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Friday
Feb152008

The French Inhaler Hastens Down The Wind, Warren Zevon Learns To Let Go

There's that thing called friend-of-a-friend, where you're "in" even before you know about the other person. And so it was with Warren Zevon, produced by my whole reason for living as a 14-year-old-pink-button-down-sporting-naif in Cleveland, Ohio. Whatever there was about him, I was going to love it.

Which shouldn't have been such a leap of faith, as his "Hasten Down The Wind" had been the title track to a Linda Ronstadt album I'd quite liked. Nothing about the complexity and confusion of women had ever revealed itself to me quite so compellingly or completely… and against a mournful melodic current, the images poured out clean and simple. It was almost a haiku without form, grounded by the man who'd withstand the tide in the name of what was slipping through his fingers.

Devotion and delicacy. Fragility as something other than frightening. Capriciousness as something understood, accepted. It was Zevon at his best, a man reconciling difficult things with a few lines, a modulation that signals the shift in the blood from ecstasy to quiet agony.

Warren Zevon, a filigreed painter of human emotion and nuance. A man unafraid of what wasn't going to happen. A writer with a deft touch at the small details that wrought his lyrics an incisive heaviness that made him the Hemingway of the Southern California singer/songwriter jungle.

What wasn't expected was the turgid irony, the bulked-up soldier of fortune flex that came with the more muscular offerings. When Warren Zevon went deep into musk and testosterone, he wasn't kidding around. "Excitable Boy" whimsied through the tale of what would pass as today's average Ritalin-deprived ADD-addled little angel who goes psychotic and no one knows why, while "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner" went wherever men fought wars of conscience merely for the money and the adventure, heartless as much as headless but looking for the thrill.

These songs rolled and kicked and burped and swaggered. These were men's songs sung with bravado and glee and zeal. They were delivered with the stench of body odor, rank clothing, wet and tattered, clinging to beat-up forms of men who've done heroic things, perhaps for bad or selfish reasons.

And there was always the humor. Don't lose sight of the gag. "Werewolves of London" have the Lon Chaney franchise a walking talking scenario to work out of… and the howling, yowling chorus had every frat boy, beer guzzler and weekend warrior lifting their lungs in the name of their basest core/corps presence.

Nowhere, though, did it quite register with the brilliance of the genius quite like "Lawyers, Guns + Money," a hard-boiled ne'er-do-well adventurer's world-weary end-of-the-line call for help that never quite buckled at the pride. And in its head tall urging, there was something about the not-giving-quarter-in-the-face-of-fate dignity that made men proud -- and mostly likely validated everything women hate about them.

My empiric evidence came in a '74 fire engine red Mustang on a blue highway somewhere in West Virginia. My father was taking me for some spring training at Pinehurst, one of America's high temples of golf, and I was balancing my interest in the game, with my will to be conversant in what the golf pros liked to talk about.

White sneakers propped up on the dash, Rolling Stone splayed across my uplifted thighs, I was reading to my father in a transgenerational bonding ritual that probably spoke far more about my dad's will to connect with this puberty-addled creature who made no sense to him. Until.

Until that one page feature on Warren Zevon, the one that included snatches of lyrics from his upcoming Excitable Boy. In an effort to shock -- this wasn't Creem, how bad could it be? -- there was no fear of something scandalous popping up. So there was no pre-reading going on, to sanitize the copy for Daddy's protection. Besides, Jackson Browne wouldn't be associated with anything too racy.

That rising and falling cadence of good writing falling from my lips, a smile on my face for a story well told. And then there it was… the lyrics with the no-no word

"I'm hiding in Honduras/ I'm a desparate man/ Send laywers, guns and money/ The shit has hit the fan…"

There was that pause you could drive a truck through. Not looking up -- even sideways -- to see if the knuckles are so white they're going to pop the steering wheel from its casing. Just the big quiet of the night falling, the wind being driven into and the tires on the tar.

It was a gestation pause -- the ones where you know something's being formed, perhaps nothing will be the same again. What's going to happen is a jump ball. But something is…

And then it did.

My father doubled over in laughter. Big rolling gales of laughter. The kind of deep chested belly laughs that women almost never get to experience. Not impolite, but just so totally utterly consuming -- and then, he snorted.

"Who is that guy?" he asked, whipping tears from his cheeks a few minutes later.

Dreadful songs from that era played beneath me -- the squirrely "Undercover Angel," the histrionic "Lonely Boy" -- as the lecture ensued. About Jackson Browne, the importance of songwriting, the ability to filet a moment. It was so serious. My father drove on, brows knitted like two wooly bears copulating, chewing his cigar.

"Well, he's funny…" was about all my Midwestern Dad could muster. Not for him the emotional depth charges or gentle nudgings of revelation, nor the silliness of "Werewolves."

Though the insurance salesman and golf historian eventually made his peace with Zevon's other side. Between "Tenderness On The Block," a song about a young girl finding her way with boys sung from a father's perspective, and "Back Turned Looking Down The Path," about the passage of time, life and learning for those you love, John Gleason came to love the down bed that Zevon made for the sweetest feelings.

And me, I remained a sucker for the gentler side that slowly peeled away the layers of what obscured the things that mattered. To me, "Accidentally Like Martyr" or "Abandoned Love" urged us to see people from their insidest places rather than the mask that was shown to the world. There was a recognition like fire, even though it was done in the softest of ways. You could feel the careful acceptance being doled out, the notion that even in the wreckage, there was much grace here -- grace that should outshine whatever was painful.

And that may be Warren Zevon's greatest gift: grace over pain, light rather than baseness.

Nobody rolled'em like Warren, no doubt. He could smoke and drink and shoot out the lights, find adventure anywhere -- and make you believe that you were as sinister and dangerous as the darkest bounty hunter. Even when you were a mere white collar waging rules-flaunting insurrections merely at the water cooler.

That's a gift -- to give adventure back to the domesticated. Jimmy Buffett serves carefree "Ferris Bueller"-esque tropicality to the not as desparate, not as dark with startling aplomb and consistency. He is a franchise of escape.

Warren Zevon became something more veiled in danger, longer on subterfuge, yet utterly overt in its attack. Warren Zevon was for Volvo drivers who longed for the unspoken… believed in the unrelenting… wanted the stories to tell of Calcutta and Zimbabwe and anywhere bad things were taking place.

The difference is, though, Zevon attracted those who lived those lives -- an aural high 5 to a lifestyle frought with mystery, terror and endorphins. And he'd seen his share of stolen moments on the other side of propriety, the law and/or reason. He wasn't yearning for it… he was steeped in it.

And that brutal knowledge probably heightened his sensitivity to the moments of quiet contemplation. It took him to where he could respect these complicated fluttery beings and emotions. He could assess what he was feeling towards his children. And he could find the words within the understanding… words, visions, realizations most of us won't ever even see as the world flies by our windshields. '

Warren Zevon let nothing blur by his passenger seat window -- or blink and miss that final rearview mirror reprise. He took it all in. He digested it. He gave it over. Then he came back with these songs, these varied and various songs.

I know where I was when John Lennon was gunned down, when I heard about about Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane, when I got the news that Nicolette Larson had left this world. Heck, I know where I was when Tupac was jumped in a Manhattan recording studio lobby, busted for sexual battery and finally murdered in Vegas.

And now I know where I was when I got the e-mail about Warren Zevon. Sitting at my comptuer, writing yet another press release about an accomplishment of one of the clients, people who set standards and seek new levels of excellence every day.

It stopped me cold. Right there in my tracks. Made me think about a long ride to North Carolina, about using "Back Turned Looking Down The Path" for tempo -- "I was caught between the years/ Cost me nearly all my tears" is about perfect to swing a golf club to, about seeing the extremes in one unified whole.

There was a time when the woman in "Hasten Down The Wind" was all I wanted to be: a confoundment, an object of desire, a kettle of emotions that were fine and elevated and fired by strength and longing. That woman, that creature was so beguiling, so bathed in the light of a fire, eyes glittering with knowledge unspoken… it was something that defied my 13-year old mind, made it hurt wondering who hid the road map.

In that moment -- seeing that Warren Zevon had advanced lung cancer, the very thing that killed my dad slowly, definitively and with much suffering, and had opted not to seek further treatment -- something very powerful came to me. All these years later, Warren Zevon knew something about me, about all women really, that we couldn't see.

We're all that woman in "Hasten Down The Wind."

If we don't worry or second guess and just be… we're all a mystery and a marvel.

Somewhere John Gleason takes another bite off a cheap King Edward and smiles.

Daddy may've thought he was funny, but he also recognized the ability to see our finest truths in songs like "Tenderness On the Block." As the troubadour terrorist asked in that song's open: "Daddy, where's your pretty little girl tonight? / Trying to run before she can walk, that's right…," it a question that's plagued grown men with little girls for ages.

Now, though, I realize that until the girl knows she's that woman, anything can happen. And as a parent who sees what could go wrong, what would be more fearful? At the same time, once the child has locked into that uberknowledge -- what could be more thrilling than to see one's daughter soar?

Somewhere John Gleason laughs a bit. It's a long way from a car ride through West Virginia, but for two men who never met, it's the moment where what is is what's known… and what could be more powerful than that?

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Reader Comments (1)

This may be the best piece on Zevon.
July 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul L.

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