For years, Warren Zevon's wry turns of phrase and ear for great melodies were put to use in songs about lives lived to the knuckle and blighted by death. Then, last year, he was diagnosed with incurable cancer and came face-to-face with his own mortality. While the characters who populate his songs might have given in, Zevon chose to bow out with one last album. The esteemed songwriter - he's got an array of profoundly romantic tunes mixed in with those crazed and violent tracks - told VH1 about bidding "adios" to pals like David Letterman and Hunter S. Thompson, and why as the end music plays, he's still not looking back.
VH1: How did you discover you had cancer?
Warren Zevon: I've always been a little doctor-phobic and never have gotten checkups. I had this shortness of breath for a while. One of my best friends is my dentist, Dr. Stan. I used to say, "If Dr. Stan can't fix it, call 911. I'm done." I mentioned to him that I had shortness of breath. He said, "Is it worse when you sleep?" "Yes." "Well, we're going to a cardiologist. " I was lucky; I got all the shocking news in the course of one day. Now I feel like I'm irritating people because I`ve exceeded predictions that I only had a few months [to live]. [Laughs.]
VH1: How have you adjusted to your illness?
WZ: I decided to start recording almost immediately, because it's the only thing I know how to do. It's so engrossing and engaging that it takes your mind off whatever minor business your life is going through.
VH1: Does time become a pressure for you?
WZ: I take a nap and wake up and look around and make sure I'm still here. So far every nap I've woken up from I've still been here. I don't know if pressure is exactly the word, but I'm constantly aware of it.
VH1: What were your feelings going into the David Letterman show?
WZ: I don't think I'm in denial about death, but I was in denial about doing 45 minutes of live network television. [Laughs.] But it meant a lot to me. Everybody who does this should think of themselves as an entertainer. I was reading a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., and it said that even when he was diagnosed with cancer, he [still] went out there and danced "Mr. Bojangles." I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna do it." It's not the easiest thing in the world to say goodbye, so it was a little difficult. But Dave's the best friend my music ever had. After the show I gave him the electric guitar we call the "Gray Visitation," the one I've always played on the show. He's a real good guy.
VH1: Your reunion with Hunter S. Thompson felt like a very different occasion.
WZ: That's only because you haven't seen Hunter before. Every occasion with Hunter's different. Hunter was a great influence on the way I wrote songs, but Hunter is Hunter. He's a great American writer. When he chooses to be he's also a great Southern gentleman. If you want to pursue the subject, I suggest that we book two first class tickets to Aspen on VH1's budget and see what Hunter has to say about it. Why not? I'll take an oxygen tank.
VH1: Three tickets, then.
WZ: The first exchange we ever had was about 10 years ago, when my daughter and I arrived in Aspen. I said, "Dr. Thompson, I've got the most terrible headache you can ever imagine. I don't know what to do at this altitude." He said, "Acid."
VH1: Are there themes that fascinate you?
WZ: Well, one of the reasons I can't complain about my present circumstances is that I've always written about death. Hemingway said all good stories ended in death, and I write songs about death and violence for some reason. Some of them are based on my upbringing and some are based on my reading habits. We live in a culture where violence is all around us and I found myself writing more songs about violence than romantic subjects. I like to think I have some goodhearted romantic impulses now and then, but for the most part I write a different kind of song.
VH1: Tell us about your upbringing.
WZ: My father was a Los Angeles gangster in the '50s. I'm not comfortable talking about it, but it informs my work. My friend Thomas McGuane wrote a book called Panama, where the rock star protagonist had the delusion that his father was Jesse James. I said, "Tom, this is about me. My father was Jesse James." He said, "I know, you're the only one who gets it."
VH1: Do you draw precise things from your readings?
WZ: No, I don't think so. Literature is just a hobby, the same as lacrosse or golf. I was more interested in contemporary writing than in pop music. I wasn't a great rock `n' roll fan. What Norman Mailer or John Updike had to say seemed a lot more interesting than what was going on in pop music in the early '60s.
VH1: Are you drawn to be more autobiographical with your lyrics now?
WZ: A little more so. I'm more interested in communicating what meager ideas I think I have about living. I'm interested in saying goodbye to a few people, too.
VH1: So did you draw on friends and associates to make the new album?
WZ: About 25 years ago, Jackson [Browne] said to me, you get by with a little help from your friends. This album I'm doing almost exclusively with my oldest friend Jorge Calderon. We're also working with people I've always wanted to work with like Ry Cooder. Dwight Yoakam is one of my favorite people to sing with because I'm so enraptured with his voice. Billy Bob Thornton has a voice that really blends well with mine, too. Sometimes you can get an emotional resonance from an actor-singer that you might not get from a musician.
VH1: Tell us about the song "Keep Me In Your Heart."
WZ: I don't think anybody knows quite what to do when they get the diagnosis. I picked up the guitar and found myself writing this kind of farewell. Instantly I realized I'd found what to do with myself. On reflection it might be a little bit of a "woe is me" song, but it made me realize what I was going to do with the rest of the time. It may be the last song on the album, but it was the first song I wrote.
VH1: What's the album's called?
WZ: Everybody thinks the album is called Dirty Life and Times, after the first track and the oldest song. But even I am not cavalier enough to leave this world with that sentiment. The album's called The Wind, because it figures into one of the important songs of the album that I wrote for my girlfriend Kristen, and because the first song of significance that I wrote was "Hasten Down The Wind" that Linda Ronstadt recorded. The wind's always been my friend.
VH1: Are you looking back on your past with this record?
WZ: No. My father's last words in `86 were "Never look back." I took that to heart. I stay in the present. There are no great prospects but having a snack and watching Dave Letterman at night, and I still enjoy it.
VH1: Do you feel your body changing?
WZ: It's gradually getting worse, naturally. There's certain medication that masks the symptoms. But I have no complaints. I expected it to be worse. I asked a friend of mine who's a cancer survivor if she thought I had a good chance of dying with my boots on, and she said yeah. So that's a hope. I'd have preferred it to be in Hunter's back yard, but we'll see.
VH1: Have you reconsidered your spirituality?
WZ: No. I've always been a Christian. People may find that bizarre, but I've always been a Graham Greene guy, haven't I? It's alluded to in many albums.
VH1: Anything you want to say to your fans now?
WZ: I have never liked the word "fans" because it seems very self-aggrandizing. I prefer to call them the customers, although that sounds callous. But I don't have anything to say to them that I haven't already said. Writing songs is an act of love. You write songs 'cause you love the subject and want to pass that feeling on. I've always said that songwriting was designed for the inarticulate. [Laughs.] Some songwriters might not agree or comply with that idea, but that's how I feel about it. So I don't have any big farewell speech.