Warren Zevon’s spirit was present through prose and song at Little City Books in Hoboken, June 6. For a captivating few hours, C.M. Kushins read excerpts from his biography, “Nothing’s Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon” (Da Capo Press, 384 pp., $29), and then a talented group of musicians played songs by Zevon — one of rock’s most gifted and complicated songwriters — and other artists who defined the ’70s California music scene.
In his in-depth, passionate portrayal, Kushins writes about the brotherly bond that Jackson Browne, Don Henley, J.D. Souther and other Californian musicians had with Zevon. He quotes from a Browne interview in Rolling Stone: “His songs are like short stories — the best songs always are. They tell much more about life than books; they communicate so much more than a longer volume would. But it’s funny. Here we are, talking at great lengths, to describe something that was the very opposite of that — a guy who could say something in a few words that was immediately understood.”
Zevon, known for songs such as “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (which became a Top 40 hit when Linda Ronstadt lent her beautiful voice to it in 1977), modulated between artistic success and struggle for many chapters of his life.
“I got to be the most fucked-up rock star on the block, at least on my block,” Zevon said, according to Kushins, only a few months before his 2003 death. “And then I got to be a sober dad for 18 years … I’ve had two very full lives.”
His prescient song “My Shit’s Fucked Up,” from his 2000 album Life’ll Kill Ya, describes a visit to doctor’s office that mirrors his eventual demise:
Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kid of rough”
He said, “Let me break it to you, son
Your shit’s fucked up”
I said, “My shit’s fucked up?
“Well,” I said, “I don’t see how”
He said, “The shit that used to work, it won’t work now”
Kate Jacobs and Donna Garban, co-owners of Little City Books, hosted the Zevon tribute with standing-room-only attendees waiting to meet Kushins and hear an impressive group of artists, including Karyn Kuhl, Dave Schramm, Glenn Morrow, Gene D. Plumber, Elena Skye and Boo Reiners (both from The Demolition String Band), Chris Harford, Jon Fried and Deena Shoshkes (both from The Cucumbers and Campfire Flies), Granton Avenue, Ray Nissen, Shannon Lee, Sailor Boyfriend, Mary Lee Kortes, Paul Moschella, Jacobs and her son, Edward Horan.
Kortes’ riveting version of Zevon’s “Carmelita” had a sad and rich presentation. Reiners and Horan warmly accompanied her, along with Schramm, whose guitar sizzled.
Another musical highlight was Morrow’s soulful and intimate version of Browne’s “For Everyman,” which rocked out at the end with Schramm. And Jacobs filled the room with her sincere voice, surrounded by Reiners’ and Schramm’s compelling guitars, on a joyful rendition of Little Feat’s “Willin’.” She really turns her bookstore into a concert hall.
The husband-and-wife duo Shoshkes and Fried offered a clear, crisp sound and Shoshkes’ signature smile on two songs. It seemed appropriate for them to play James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” sharing glances at each other and adding depth to this song. I could feel the love. Fried explained that in 1981, he moved to Hoboken and rebelled against Taylor’s sound by forming a rock band, but now enjoys it. Shoshkes also sang a gorgeous version of Joni Mitchell’s “California.”
Jacobs said, later: “Karyn Kuhl tore up ‘You’re No Good.’ So much fun! And my son Edward Horan played keys in the band and that was fun for me to see him up there with my old bandmates. And he killed on ‘Desperados Under the Eaves.’ ”
Kushins, a native New Yorker, discussed Zevon’s career trajectory, struggles with addiction and his witty, literary and macabre lyrics (“Excitable Boy” describes a sociopath’s prom night), which, he suggested, were often informed by his favorite books.
“The most fascinating and the most exciting part of the research was learning, via all the interviews, just how autobiographical Warren’s work truly was,” said Kushins in a later interview. “Even though he is remembered for so many of the characters he created in his early work — his third-person narratives — and the later stuff is more overtly personal, it was clear that all of it was written from the experiences Warren’s personal life provided. And I think he leaned on that to inspire his writing.
“Warren’s early albums were largely influenced by crime novels of Ross Macdonald, a favorite of mine … once I went to the books, it was easier to see the atmosphere of Los Angeles that Warren was striving to describe through his lyrics. He also admired Martin Amis, a postmodern novelist, and even wrote a ballad influenced by Amis’ style. I thought it was amazing, since that’s another hero of mine.
“More than anything, Warren was a huge admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom I absolutely revere. It hit me that Warren brought many of Fitzgerald’s own themes of ambition and the American Dream into his rock lyrics … and I kind of found it fitting to see that theme and life trajectory in Warren’s own life and career.”
Kushins has long been a fan of Zevon’s and always appreciated his songwriting style. He was motivated to write his book after reading Zevon’s ex-wife Crystal Zevon’s 2007 oral history, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.”
“I read Crystal’s excellent book … but as a musician, I wanted more details about Warren’s creative process and his habits in the studio … the very tone and subject matter of his lyrics.”
Born in 1947 in Chicago, Zevon was raised primarily by his Mormon mother and occasionally by his gangster father, William “Stumpy” Zevon, a Russian immigrant who spent his career in organized crime as a bookie for notorious mobster Mickey Cohen. According to Kushins, he was arrested many times but never incarcerated, and passed on his temper and way with words to Warren.
After moving to California, Zevon’s parents divorced and he developed an interest in piano and guitar. As a teenager, he quit school and headed to New York to rock, then to Los Angeles to work as a session musician, songwriter and bandleader for the Everly Brothers in the 1970s.
After living in Barcelona in 1975, he returned to L.A.; worked with Browne, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, among others; and released a series of albums over a 30-year stretch that built him a strong cult following. Excitable Boy (1978) was his biggest success, though he released many critically acclaimed albums, including Warren Zevon (1976); The Envoy (1982), which contained several songs about addiction; and Life‘ll Kill Ya (2000). His 2002 album My Ride’s Here included songs co-written with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon.
Kushins read a chilling excerpt about a disturbing dream Zevon had that found him near his baby and ex-wife, confused and drunk. He grabs a gun and leaves the house to find a target. He awakens from the dream and Kushins writes that “the kill mission may have been a dream, but nonetheless, Warren Zevon awoke to a very real nightmare.” It was the day for intervention therapy at a Santa Barbara rehab center, where his loved ones would try to save him from “two quarts of vodka a day — plus all the drugs.”
In 2002, when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he began recording his twelfth and final album, The Wind, with a little help from his friends, including Browne, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh and Bruce Springsteen.
Zevon was a frequent guest on David Letterman’s late night talk shows and occasionally served as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was absent. In October 2002, he was featured on “Late Show With David Letterman” for the last time, and spoke about what he learned from life and his diagnosis. He made several jokes about his illness, remarking that “It means you better get your dry cleaning done on special,” and said “You put more value on every minute … you are reminded to enjoy every sandwich and every minute.”
As a man who struggled with obsessions and phobias, he admitted that his avoidance of doctors for 20 years didn’t pay off. He enjoyed the release of The Wind in August 2003, witnessed the birth of his twin grandsons, and died soon thereafter at 56.
Kushins wrote: “Warren’s memory and legacy left their indelible imprints on nearly every person who had known him, extending from the closest members of his inner circles to the musician and engineers who regarded themselves as fortunate to have worked alongside him.”
Kushins interviewed family, friends and colleagues to document Zevon’s life. “All of the people from Warren’s life that made the time and effort to speak with me were fascinating, so I never got tired of all the incredible stories and anecdotes that everyone was generous enough to share for the book,” Kushins said in our interview. “But it was particularly fun to speak with Warren’s famed collaborator, the guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and then Warren’s road manger and best friend throughout the late 1970s, George Gruel. Those guys have amazing memories, and were hysterical during the interviews.
“It was apparent with every interview that Warren always surrounded himself with talented, brilliant people — mainly people who were on his wavelength.”
Kushins noted that while researching the book, his interviews with people who knew Zevon pre-sobriety were very different from those who knew him post-sobriety.
“It’s unfortunate that the sins of his past received so much press and emphasis at the time, and his legacy is still steeped in his public antics of the late 1970s, but I was told by many of his later friends and associates that Warren became a very changed man,” Kushins said. “He spent the second half of his life using his music to keep sober, and spent the years he had left reconnecting with his family. In fact, two people told me that Warren acted as their own sponsor when they each entered 12-step programs of their own … it was enlightening hearing all the good stuff that took place during the second half of his life, and what his music and writing meant to that time period.”
The week after Kushins finished “Nothing’s Bad Luck,” he began working on a book about Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
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