Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins


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.

If Jerry Garcia wrote short stories

Though I am a dinosaur, I do still need to flex the hard, bony plates of my skeletal system now and then, so I listen to the Grateful Dead, prime dinosaur music. The Dead’s repertoire runs through rock, blues, psychedelia, folk, space noodlings and even some jazz stylings. But the notion that Garcia might make a good short story writer comes from the sense that the Dead often do ballad-type songs, where there are characters—canny gamblers, seedy alcoholics, heady prophets, even the devil—who romp or stumble through the songs, coming to a good or bad end. Rumrunners and grifters are chewy elements for many a tale, written or sung.

Of course, Robert Hunter wrote many of the actual lyrics of those tunes, with Garcia as a foil, so it isn’t quite accurate to dub Garcia as the storyteller—more the sense of a writer lending the devil his deck of cards to deal a few hands. However, music is sonic storytelling, where a guitar riff or a piano trill can add storytelling elements of conflict, anger, and yearning that are beyond straight lyrics.

It’s interesting to think of artists stepping a bit out of their genre boundaries. Or perhaps step seven leagues from their profession, as Wallace Stevens from his insurance executive’s office and William Carlos Williams from his physician’s perch, both to the platforms of richly expressive poetry.

Garcia might have made a good candidate to produce a Vook: he could have included his paintings, music and lyrical scribblings. I read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles a little while back, and was quite taken with the interesting phrasings and compositional structures of the work, done by an absolute artist, but not one encapsulated as a writer. Of course as a songwriter, few can touch him. Dylan’s book reminds me of the whimsy of the writing (and the artwork) of John Lennon, in his “John Lennon, In His Own Write” book. (I’ll probably draw the line at seeking out Lady Gaga coloring books.)

I do have a few Garcia ties; I wish they came with some embedded tunes and a USB port because the expressive shapes and colors undoubtedly tell a tuneful tale…