'The Wind' gives Zevon a last howl
Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
The first phone call came one morning last August.
"Guess what - I'm at the cardiologist," Warren Zevon told his old friend
and collaborator Jorge Calderon.
"I'm so glad you finally went," Calderon said. "Let me know what's going
For weeks, Zevon had been short of breath. At Calderon's urging, the rock
'n' roll cult hero went to see a doctor, something he hadn't done in years.
The appointment dragged on for hours, as test after test was run. Late in
the afternoon, Calderon's phone rang again. It was Zevon.
"He called me back from the doctor's office, and he told me," Calderon said
during a recent interview. "I was devastated."
Zevon, best known for his 1978 hit "Werewolves of London," was diagnosed
with mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. He was told he had three
months to live.
To Calderon's surprise, a few days after the diagnosis, Zevon said he
wanted to get busy on one final album.
The extraordinary result, "The Wind," comes out Aug. 26 on Artemis Records.
A must-see documentary about the making of the album, "Inside Out: Warren
Zevon," airs at 10 p.m. Aug. 24 on VH1.
And the best news is Zevon, who turned 56 in January, is still with us,
although not in the best of health.
His family and friends believe his work on "The Wind" sustained Zevon
longer than expected.
"It makes me incredibly proud he didn't take this death sentence," said
Zevon's son, Jordan, in a separate interview. "He fought to keep working. .
. . I hope people will be inspired by it."
It's not unprecedented for artists to attempt some sort of summing-up in
the twilight of their years. But you would be hard-pressed to come up with
an example - in music, literature, film or any other art form - of another
artist who raged against the dying of the light as bravely or as
brilliantly as Zevon does on "The Wind," under the toughest circumstances
and the ultimate deadline.
"That's Dad," Jordan Zevon said. "I'll be damned if he isn't doing
something nobody else has done."
Calderon co-produced "The Wind" and co-wrote six of the album's 11 songs
"He was complaining because everybody he talked to ended up crying on the
phone to him, doing this whole closure thing," Calderon said. "He said,
'That's the last thing I need right now.'
"I told him, 'Listen, don't worry. Let's not think about anything but the
music and the fun and the beauty of it. . . . I'll do my grieving behind
your back.' And that's what I did."
The album's first single is a cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's
Door" - a tragically appropriate choice, although Zevon's famously dark
sense of humor remains intact as he ad-libs: "Open up! Open up! Open up!"
Diminished stamina left Zevon too exhausted to sing at times. But he got by
with the help of some famous friends.
Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton provide backing vocals on "Dirty Life
& Times," the CD's twangy opening track. "Disorder in the House" is a
rollicking duet with Bruce Springsteen. Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit of
the Eagles harmonize on the ballad "She's Too Good for Me."
The album's stellar supporting cast also includes Tom Petty, Emmylou
Harris, Ry Cooder and Jackson Browne, among others.
For Calderon, a personal highlight is Joe Walsh's sizzling slide-guitar on
the bluesy "Rub Me Raw."
"Joe played great," Calderon said. "It was a joyful thing."
Despite the circumstances, the mood in the studio was generally
light-hearted, said Jordan Zevon, one of the project's executive producers.
"The hardest part about my job was getting people to get paid, because
nobody wanted to," he said. You'll laugh at some of the new tunes, products
of the same fertile, twisted wit responsible for "Poor Poor Pitiful Me,"
"Lawyers, Guns and Money" and other beloved Zevon oldies. Other songs on
"The Wind" are bound to bring a tear to your eye.
For all its superstar guest appearances, "The Wind" is unmistakably a Zevon
album - his 14th overall, not counting several compilations. And it's one
of his best, right up there with 1978's "Excitable Boy," said Danny
Goldberg, chairman and CEO of Artemis Records.
"I think he'll be remembered as much for this record as for Werewolves' or
for any of the other things he did, because of the intensity and the
quality of it," Goldberg said. "I just wish he weren't sick. . . . By the
grace of God, through some miracle, I hope he has a lot more time."
A VH1 interviewer asked Zevon if he felt the pressure of time.
"Am I feeling the pressure of time?" the terminally ill singer-songwriter
said incredulously, laughing as he repeated the question.
"I take a nap and wake up and look around and make sure I'm still here. You
know, so far every nap I've woken from, I've still been here."
Zevon is "hanging in there," Calderon said. "But it's tough, man. Some days
he feels better than others."
In June, Zevon's daughter, Ariel, gave birth to twin boys, Augustus and
"He was there when they were born," Jordan Zevon said. "It really meant a
lot to him."
He said his father has been bedridden lately, although their conversations
are still filled with laughter.
"Once we got over the initial shock [of the diagnosis], it just became
about having a good time and laughing with each other," Jordan Zevon said.
"We can talk and talk for hours . . . usually about terrible cable movies.
The latest thing I was shocked by was when he said he liked Jackass.'
"He's my best friend. And he's an amazing father."
After an initial burst of activity, work on "The Wind" slowed when Zevon's
condition worsened around Christmas. Nonetheless, he was determined to
complete the album. He put the finishing touches on it in April.
"Keep Me in Your Heart," the last song on the CD, is the last song he did.
Too weak to get back in the studio, Zevon had some recording equipment set
up in his apartment in West Hollywood, Calif., and sang his swan song:
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