By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com
One lesson learned from the success of Warren Zevon’s musical epitaph, The Wind, is that any artist struggling too long for that big break probably hasn’t tried dying yet. As the speed with which Zevon’s final album flew off the shelves confirms, there is no better way of boosting record sales than a well-timed death. The album, released just two weeks before Zevon succumbed to lung cancer, sold over 50,000 copies in only its first week out of the gate, making it his first top forty album since 1978′s Excitable Boy.
Mostly, Warren Zevon’s name might get passed around a few dinner tables now and then, and, in a reasonably informed household, the grumbly old man will grunt something like “oh, yeah, the werewolf guy who died of cancer,” before stuffing another forkful of canned lasagna in his face. Yes, it’s true, Zevon wrote the immortal “Werewolves of London,” and if he is remembered for nothing more than its instantly captivating piano riff and that wolf guy strolling the rainy streets of Soho for some Beef Chow Mein, well, that’s more than most schmucks will be able to say for themselves when their cards are called.
It is also true that Zevon did indeed fall prey to cancer at 56 years old Sunday, September 6th, 2003, but not without having something to say about it. He had a whole lot to say, actually-nearly 3 decades worth of death, blood and gore. Zevon always seemed like the kind of guy who’ll take fangs over flowers any day of the week. That said, it’s most fitting that Mr. Zevon’s last word includes some of the most emotionally urgent music of his life, void of even the slightest pose or mask; though a few of the album’s real rockers do pack a claw or two.
Death’s approach galvanizes even the most mundane lyric on The Wind. When Zevon sings “Let’s party for the rest of the night . . . we may never get this chance again,” he means it quite literally. The tune itself rocks with the fury of war, as Tom Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers sidekick, Mike Campbell, rock and howl their way right through the song’s last line.
Most remarkable is Zevon’s apparent ease with the fate that awaits him, as though, after learning from his doctor of the inoperable tumor in his lung, he decided to record The Wind in celebration, not despair, for the life he was about to lose. Zevon audibly trades chuckles with members of the band on numerous tracks as they erupt into song together. “Let’s do another bad one, then,” Zevon tells his bandmates before lapsteel guitarist David Lindley rips into “Numb As A Statue,” the album’s fourth track, “because I like it when the blood drains from Dave’s face.”
Of the many renowned friends that joined Zevon to help him make what they knew would be his last album — names like Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Billy Bob Thornton top the list — still the primal drum work of lesser-known Luis Conte raises “The Rest of the Night” to the height of its booming promise. One icon falls; another gets busy making his name.
But while similar tracks would rock most other acts off the stage–the stomping, electric blues of “Rub Me Raw” or Springsteen’s jangling guitar searing through the frenzied “Disorder in the House,” for instance–it is the album’s surprisingly tender moments that make it a masterpiece. Concluding with one of the most poignant codas in rock history, the divine, understated “Keep me In Your Heart,” The Wind congeals into a uniquely sincere and confident embrace of mortality. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath / keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / keep me in your heart for a while,” Zevon croons along to Jorge Calderon’s acoustic guitar and the legendary Jim Keltner’s shuffling drums.
It is interesting to note another song that begins with an image of “falling shadows”: “Not Dark Yet,” by one of the many noted comrades Zevon gathered over the years, Bob Dylan:
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Whether or not Warren had Dylan’s song in mind when penning his own, it is just as preciously coincidental as it is moving. This is not the only shadow Dylan casts over the album. Zevon’s taut cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nothing short of sublime. The timeless tune is another of the album’s bitingly appropriate and all too literal anticipations of finality.
Arguably, though, the album’s highest moment arrives amid the ghostly, possessed chants of “Prison Grove”:
Dug in, hunkered down,
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove
Iron will hard as rock
Hold me up for the fateful knock
When they walk me down in a mortal lock
Out on Prison grove
Zevon groans as a harrowing swarm of voices that sound like the mantras of the dead howl “Shine on / Shine on all these broken lives / Shine on / Shine the light on me,” as though begging for a break from some underworld of their own doing. Everyone and their mothers chime in for this one, including old pals Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Warren himself. The effect is chilling as Warren snarls “come on!” before each additional chant, as though daring death to show its face amid such dark divinity. Ry Cooder is in rare form here, his famous slide guitar rivaling even the licks he got in on John Hiatt’s brilliant Bring the Family seventeen years prior. Cooder’s prowess captures perfectly the immediacy and courage with which Zevon confronts his owndestruction. “They say you’ll hear your own bones crack,” Zevon asserts, “When they bend you back to bible black.” Well, Warren, is it true?