In 1977, when Linda Ronstadt was taking her last shot at being the queen of California, she covered “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”—a song from Warren Zevon’s self-titled, not-really-first album. Zevon had written for the Turtles, played piano for the Everly Brothers, and earned a rep as a songsmith. Ronstadt changed only the third verse: A guy in Yokohama picks her up and throws her down, pleading, “Please don’t hurt me mama.”
It makes you wonder about the original. What would a young gun write in 1973, a professional with an amateur face devising his own rock of the westies in the cross fire of Hollywood decadence and Hollywood liberalism, cf. über-progressive Jackson Browne, who in fact produced Warren Zevon and was presumably at the board when Zevon recorded his own third verse: “I met a girl at the Rainbow Bar, she asked me if I’d beat her. She took me back to the Hyatt House . . . “—and here his voice paused down to a mutter—”I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s brutal, and funny, and not OK. Warren Zevon was Jackson Browne’s bad conscience.
Careless of the scene’s niceties, Warren Zevon wouldn’t get released until 1976—all stained romance and bad dope, burnished chord changes and exposed nerve. The songs, when they weren’t about itinerant gamblers (his dad’s calling, as it happened) or Frank and Jesse James, recalled L.A. hard-boiled pulp novels, where desiccated burnouts are the only shadows in the sun-bleached promised land. The baroquely precise “French Inhaler” pairs a would-be starlet and her bottom-feeding beau: never-wases drinking in the dive behind the dream factory, pathetic and melancholy unto death. Only an ambiguous reference in the song’s last second hints, and then only to hardcore consumers of biographical porn, that the song might have been about Marilyn Monroe all along—a ghost version of her life, as if David Lynch had been a piano man in his early days. Murmuring “So long Norman,” she’s the one who couldn’t leave. But so is everyone else on the record, the most delicate, impure document of LaLaLand in the years between Joni’s Ladies of the Canyon and Jello’s “California Über Alles.”
The poet of Gower Avenue became a stateless pop star behind the single from the follow-up Excitable Boy, the mini-surrealist “Werewolves of London.” As novelty smashes often do, it seemed to come from nowhere, or everywhere. On that record and the next two, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and The Envoy, Zevon removed his seamy scenes of betrayal and secret combat to an atlas of international hot spots, filled with spies, drunks, mercenaries, and the women who didn’t love them. On the side, he wrote tender, caustic ballads (“Accidentally Like a Martyr” was recently covered by Dylan) and domestic tales of very creepy guys that sometimes sounded indecently enthusiastic. He even cut in at dances where he wasn’t invited: “Sweet home Alabama,” he sang in his faux-anthemic rebuke to Skynyrd’s rebuke of Mr. Young, “play that dead band’s song.” The chorus continues, strangely forbearing amid verses of mocking savagery, “Turn those speakers up full blast, play it all night long.”
Not one to burn out or fade away, Zevon drowned. Traditional narrative follows: five-year creative drought, ignominy, rehab, comeback album. Sentimental Hygiene is rich with the usual suspects, but here the bloodied losers and lowlifes were often the singer. “It’s tough to be somebody; and it’s hard to keep from falling apart,” he testifies in “Detox Mansion.” “Here on Rehab Mountain we all learn these things by heart.” Comeback albums are expected to serve up redemption; this one offered redemption as just another grift and sounded like someone coming up for the second time, just long enough to spew a last round of vitriol.
Astonishingly enough, there was one act left—the one where real tragedy teaches the self-inflicted kind a lesson. After a couple of records where the songwriting went flaky and unfocused, and another half-decade hiatus, Zevon rallied his talent on little Artemis Records, composing a series of serrated, rollicking wounds, collaborating with folks from Springsteen to Carl Hiaasen. It wasn’t a comeback so much as a persistence of vision. A rare few are born to be stars, fewer live to write.
At the time of the first Artemis release, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an inoperable lung cancer. The epic from his mortality trio is “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down,” and one is tempted to listen allegorically: the house the mortal body, and no way out. Racing the fire, Zevon made two more records, the last one—The Wind, released August 26—when he was supposed to be dead already. They’re moving and jocularly messy, three feet deep and rising.
Zevon, who died Sunday, was a writer of terrific particularity, the kind novelists are jealous of. He would likely compose his own obit in specific and self-lacerating terms, leave the allegories to others. Or perhaps he would concede that the death he stood off to do just a little more writing was something so dark even he couldn’t make an account of it, and offer the phrase suggesting it was better left obscure, the better to fill with our own worst imaginings. I don’t want to talk about it.