Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon'

'Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon.'
'Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In 1983, Warren Zevon proposed to his girlfriend Anita Gevinson (cousin of the as-yet-unborn blog star Tavi), while they were hooking up after a tour stop in Denver. She said yes, only to answer the door to a passel of groupies. "I don't know how they found me," pleaded Zevon. Gevinson's retort was unprintable.

The next year, Zevon flew to the Mayo Clinic for rehab. He said he'd be a new man, but he needed Gevinson to be his pillar of strength. After everything they'd been through by that point, she just couldn't see it. As she left, the clinic asked who Zevon's new emergency contact would be. "Call Jackson Browne," she told them.

Sure enough, Browne was there at the airport to collect Zevon when he landed in L.A. after getting clean. Along for the ride: Browne's new girlfriend, Daryl Hannah. While they loaded the car, Zevon called Gevinson from a pay phone and left a message on her machine: "I just wanted you to know that Daryl said when I smile, I remind her of Ryan O'Neal. Goodbye."

The whole sad, hopeful, painful, darkly funny, celebrity-filled encounter is recounted toward the middle of Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon. C.M. Kushins's affectionate, intimately knowledgeable biography takes a new bead on the life of one of the most mercurial, brilliant, funny, and frustrating singer-songwriters of his baby-boomer generation.

Like David Bowie, born in the same month of January 1947, Zevon always read a little younger than he was. Both artists started making music in the '60s but hit their stride in the '70s. Whereas Bowie found mainstream success in the '80s, though, Zevon remained a little too idiosyncratic for the MTV era. His only solo track to crack the Top 40 was "Werewolves of London," which peaked at number 21 in 1978.

By a decade later, the critical consensus on Zevon was beginning to be set in stone: he was a "cult favorite," the kind of guy you'd see on David Letterman not because he was about to break big but because Letterman just dug guys like that. After his diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, Zevon became only the second person (after VP Al Gore) to have an entire episode of Letterman's show dedicated to him. Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band played "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" as Zevon hit the stage; he loved it.

As Kushins notes, "cult favorite" are not the words you want to hear when you're a record label hoping for a hit, and you can't blame Virgin (then Zevon's label) for holding out hope. Other than pop radio programmers, everyone loved Zevon. He became famous for squeezing several celebrity cameos into each album, so many that fans lost track.

He joked about his reputation in a 1999 appearance on Suddenly Susan. When Kathy Griffin asked if Neil Young was on his album Sentimental Hygiene, Zevon replied, "To be honest with you, I don't remember. I was a little medicated during the '80s. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm on that record."

Kushins follows Zevon from his southern California youth, raised largely by his mother with cameo appearances by his vagabond gambler father, "Stumpy" Zevon. (Among Stumpy's last words, Kushins reports, were "F--k everybody.") Warren, who would struggle with alcoholism until he got mostly sober in 1986, had his first drink at the house of legendary composer Igor Stravinsky, who he met through his band teacher.

After a stint songwriting for hire and an early hit as part of a male-female duo called lyme and cybelle (lowercase deliberate), Zevon fell in with the members of the Turtles, who did him an early favor by covering one of his songs on the B-side of their chart-topper "Happy Together." Among the many astonishing stories in Nothing's Bad Luck is one about how Zevon had to skip a party at George Harrison's house when he and the Turtles were stopped by cops and one of the band members popped all their hallucinogens at once to evade arrest.

The gifted young singer-songwriter, then, was running in the innermost circles of the music industry before just about anyone in the public knew who he was. Without seeming to have tried very hard to accomplish the feat — probably precisely because he didn't try very hard — Zevon built a deep bench of collaborators. He cowrote "Jeannie Needs a Shooter" with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan played harmonica on "The Factory," and three-quarters of R.E.M. backed him on 1987's Sentimental Hygiene. On the quasi-bootleg Hindu Love Gods release that came out of those sessions, you can hear Warren Zevon cover Prince.

Zevon's wit is so sharp that his lyrics typically grab you first in songs like "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." He's an insidiously powerful musical craftsman, though, combining a rock crunch with production flourishes that evince his classical training. Shaffer remembers when, for reasons that remain vague, Zevon wrote out the instrumental parts for the entire first Spice Girls album — down to the notes in the keyboard solos.

He moved through a progression of relationships that started early and often overlapped. He spent the first two decades of his rock-star life as a functioning alcoholic, slamming prodigious quantities of vodka ("He might add a little orange juice," remembers one witness) and killing flies by shooting them. With bullets.

Like so many other rock stars of his era, Zevon bought himself a lot of chances with his talent, also benefiting from an industry where white men got more slack than those who weren't. He also had intelligence and wit, which didn't hurt. Nothing's Bad Luck, which takes its title from an aphorism the superstitious artist would recite, is full of unforgettable stories showcasing Zevon's deadpan humor.

One, for example, is from his foray into self-production; he was an early acolyte of home recording onto digital audio tape. "I want you to know that being responsible for my own budget was harrowing," he told Billboard, noting that he allotted a set-aside for equipment repairs. "Maybe throwing a fax machine across the room is a little less controlled than I should be, but I said, 'It's in the budget.'"

Though he died too young, Zevon at least did get his roses while he lived. Learning he had only a few months left ("F--k it, I'm going to drink and I'm going to do the Elvis drugs"), he marshaled an even larger stable of stars than usual to help with The Wind, released to acclaim and strong sales in 2003. "I better die quick so they'll give me a Grammy nomination," he quipped before dying just days after the album was released. Sure enough, it got four Grammy nominations...Zevon's first four.

Still, if you know one Warren Zevon song, it's "Werewolves of London." It was inspired by a 1935 horror film called Werewolf of London and by the suggestion of Phil Everly — Zevon toured with the brothers' band before they broke up — that he write a dance craze. He came up with the chorus and sat down one night with guitarists Waddy Wachtel and LeRoy Marinell. They each wrote a verse in a 20-minute jam session, and later set it in stone with Fleetwood Mac's rhythm section.

Inevitably, Zevon got sick of his signature song, but at every show he'd dutifully pull it out for the fans. "I suppose on some deep and profound level," he told the Boston Globe, "the evening would seem incomplete to me without three minutes of howling."

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