Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”
The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).
Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things
But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.
His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.
What Your Writing Needs Most Is You
The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.
Bonus Zevon Sighting
Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.
Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.
Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.