Thursday, June 21, 2007

Accidently Like a Catholic--The Warren Zevon Story

(Michael Dubruiel died less than 2 years after writing this post. See the sidebar on the right for more information.)

My introduction to Warren Zevon came in the early 1980's when I was in a record store in Gainesville, FL looking for a new album that had just came out (I don't remember what the album was). While in the store I was caught up with the album they were playing over the PA system..a singer was singing about being in Hawaii and abandoned by his girl to the "Hula, Hula" boys with a refrain in Hawain. It piqued my interest. I listened on to the next song which was about going to Memphis, Graceland to be exact and digging up the king and begging him to sing about those heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned and imagining him (Elvis) walking on the water with his diet pills.

I was hooked.

Who was the artist? I asked the guy at the counter.

Warren Zevon.

The album?

The Envoy Which only recently has been made availble on CD. Thus I was introduced to Warren Zevon.

I became a big fan, there is something about a certian class of artists, usually more know for their songwriting than their singing that has always categorized my favorite singers. People as diverse as Tom T. Hall, David Alan Coe, John Prine, Matraca Berg, Neil Young, Neil Diamond and Warren Zevon have long been my favorites. In some ways Zevon was the most diverse of all of them. One minute you were apt to hear a classical string piece introducing some twangy anthem to "playing that dead band's song...all night long" (the dead band referring to another of my long time favorites Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" the next some hard rocking tune. Zevon in many ways defies definition.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon in some ways is just as quirky a biography as the singer was in life. When my copy first arrived I was disappointed, because it didn't seem like a biography at all, but rather a collection of interviews, journal entries, reminicences. But like the genius that the book is about, I soon found their was a genius to what Crystal Zevon (Warren's second ex-wife) had put together. Here is the gripping and moving tale of the real Warren Zevon told from every angle, by people who both loved and hated hiim. The details read like a life long confession--mostly of failures, but with glimmers of grace here and there. The stories behind many of the songs co-written by Warren Zevon are here and as this became my lunch time reading over the past month, I found myself going back and listening to the music from the different periods of his life.

I saw Warren perform live once, with Amy and a few friends at Clearwater Beach on the Fourth of July back in the 1990's. No band, just him in some bike shorts and his twelve string guitar belting out all the hits--no mention in the journal entries of that performance, but there are of many--many times revolving around the endless hook-ups with women that he had fleeting affairs with.

One of the most intriquing elements of the bio, that is very minor in the book but is there throughout his life is Zevon's fascination with the Catholic Church. In Spain he tries to convince then wife Crystal that they convert--she's reluctant, so nothing happens. Later when asked by someone what his religion he says, "Catholic." He attends Mass with a woman whom he sleeps with in the same apartment building, another time when troubled in Ireland he finds a Catholic Church and enters during Mass emerging afterwards and writing in his journal of the experience "Peace be with you" which seems to be something that eluded him throughout his life--hence the song title and book title "I"ll sleep when I'm dead." Perhaps the worst part of this flirtation with Catholicism happens when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only three months to live and visits a Catholic priest with a friend only to be told that he does not have time enough to convert (for non-Catholics and Cathoilcs out there--this must be some reference to the RCIA process which normally takes about nine months to complete, but the priest was wrong to say this--but may not have understood the situation).

As a Warren Zevon fan I loved this book. As a Catholic I wished that Warren might have fell into the hands of a saintly priest or Catholic who might have given him the tools to redeem all of the demons that tormented his soul and kept him from committing to anything but death in his life. To paraphrase another author, we all are either living to sleep or sleeping to rise--unfortunately Warren was haunted by death (see the skulls that dominate his album art--complete with dangling cigarette), but somewhere in the midst of it all I think the grace that haunted him might have won out in the end.

Warning for the prudish--this book contains all the gore one might expect from someone involved in rock and roll--but in the midst there are glimmers of those heavenly mansion Jesus mentioned...


  1. Zevon -> Mutineer -> Dylan, Ain't Talkin:

    As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
    The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine
    I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
    Someone hit me from behind

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Through this weary world of woe
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    No one on earth would ever know

    They say prayer has the power to heal
    So pray for me, mother
    In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
    I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
    But oh, mother, things ain't going well

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    I'll burn that bridge before you can cross
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    There'll be no mercy for you once you've lost

    Now I'm all worn down by weeping
    My eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry
    If I catch my opponents ever sleeping
    I'll just slaughter 'em where they lie

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Through the world mysterious and vague
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Walkin' through the cities of the plague.

    Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
    The whole wide world which people say is round
    They will tear your mind away from contemplation
    They will jump on your misfortune when you're down

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Eatin' hog eyed grease in a hog eyed town.
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Some day you'll be glad to have me around.

    They will crush you with wealth and power
    Every waking moment you could crack
    I'll make the most of one last extra hour
    I'll revenge my father's death then I'll step back

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Hand me down my walkin' cane.
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Got to get you out of my miserable brain.

    All my loyal and my much-loved companions
    They approve of me and share my code
    I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
    Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    My mule is sick, my horse is blind.
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Thinkin' 'bout that gal I left behind.

    Well, it's bright in the heavens and the wheels are flyin'
    Fame and honor never seem to fade
    The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'
    Who says I can't get heavenly aid?

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Carryin' a dead man's shield
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Walkin' with a toothache in my heel

    The sufferin' is unending
    Every nook and cranny has its tears
    I'm not playing, I'm not pretending
    I'm not nursin' any superfluous fears

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Walkin' ever since the other night.
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    Walkin' 'til I'm clean out of sight.

    As I walked out in the mystic garden
    On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn
    Excuse me, ma'am, I beg your pardon
    There's no one here, the gardener is gone

    Ain't talkin', just walkin'
    Up the road, around the bend.
    Heart burnin', still yearnin'
    In the last outback at the world's end.

  2. Three words: Baptism of Desire

  3. I saw Warren Zevon play in my small town on a night when we had a huge blizzard. As a result there were few people in attendance even though the show had sold out.

    Warren and his band played like they were playing to a packed stadium. The small crowd made it easier to seemingly connect with each one of us.

    He stayed around after the show to BS with fans and sign evrything people put in front of him.

    I'll always remember that show.

  4. My first concert-solo Zevon at the Harrisburg Forum.

    Back when albums had sides and required turning, we thought Side 1 of Excitable Boy was one of the most solid sides ever, even without "Lawyers, Guns, & Money" on Side 2.