By John P. Smith
Warren Zevon, my favorite singer/songwriter, has finally been nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t want to hurt his chances of induction by offering up the opinion that I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a stale joke. But, I can only be me.
Induction into the Hall, stupid as it is, can only help to bring some positive exposure to this creative, haunted, genius singer and songwriter. Several books have already been written about his, “Dirty Life and Times.” (The Wind, 2003) So, I don’t need to do it here.
But I do believe an introduction is necessary. Zevon died in 2003 from lung cancer.
Most people only know Zevon from the novelty hit, “Werewolves of London.” Sure, it’s a great, catchy tune, but not one of his best and definitely not indicative of the body of his work.
Born in 1947, Zevon was a musical prodigy, trained as a classical pianist in his formative years. Eventually, he dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles after some minor success as a singer and songwriter in the duet Lyme and Cybelle. Zevon worked writing jingles for commercials and as a session musician for several years, finally scoring a solo record deal for the album, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” (1970) While not a commercial success, Zevon spent six more years as a session musician, hanging out in the Laural Canyon scene, until his friend Jackson Brown agreed to produce another record.
The self-titled, “Warren Zevon” (1976) is a masterpiece of classic rock. Even being named one of the top 10 albums of the 1970’s by Rolling Stone magazine. (Back when they were actually worth reading.) Anyone who does not have this album, go get it right now. Listen to it and you’ll begin to understand the world as Zevon brings it to you. It’s a world of sadness and hilarity. A world of jungle work, injured clowns, and mutineers. A world of headless mercenaries, philosophical musings, and unethical alter boys.
I can’t find the quote to attribute it, but I once read in an article about Zevon something like, “He’s not the kind of artist who writes a love song because he needs one for the new album. He writes a love song because he has to.”
I’ve been a fan of his work since I was in high school, buying an 8-track (yes, I am that old) of “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School”, for the song, ”A Certain Girl.” I was listening to Zevon and none of my classmates even had a clue who he was except for, “Werewolves of London.” Werewolves was from Zevon’s 1978 album, “Excitable Boy,” which was the best-selling release of his career, staying in the top ten on the Hot 100 for six weeks.
This is where my personal connection to this underappreciated artist comes in. Zevon struggled with alcoholism throughout his career, managing to stay sober from the late ‘80s to the early 2000’s. I picked up the Zevon release, “Sentimental Hygiene” (1987) when it finally made it to my Air Base in Japan. I loved it; all of it. My friends hated it. It wasn’t Europe or Def Leppard or Van Halen, so they weren’t interested. To me, it was different and spoke to the heart and soul about being alive and appreciating what you have instead of just about sex, or girls.
I put myself in alcohol rehab in 1989. And believe me when I tell you that military rehab is as close to prison as I ever want to get. On the “Sentimental Hygiene” album is a track called, “Rehab Mountain.” A song Zevon wrote about his own time in the Big House. I read a short article — I don’t even remember where — with Zevon telling how that song was about his time in a celebrity rehab facility. Even though, at the time, I felt like my life was over, listening to Zevon sing about being in the same predicament for the same reasons, made it a little easier to cope. If a creative genius like Zevon had the courage to face his demons and deal with an alcohol addiction, surely I could too. Now, 33 years sober, I occasionally fire up, “Rehab Mountain” just as a refresher and reminder of how things could — and still can — be different. Be better.
In later years, I’d come to appreciate Zevon even more, as I picked up more of his albums. (I have all of them. I know, big surprise.) He is a master of the quotable lyric: “And his hair was perfect.” or “Life’ll kill ya; then you’ll be dead.”
Slippery lyrics that will make you think: “I’m very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins; I keep a busy schedule, trying to fit them in; I’m proud to be a glutton and I don’t have time for sloth; I’m greedy and I’m angry and I don’t care who I cross.”
Emotional lyrics that you understand because you’ve felt exactly that way. “Accidently like a martyr; the hurt gets worse and heart gets harder,” or “I’m just going to slam myself against the wall; because I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all.” And, “The moon has a face; it smiles on the lake; and causes these ripples in time; I’m lucky to be here with someone I like; who maketh my spirit to shine.”
My kids grew up listening to Zevon. I knew I’d raised ‘em right when I got into the vehicle one day and my youngest daughter was jamming to the songs off the “Life’ll Kill Ya” album. His music has been part of my healing and recovery. It’s been a part of my family history, with my kids picking up the mantle to continue the Zevon tradition. Now my grandson is named John Warren Jackson.
I keep wanting to say it’s not important whether Warren Zevon makes it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, really, it is. It’s important to me. It’s a long-overdue oversight and he should have been there at the same time as Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Jackson Brown.
(John P. Smith is a DINFOS trained journalist living in northern Arkansas. He is host of the Apocalypse Watch and Johnny Watcher shows. Visit the website for more information and links to the most recent podcasts. www.apocalypsewatch.news)
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