Monday, September 16, 2013

Warren Zevon’s Secret

By William Doino Jr.
September 16, 2013

Ten years ago this month, Warren Zevon died and the world of music lost an extraordinary talent. Gifted and mercurial, Zevon’s tumultuous life often paralleled the self-destructive paths of other celebrities; and yet—in significant ways—also diverged sharply from them.

Zevon grew up on the West coast in the fifties and early sixties in a household where neither parent was musically inclined. His father, Bill, was a colorful Russian-born gambler, and his mother, Beverly, the daughter of prominent Mormons. They came from very different worlds, and not surprisingly, divorced when Warren was just sixteen. But by then, the precocious teenager had decided to become a musician, thanks largely to the influence of composer Igor Stravinsky (an improbable neighbor of the Zevons). Along the way, Warren moved from classical music toward the rhythms of his time—folk and rock—and set out for New York to become a Dylanesque troubadour. But the youthful venture went poorly, giving Warren his first harsh taste of the highly competitive music business.

Undaunted, Zevon returned to California, where he hooked up with an old high school friend, Violet Santangelo, to form the quirky duo, “lyme & cybelle,” which generated an unexpected hit, “Follow Me” (1966). It was astonishingly well crafted for a song written by someone who was just nineteen—a glimpse at Zevon’s future brilliance. The industry began to notice Zevon, and two of his other songs, “Like the Seasons,”  and “Outside Chance,” were picked up by The Turtles (the first landed on the B side of their smash record, “Happy Together”). 

Warren wrote more songs, did session work, and eventually became the keyboard player for the legendary Everly Brothers. But his dream was always to be a successful solo artist, a goal he doggedly pursued, even after his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive (1969), failed.

After a brief sojourn in Europe, he returned home to revive his hopes. His moment came when fellow recording artist Jackson Browne—a great believer in Zevon’s music—produced two of his breakthrough albums, the self-titled, Warren Zevon (1976) and Excitable Boy (1978). The first won raves, even if it sold only modestly, but the second was a critical and commercial success. The title track—about the hedonistic exploits of its wild protagonist—was outdone only by Zevon’s surreal and sensational hit, “Werewolves of London.”

Zevon’s songs told stories about strange and combustible figures. And like all good storytellers, Zevon kept everyone guessing about where his tales would go—often leaving their conclusions to listeners, after sparking their imaginations. That he could do this within the confines of a three or four minute song made his work all the more impressive.

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William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history, and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XIIHis previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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