f Lester Bangs was right, and rock and roll does choose you, then Warren Zevon chose me. It was my listening to Warren Zevon aged twelve - and consequently arguing, balled-fisted, with my father and uncle about why “Carmelita” was clearly superior to “Werewolves Of London” - that set me on the road to being a music writer when I grew up. And so, I did grow up, and now as my career unfolds around me, comes Zevon’s The Wind and the news that he finally shuffled off on the same day I hurriedly picked up his new album from the office desk.
Roughly a year ago, Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Rather than go quietly into that goodnight, he chose to rage against the dying of the light with friends and collaborators rallied around him, and create one last album. In the hands of a lesser man, The Wind could have been a dreadful mush of sentimentality and false absolution. Thankfully – and not surprisingly – it is a wonderful album that explores separation and endings [of life, love, relationships], and life’s journeys – and their inevitable end - in Zevon’s inimitable style. Opener “Dirty Life & Times”, rather than being a pre-emptive eulogy, parodies the mid-life-crisis rock that Zevon and his friend Jackson Browne made their own in the late-‘70s; it’s ragged, wild, and as good as anything he’s ever released. As a part of the American history of songs about traveling, with Dwight Yoakam wheezing along, it’s a worthy successor to “Frank And Jesse James”, or Ry Cooder’s “Hey Porter”.
Cooder himself makes some thrilling appearances on The Wind, most notably on “Prison Grove”, the song on the album where death is most plainly apparent. Chanted as a hanging-yard lament somewhere between an old slave song and Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule”, Cooder and David Lindley trade ghostly pedal steel over the wailing chorus of Browne, Bruce Springsteen, T-Bone Burnett, and Billy Bob Thornton. Samuel Johnson said that the prospect of a hanging could concentrate the mind no end, and “Prison Yard” stands among heartfelt and philosophical musings upon love and death as a sharp reminder that Zevon is not merely singing about dying. Elsewhere, “Numb As A Statue”, with his pal Browne, comes as a rowdy plea from the anaesthetised to simply “have some feelings too”; it could be the greatest lost track from Running On Empty. The lone cover, of Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, stands not as an obvious or mawkish choice, but a rhapsodic and affirming acceptance of life – and death’s – inevitabilities. Zevon, ever the crotchety old bugger, is too impatient to sit around piously while Ry Cooder spins his blissful slide-guitar magic, instead chanting for the door to “open up, open up for me” as if he’s saying ‘are we there yet? Are we there yet?’
What has always impressed about Zevon is his unflinching honesty. It’s the moments slighter artists or power-balladeers would milk for sobs that he plays straight and dry-eyed, and they’re all the more affecting for it. When he states matter-of-factly, in “She’s Too Good For Me”, “I’m everything she wants /And nothing that she needs”. In his simple, domestic farewell [the album’s final track, recorded at home], “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile” where he suggests – no pressure – that “maybe you’ll think of me and smile / You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse”.
I don’t think the impact of The Wind has changed for Zevon’s having left to hasten down the wind. We all have to leave something sometime, be it childhood, lovers, or in Warren’s case, life, and so it is an album that can be embraced in many ways. Yes, of course we’ll miss him, but good songs will always be sung by the faithful and the curious – his leaving instantly erases neither his importance nor his catalogue. Warren Zevon allowed me a window through which to see the road my life and career could head along, and now The Wind bids me farewell as I head down that very road. His work here is done – he’s taught me everything I needed to know, and I’m richer for having known him. Seeya, Warren.
Reviewed by: Clem Bastow
Reviewed on: 2003-11-13