Warren Zevon: The Wind
Genre: Adult Alternative Rock
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Those whose acquaintance with the music of Warren Zevon is limited to his 1978 hit “Werewolves Of London” are but seeing through a glass darkly at the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter, who succumbed last September to a rare form of lung cancer. Zevon left a multi-album legacy of sardonic but highly literate work, and the self-deprecating writer would likely chuckle at the irony of “Werewolves,” a tossed-off novelty, being the song by which most folks remember him, if they indeed remember him at all. His lack of presence on the pop radar was a direct result of his bent toward the cynical, the morose and the twisted, which won him a modest but faithful following. Among his greatest admirers were Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, who considered Zevon their peer in every sense. Those who knew him best have claimed that the late artist’s fascination with black humor and desperate characters didn’t tell the entire story about Warren Zevon the man. Browne, who produced Zevon’s breakthrough album Excitable Boy, had this to say about his friend: “He had a very stern moral disposition as well as a willingness to take on this berserk persona.”
On his final record The Wind—written and recorded after receiving the news of his inoperable cancer—Zevon offers previously unseen glimpses of the person behind the persona, revealing affection, regret and a gamut of emotions, all without sacrificing artfulness or overplaying sentiment. While the fainthearted might be disturbed by aspects of his past work (such as the macabre “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” or the strangely prescient “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”), nothing in his back catalogue could compare with the shock of witnessing the moments of naked honesty and vulnerability which appear on the gripping “Please Stay” and “El Amor De Mi Vida,” a bittersweet farewell to his ex-wife. Indeed, the contrast between these moments and Zevon’s longstanding devil-may-care disguise make them all the more poignant.
Both overtly and below the surface of various literary devices, we hear a mortal man taking stock, handling unfinished business, and raging against the dying of the light.
Randomly, the tracks cover nearly every stage outlined in On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic study of the terminally ill (though Zevon, ever the rebel, tosses dry wit into the mix). Denial and shock emerge in “Numb As A Statue,” which chugs along nimbly but depicts a “pale as a ghost” protagonist looking to “beg, borrow or steal some feelings from you/ so I can have some feelings too.”
The gritty blues-rock of “Rub Me Raw” sends up angry smoke signals at inescapable pain and frustration (underscored by Joe Walsh’s snarling slide guitar), while depression takes the form of a condemned convict in the mournful “Prison Grove.” Particularly moving are the wordless backing vocals by Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, T-Bone Burnett, Billy Bob Thornton and Zevon’s son Jordan. Of the several celebrity guest spots on the disc—which in lesser hands could have come off as a public relations stunt—this one in particular demonstrates the authentic power of friends offering support and empathy. Springsteen also shoulders up to Zevon for “Disorder In The House,” a raving, raw-boned rocker in which the singer compares his deterioration to domestic decay, bolstered by bursts of garage-band guitar from The Boss.
Finally, acceptance comes in “Keep Me In Your Heart,” which simply and heartrendingly asks for remembrance from his loved ones. The track vaguely implies that he’s destined for the quiet waters of Psalm 23 when he sings “engine driver’s headed north to Pleasant Stream/ keep me in your heart for awhile.” With the possible exception of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which may or may not be offered with ironic intent, Zevon’s spiritual notions otherwise remain private.
While the words of a dying man naturally attract more attention than their musical accompaniment, the earthy songs crackle like a fierce but fading radio broadcast, with an unvarnished quality appropriate to the rough emotional ride depicted within. In them, American music forms from blues to folk to Tex-Mex coalesce tastefully with rock sensibilities. In the final reckoning, however, The Wind cannot be separated into musical and lyrical components. It’s a compelling, one-of-a-kind work from an artist whose loss can be felt in the mere hearing of it.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.