‘The Wind’: It’s Zevon, positively
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
Warren Zevon’s struggle with terminal cancer seems to resonate in the opening line of his new album, The Wind, out this week.
“Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me,” he sings in Dirty Life and Times.
Later, he beseeches in the fragile Please Stay, “Will you stay with me to the end?”
What may surprise listeners is that Zevon composed these candid swan songs before his diagnosis and that The Wind carries more hope than despair. The singer/songwriter, 56, spent much of his career mocking mortality, most recently in 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya and 2002’s My Ride’s Here (referring to a hearse).
After a dentist sent him to a cardiologist, Zevon learned a year ago this week that his shortness of breath was from mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer usually linked to asbestos.
Despite Zevon’s carousing history of cigarettes, booze and drugs, the news “came as an absolute shock,” says his son, Jordan, 33. “He hadn’t smoked in five years and hadn’t drank in years and years. His biggest vice was Popsicles at midnight. When he had trouble breathing, we all assumed it had to do with pushing himself too hard in workouts.”
The author of such wry tunes as I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead decided to devote his remaining days to making music. Rather than a monochromatic rumination on dying, The Wind probes a wealth of moods and emotions that find Zevon more an excitable boy than the poor-poor-pitiful-me type. Tunes range from an irascible Disorder in the House and fuming Prison Grove to the heart-tugging El Amor de Mi Vida and prayerful Keep Me in Your Heart.
“It’s hard not to feel the sadness, but the whole experience has been a celebration of life,” says Jordan, who spent the past year helping his father realize his final career goal. The 11-song farewell drew admiring pals and peers, including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris.
“Those studio moments were lighthearted and joyous,” Jordan says. “There was a lot of laughter and love in the room. When something like this happens, you can’t return every phone call or address every fan and friend one-on-one. This album covers the gamut of things that needed to be said.”
Zevon, housebound since January, recorded his last session at his apartment in April. After recently agreeing to a USA TODAY interview by e-mail, he was too ill to respond to queries and has been unable to promote The Wind. Last August, doctors estimated Zevon would die in three months. Jordan is certain his dad’s commitment to the album extended his life.
“It’s hard to argue with that theory nine months after he wasn’t supposed to be around anymore,” he says. “It’s so improper to put timelines on how long someone will live. My dad knew what he wanted to do, and you couldn’t stop him. During Christmas, everything shut down. Once the momentum dropped and he didn’t have that pure focus, you could see (the disease) catch up with him. He got past that hurdle, and I knew he’d finish. The final vocal tracks came out gorgeous.”
Recording ended with “one big exhale,” and Zevon retreated to spend time with his two children. He was at the hospital when daughter Ariel gave birth to twin boys in June. And he has outlasted his prognosis long enough to witness The Wind’s arrival in the marketplace.
“It’s great that he’s seeing the reaction, but it’s not something he’s obsessed with,” Jordan says.
The past year has been bittersweet for Jordan, whose anguish over his father’s plight was tempered by the challenge of completing The Wind and the healing comforts of family ties.
“We both took great pride in realizing there wasn’t a laundry list of things that needed to be said to each other,” Jordan says. “We always had a close relationship, and we didn’t need a tragedy to get heartfelt and sentimental.
“The image of him as reckless or wild was true early in his career,” Jordan says, “but for quite some time, he’s been a real solid father figure. I learned a lot about dignity and respect from him. Musically, I’ve learned how much you have to work and stress and rehearse.”
Zevon’s medical crisis taught Jordan hard facts about self-preservation.
“I have no qualms about going to the doctor,” he says, noting that his father ducked check-ups for 20 years.
He hopes fans will look past the tobacco smoke and remember Zevon for his warmth and the witty charm of his music.
Jordan recalls, “One of the first pieces of advice he gave me was, ‘Do what makes you happy. It doesn’t have to make sense to other people.’ Whether you’re a sculptor or bricklayer, your passion for what you do can sustain you.”
‘The Wind’: It’s Zevon, positively