It's the summer of 2000 and Dad's driving us in the F-150 to a campground in Custer State Park. It's a beat up country truck, two hundred thousand miles old, with an air conditioner that barely works and a radiator that has a tendency to overheat. It's also "rusted through and dented to shit," according to my father. He hates the F-150 almost as much as he hates camping, but he's been spending less and less time with his daughters, and this one wanted to go camping. We're on Highway 79 and I'm helping Nell fend off the Black Hole Army when my dad stuffs a cassette tape into the stubborn dashboard stereo. I hear some simple chords that steadily grow in tempo and intensity, and then these words:
♪♬ On a small Missouri farm back when the West was young
Two boys learned to rope and ride and be handy with a gun
War broke out between the States and they joined up with Quantrill
And it was over in Clay County that Frank and Jesse finally learned to kill ♬ ♪
I'm a twelve-year-old girl so my music collection consists of such groundbreakers as Oops... I Did It Again and Millennium, stuff my parents tolerate and my older sister ridicules and despises. But this guy, coming through gravelly, worn-out speakers, is telling a story, about some guys who get the short end of the stick, take it to the government and big business, and one of them gets shot for his troubles. I immediately fall in love with whatever this is.
"What is this?"
"On the tape? It's Warren Zevon, sport."
"Warren Zevon? That's a weird name. Are all of his songs like this? Like stories?"
"Not all of them, no. But he is a storyteller. This song's about the outlaws Frank and Jesse James. The next one is about his mother, I think."
"I like him," I decide.
"He was supposed to become who Bruce Springsteen is."
I nod my head knowingly. I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Don't tell your mom know I let you listen to this, OK?"
"Well, a lot of this stuff is for adults. Kind of like an R-rated movie."
"Dad, I watch rated-R movies all the time."
"Yeah," he smiles at me, "but your mother doesn't know about it!"
We listen to that tape all the way to the Begging Burros and I soak in every note. On the way home we listen to Excitable Boy and Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, and my father answers questions that I am perhaps too young to be asking. Warren is singing about drugs and death and incest, suicide and foreign wars, and I want to know all about these things.
In later years my father and I will have a falling out, but before that time he gives me football, classic rock, and brutal honesty, and these are things that I am thankful for.
. o . o . o .
Now it's the summer of 2003 and school has just started and CNN says that Warren Zevon died from mesothelioma. There's a tiny obituary in the newspaper the next day and that's about it for Warren in these parts. The next day in first period Spanish I tell Rachel about it. She has no idea who I'm talking about. I get Kevin involved in the conversation.
"Warren Zevon died!"
"The singer. Warren Zevon." Blank stares.
"Aaaawoooo! Werewolves of London!" I gesticulate.
"Oh yeah," Kevin replies, his response dripping with apathy. "That guy."
Mr. Garza smiles at me as he hands out worksheets. "Lobizónes de Londres," he says, chuckling.
I start listening to all of the tapes that my dad left, and then I find out that he released an album just before he died. We go to the Wal*Mart in Spearfish and I buy the CD. The cover just has Warren on it. He looks tired and disheveled, like he hasn't slept in a few days and the photographer is pleading with him to smile. This isn't dramatically different than any of his other album covers. I go home and listen to it three or four times, but then it goes on a shelf, and I go back to Evanescence and 50 Cent. It's not what I expected it to be, but I'm also fifteen and not exactly the target audience for The Wind. To me it sounds like a bunch of old farts in a studio playing blues music.
. o . o . o .
Now it's the summer of 2006 and we're burying my grandmother at the age of 81 because some redneck doctors couldn't stop her chemo port from going septic. Ruthie was my first death, which is to say she was the first person whose death cast upon me a sense of loss.
My mother is devastated, as can be expected. My sister has decided to distract herself by preparing for school. My father showed up for the funeral, but it was the first time in two years he'd been back to South Dakota. No cousins on this side of the family, no aunts, no uncles. My friends all say they're sorry, but it's clear they're not comfortable talking about it. I don't have a boyfriend.
I feel alone, but I don't want company.
I also feel bored, but I'm not in the mood to be happy, so I start organizing my room. I see a row of CDs and decide to order them chronologically, like John Cusack in High Fidelity. I get to The Wind and stop.
I haven't listened to this since it came out. I don't even think I bothered to import it into iTunes. I used to listen to Zevon all the time with dad. God, he's such an asshole. Why did he even bother to show up for the funeral?
I put the CD in and it starts to play automatically.
This time I get it.
. o . o . o .
The reason The Wind sounds like a bunch of old farts in a studio playing blues music is because that's what it is. This album is the Warren Zevon equivalent to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Before he even penned a lyric or scribbled a note on a piece of sheet music, he knew he was going to die, in the real, visceral sense, not in the everybody-dies-someday sense. He probably had enough money and connections to make a bucket list and then fulfill everything on it. Instead, he recorded an album with his friends.
If it's not a great album it's because the cancer had all but extinguished Warren's fire. In his "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" days you could just imagine him standing over his piano, shouting into the microphone, flavoring his words with grunts and yells. It's not until four songs into the album that you even hear a piano, and on "Disorder In The House", the most energetic song on The Wind, Warren barely gets out a "Hey!" at the start of the song, and relies heavily on Springsteen's "backing vocals" to carry the song.
But if it's not a great album by critical standards, it's a great album by emotional ones. Everything that Warren was cynical and sarcastic about in his previous recordings rings serious here. Had he covered Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on Life'll Kill Ya, the concept album about death he recorded in 2000, it would have been with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But here it sounds like he's actually doing the knocking, as he pleads "open up, open up, open up, open up..." as the song fades away into nothing.
Everybody showed up to help Warren with his coda. Don Henley, Joe Walsh, and Timothy B. Schmit, who did background on "Gorilla, You're A Desperado". Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, who co-wrote songs with him in the 70s. Dwight Yoakam, who covered "Carmelita". Emmylou Harris. T-Bone Burnett. Tom Petty. John Waite, who hadn't done anything since "Missing You". Even Billy Bob Thornton contributed to the effort.
There are two standouts on The Wind. The first, "She's Too Good For Me", is a tale of a love lost because Warren simply wasn't good enough. The gist isn't any different than say, Vertical Horizon's "Anything You Want", except that where Vertical Horizon hits you with a slickly produced slice of power-pop, "She Too Good For Me" delivers a subdued and matter-of-fact composition, driven by a single acoustic guitar, some soft percussion, and the Eagles (sans Glenn Frey) with backing vocals. And where the former comes off as lost, wondering what where he went wrong, Zevon makes it clear that he's stopped trying to figure it out and has simply accepted it.
♪♬ If you go and ask her why she might say she's not sure
Trust me when I tell you I'm not good enough for her ♬ ♪
The other memorable cut is "Keep Me In Your Heart", which is the final song on the album for a reason. This is Warren's farewell and his final request, and it matches the tone of the album as a whole.
♪♬ Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath... keep me in your heart for awhile
If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less... keep me in your heart for awhile ♬ ♪
In the past, one could count on Warren making some bombastic proclamation about what to do with his corpse, or discussing some way to enact revenge on the Grim Reaper or God or the Devil. But he's walking in the valley of the shadow of death, and on borrowed time, he has dispensed with the jokes in favor of earnestness. Now what he's asking for is something very simple - just keep him in your heart for a while.
The brilliance of it is that any time you hear the song, you can't help but keep Warren in your heart for a while, and I'm sure he knew this. I don't listen to The Wind very often. Heck, these days I hardly listen to any albums at all, thanks to the digital age and the de-emphasis of the album as a whole. Still, when it comes up on shuffle, I think about Warren, and I think about Ruthie, and I think about those that I've lost.
And I keep them in my heart for a while.