with his all-time best – a defiant blast of energy, humor and love from a man who knew he was dying, a man who had been laughing about death in song -- and perhaps in life, too -- for over 30 years, and a man whose presence will be deeply missed, especially in a music scene almost totally lacking the essential, idiosyncratic virtues that he had in abundance.

A few years ago, a two-CD anthology of Zevon’s work was released, named after one of Zevon’s earliest and wildest songs, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.

Sweet dreams, Warren.

Critic’s picks

Boston-based world-funk band Atlas Soul blends North African pop, reggae, soca and West African high-life in French, English, Arabic and Hebrew, for an authentic musical melting pot, at Mass MoCA (662-2111) on Saturday night at 7:30.

Long before Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club were household names, “Havana” Jane Bunnett was garnering frequent flyer miles between her native Toronto and Cuba on musical expeditions that have resulted in an impressive body of work that fuses mainstream jazz and Cuban music. Bunnett collaborates with 80 Cuban musicians on her latest CD, Cuban Odyssey (Blue Note), mostly recorded in Cuba – in some way, her own very personal and effective answer to “Buena Vista Social Club.” Bunnett brings her group, Spirits of Havana, to Club Helsinki (528-3394) in Great Barrington on Saturday at 9, in the first of a monthlong celebration of Latin music featuring Grupo Fantasma on Oct. 10, Habana Sax on Oct. 11, and Babaloo on Oct. 18.

It’s the weekend of dueling folk coffeehouses, with New England folksinger Lui Collins at the Common Grounds Coffeehouse (499-0866) in Pittsfield at the First United Methodist Church, 55 Fenn St, while Boston’s Peter Mulvey and Pittsfield’s Bob Thistle entertain at the Railway Café (664-6393) in North Adams at St. John's Parish Hall, 59 Summer St. Both shows are at 8.

Sonya Kitchell, the Pioneer Valley’s 14-year-old answer to Norah Jones, is back at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday at 7, with a new band of mostly Berkshire-based musicians including bassist Jon Suters, guitarist Jason Ennis, drummer Conor Meehan and saxophonist Emiliano Garcia.

Arlo Guthrie and the Dooley Austin Band team up for an outdoor show at 2 on Saturday at Bucksteep Manor (623-5535) in Washington.

Singer-songwriter Bernice Lewis plays an all-too-rare Berkshire gig on Saturday at St. Helena’s Church on New Lenox Road in Lenox.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 2, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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