He thought he'd be dead by now, eaten up with the cancer that invaded his lungs and conquered his body. All he wanted, only last fall, was to live long enough to see the latest James Bond movie, Die Another Day, whose title he took as instruction. Warren Zevon revealed in September 2002 he had just months to live, as a result of mesothelioma, the variety of lung cancer that offed Steve McQueen. But Zevon has not yet caved to the inevitable, which lurks around the corner like a mugger with a shiv: He's currently in the studio working on his final album, with such old friends as Jorge Calderon, Don Henley, Ry Cooder and David Lindley; one new song, "My Life and Dirty Times," includes the lines, "Sometimes I wonder why I'm still running free/All up and down the line." VH1 has been filming the sessions for a special likely to air when its subject is no longer around to see it.
A month after Artemis Records issued its press release-cum-death certificate, Zevon appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, telling his old friend Dave his illness had forced him to realize "how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich." Dave grinned when Warren said that, so taken was the host with the singer-songwriter's refusal to get angry, to roll over and play dead. Then again, that has always been Zevon's trademark, to bathe in the inferno rather than try to extinguish it. That night, Zevon was Letterman's only guest, and it felt very much like a goodbye: He performed three songs, sat for a while with the host, never asked for sympathy or played for pity. When Dave introduced his buddy, Paul Shaffer and the band ushered him out with "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."
No doubt the obituaries have already been stocked and stored in the databases of major daily newspapers and cable news outlets; they're waiting for the last call so they can update their bottom-o'-screen crawls and overnight-news pages. Rock critics have already done their career capsules: classically trained, would-be pop star in mid-'60s as one half of male-female duet, arranger for the Everly Brothers, released a forgotten album in 1969, made his proper debut with Jackson Browne-produced effort seven years later, had one hit single about werewolves, drank buckets of vodka, once shot a portrait of himself, friends with Hunter Thompson and Carl Hiaasen, made lots of albums no one bought, died just as he was really starting to hit the gym, poor fucking bastard. They'll write the same thing about the same songs; they'll talk about his deviants and murderers, his misanthropes and mercenaries, his trip to detox mansion and his years as Mr. Bad Example. And they'll mention every song he ever wrote about his own death, of which there are plenty (title of 2002 release: My Ride's Here). Expect plenty of overwrought adieus; nothing brings out the maudlin in a muso more than the death of someone undervalued in life.
Surely, it can't be coincidental that only months after Zevon announced his forthcoming death that record labels, which always treated the man like something to be dumped out of an old ashtray, have begun releasing copious discs of ancient material: two, containing material never properly compiled and/or released; two more, reissues of albums made on the comeback trail. The career retrospective begins in earnest, just when the honoree begins to slip out the door and into the waiting hearse. One is reminded of something Zevon said to Entertainment Weekly a decade ago: "If you're lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you drop dead. That's as many pats on the back as you should expect." Sometimes, a shove in the back can feel like a pat on the back; beware open caskets.
Just weeks after the announcement, Rhino Records, which in 1996 released the twofer comp I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, trimmed the best-of down to the single-disc Genius. Though it was already in the works, the release felt a touch exploitative--a robbing of the grave while the body was still warm. No arguing its merits--it's the best place to start for those wondering what's the fuss--only that it goes so far to omit "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," which suggests someone doesn't get his point.
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Two weeks ago, Varese Sarabande marked Zevon's end by backtracking to the very beginning: 1966, when Zevon was one half of Lyme & Cybelle, a sort of Sonny and Cher without the audience. The First Sessions collects a handful of singles and covers recorded by Zevon and his singing partner, Violet Santangelo, just as the Chicago transplant was wrapping up his senior year at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. According to Santangelo, who now goes by Laura Kenyon (which sounds suspiciously like Laurel Canyon, the hippie hideaway over Hollywood), the two formed a platonic bond and used to retreat to her bedroom to listen to Beatles records after school; accordingly, a cover of "I've Just Seen a Face" is on the disc, and it sounds as you would imagine, winsome and wholesome. The collection features the duo's sole chart hit, "Follow Me," a song that would wind up being covered by the Turtles ("Like the Seasons," the B-side to "Happy Together," which would pay Zevon's rent for years), and other covers (Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" and Jimmy Reed's "Peeping and Hiding").
The First Sessions also contains a handful of demos Zevon cut after he quit the partnership; among them is "A Bullet for Ramona," the first hint of the darkness overshadowing the light pop of Zevon's '60s recording output. Its opening lines, sung over what would become a saloon tune out of a Leone movie, contain a murder confession and a defense: "Oh, today I shot Ramona, Ma/She ain't gonna cheat on me." Zevon would eventually build a catalog of such characters, the unwanted and unstable who kill out of love, jealousy, spite or simply for the thrill of it.
"A Bullet for Ramona" later surfaced on Wanted Dead or Alive, Zevon's 1969 Imperial Records debut, which, until now, was never issued on CD. This week, Capitol Records makes it available, along with two other more familiar titles: 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, the wry and mordant clean-and-sober comeback cut with R.E.M. sans Stipe, and Transverse City, the 1989 follow-up performed largely on synths and inspired by the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson ("Turbulence," about Afghanistan, sounds as though it were written by a future-traveler). The Kim Fowley-produced Wanted gets a bad rap, mainly because people figure if it's been buried this long, it must be terrible, which sells it short and then some. Fowley co-wrote the title track, on which Zevon, strumming a guitar and singing from the bottom of a bottle, admits to being a "violent man" with an "outlaw's face"; it wasn't so far from there to such characters as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and the "Desperadoes Under the Eaves."
Wanted Dead or Alive is a revelation, like discovering that kid you never liked, because you never knew him, is actually fun to hang out with. It's early Zevon (meaning rough Zevon) but not unfamiliar Zevon: sarcastic, beautiful, weird, scabrous, funny, guitar rock played by a piano classicist, psychedelic blues performed by a man with no love for psychedelia and full of songs about women mail-ordered from Calcutta and men born with dram glasses in their hands and couples who bust up for no reason and with no explanation and gorillas going bangbang. In other words, better than Transverse City and Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, not quite Warren Zevon or Sentimental Hygiene and an even draw with Mr. Bad Example. It's still no Excitable Boy. But, today, neither is Warren Zevon.