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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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Clozing Thoughts on Warren Zevon

Benjamin H. Malcolm

From the President of the United States

To the lowliest rock and roll star

The doctor is in and he'll see you now

He don't care who you are

Some get the awful, awful diseases

Some get the knife, some get the gun

Some get to die in their sleep

At the age of a hundred and one

(Life'll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon)


No one in Thailand knew that Warren Zevon had died.

There were no news flashes, no sudden outpourings of emotion, no “did you hear about Zevon?” talk on the street. While I was in my own personal grieving vacuum, half a world away from the aural and visual news-cacophony of the United States, the rhythms of life in Thailand were continuing in their own normal way. I felt unnerved – I wanted some semblance of public mourning, something to hold on to while I worked through my own sense of loss.

I first learned about Zevon's passing through e-mail from my friend John. I received the following message (which borrowed liberally from two of his death-focused songs – “I'll Sleep When I'm Dead” and “Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead”):

Warren will get that much-needed sleep now ... hope he has fun in Denver working through that list of stuff to do.

The e-mail confirmed it. The disease had performed its final act … Warren Zevon, one of my favorite singers and songwriters, was dead at the age of 56, a year after the announcement of his terminal lung cancer. This had been a year in the making, and yet I was still unnerved by it. I sat at my keyboard bereft, utterly alone in the moment, feeling little save the warm steam of my coffee wafting over clammy skin.

I searched the internet for the next half-hour, half a world away from the event, isolated and yet hooked into everything with the touch of a button. I went to his official site (www.warrenzevon.com), and found his picture underlined by the message, “Enjoy every sandwich,” … his own words when asked by David Letterman for some insight during a special one-hour program dedicated to Zevon.

My search continued, through news briefs and other randomness, tributes by his former producer Jackson Browne, a eulogy in Rolling Stone, another remembrance from some guy who had kept up an e-mail dialogue with Warren during his last year, and a news briefing on Letterman's final tribute, spoken directly to the camera at the end of his show the day after Zevon's passing, “Goodnight, Warren, we'll see ya.”

What was I looking for? Some final bit of proof that it had actually happened? The reasons why lung cancer could strike a man who had sworn off cigarettes for years and who had turned to physical fitness as a hobby? A picture of his characteristic smirk, seemingly laughing at death until the very end?

In the end, I guess, I was searching for some company, some collective sense of sorrow, of mourning kinship that would seep out of my keyboards and salve my creeping sense of loss in a country that had no clue that he had died.


I was working on a steak the other day

And I saw Waddy in the Rattlesnake Cafe

Dressed in black, tossing back a shot of rye

Finding things to do in Denver when you die

You won't need a cab to find a priest

Maybe you should find a place to stay

Some place where they never change the sheets

And you just roll around Denver all day

  (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead,

Zevon/LeRoy Marinell/Waddy Wachtel)


Warren Zevon laughed at death. Hell; it seemed half his songs were about it. His last album, “The Wind,” came out two weeks before his own demise, backed by a random who's who of musicians and writers, the result of several months of constant effort and collaboration. When he found out he had cancer, he vowed to complete the album as his final act and go out in a blaze of glory, and if that's not laughing at death, what is?

I desperately wanted a copy of it, but there wasn't anything remotely resembling Warren Zevon in my city of Chiang Rai or the larger metropolis of Chiang Mai. Like I said, most Thais have never heard of him, preferring their own pop music and 1970's ballad stuff (the Eagles, Lobo, John Denver, etc.) Zevon's music is a bit edgy for many Thais.

I became absorbed with Zevon's music during my early years at Bates College . I don't recall exactly who introduced me to him (probably one of my roommates at the time played the seminal “Excitable Boy” album in our room), but I do know that I was roped in instantly. It was the lyrics more than anything that got to me -- songs about werewolves, mercenaries, prostitutes, and a murderous teenager. In the synth-pop wasteland of the 1980's, I felt, here was something truly different.

I remember laughing out loud in particular to the title track “Excitable Boy,” a bouncy, upbeat-sounding number about a homicidal maniac, backed by the constant verse “ Excitable boy, they all said … well, he's just an excitable boy.” Within that signature song were Zevon lyrical pearls such as “ He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom (Excitable boy they all said), and he raped her and killed her, then he took her home ” and the equally mind-twisting line “ He went to dinner in his Sunday best, (Excitable boy they all said), and he rubbed a pot roast all over his chest. ” Could you sing about that? Zevon could.

I was also a disc jockey at the alternative-music driven Bates College Radio, where student DJs felt free to add their own labels to the record jackets. Many of the pop records (think “A Flock of Seagulls” or “Quarterflash”) received all matter of graffiti (“toxic waste,” or “please God don't play this” were among the more benign examples), while Zevon's albums invariably were untouched, or had things like “Play this!” written in bold black marker. I could see that there were plenty of others who shared my enthusiasm for his music.

By then, Zevon had already been through his alcoholic phase, done a record about it of course, and moved on to other things. His late eighties albums, I'm thinking of the concept album “Transverse City” in particular, made fun of the U.S.'s stressed-out society (malls, gridlock, and networking in particular), Michael Jackson, and the usual “under the radar” stuff that was his specialty (South American mercenaries and African tribal wars leap immediately to mind).

Nobody ever wrote songs quite the way that Zevon did, with his mix of black humor, lyricism, and stark truth. Other singers had catchy and normal lyrics; Zevon had catchy and abnormal lyrics. He tossed in words like “Dimethyl sulfate,” “entropy,” and “pauperized” with ease. Somebody said he was the master of the “song-noir,” giving life not only to the aforementioned prostitutes, hit-men, monsters (aaahh wooo, werewolves of London!), excitable boys, but also hard-luck boxers, detox survivors, factory workers, and even Frank and Jesse James.

He also sang about his own personal train wrecks - his alcoholism, the false doors of fame, and his abysmal luck in love. Those were some of his best songs. He was not above the truth; he was mired in it, slogging his way through.

I borrowed from Zevon terminology with abandon. When a group of friends and I went on a road trip to some baseball stadiums in the Mid-West, we affectionately named the back seat in the van (in and amidst the luggage, far removed from everyone) as the “Georgia O'Keeffe seat.” This came from Zevon's song “Splendid Isolation,” where at one point, he sings “ I want to live all alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O'Keeffe .”

Zevon's music wasn't only related to the lighter moments in my life. As my own relationships crashed in flames over the years or as I struggled with loneliness or despair, I found partnership in his words, his poetry of pain -- songs written about failed relationships, and even his own foibles that would sink relationships. Zevon's lyrics would reverberate through my head; songs like “Reconsider Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” and “Searching for a Heart” spoke of the longing to reunite, the awkward interplay of a doomed couple, and the endless search for “the one,” respectively. There were no grand moments in this, no song connected bit by bit to an individual breakup or failed relationship, just an overall sense of shared understanding, a fellow traveler upon the often potholed, pitted road of love.

In the way that people often do with songwriters, I had found a common ground in the music of Warren Zevon. His words were in line with the way that I saw the world, laughing at it and ourselves, exploring it (especially the dark areas and forgotten people), and above all, laying it on the table for all to see.


Well, I met a girl in West Hollywood

I ain't naming names

She really worked me over good

She was just like Jesse James

She really worked me over good

She was a credit to her gender

She put me through some changes, Lord

Sort of like a Waring blender

  (Poor Poor Pitiful Me, Zevon)


For a long time, Zevon was only someone I heard or saw in pictures.

A few years back, that changed, when my friend John picked up tickets to a Zevon concert at the State Theatre in Falls Church , Virginia . The State Theatre is a big, 1930's-era converted-theater concert hall, a dark place with a big open dance space in front of the stage. Zevon swung through D.C. every so often, and John jumped on the chance to get tickets for this concert as I was soon to head to Asia .

By the time Zevon had taken the stage, after the opening act, most people had gathered in a crowd up front. People weren't gathering to dance, just to mill about close to the stage. The concert took on the aura of a living room soliloquy-and-sing. Zevon talked through and sang his old and new stuff, all the while fighting some sort of cold. He didn't seem at his liveliest, but enjoyed talking about the medicine he was taking and the effect it was having on his senses. He looked frazzled, drank a lot of water, but kept the crowd entertained with his “unplugged” guitar and piano sets.

After playing a set of his older tunes, Zevon commented how horrible the writing sounded (like something he had written in high school and was being forced to play again and again). Periodically, from the audience, people shouted out requests for his songs, random shouts in between sets of songs -- “Seminole Bingo,” “Something Bad Happened to a Clown,” among others. He played a few of those and also previewed one of his new pieces – a song about a hockey goon whose big moment is scoring a goal for the first time in his life, titled appropriately enough “Hit Somebody (the Hockey Song).” Letterman would later record the song with Zevon, yelling out the words “Hit Somebody” in the proper places.

It all felt perfect, something new, something old, everything that I'd grown up with. Later, after the show, on my way to my car, I saw him goofing around in back of the theater with the roadies, who seemed to be quickly packing for the next stop. He looked too tired and sick to be on the road.


Left eye, right eye

Take a look around

Everybody's heading

For a hole in the ground

And it's the Dance of Shiva

It's the Twilight of the Gods

Thunder and lightning

'Til the break of dawn

Monkey wash donkey rinse

Going to a party in the center of the earth

Monkey wash donkey rinse

Honey, don't you want to go?

( Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse, Zevon/Duncan Aldrich)


Thus, as I sat at my keyboard in Thailand , I was left with the same question. How do I mourn in a country with no Zevon appreciation? Understanding that I would have to go through the bulk of this on my own, I still wanted to go public and share my feelings with a larger group.

My solution came in the form of my work, with the freshmen and seniors at Mae Fah Luang University . Since I was still finishing up the term, I decided that it made sense to try to share it with my students, and create a pseudo-public funeral service using the time-honored method of “Cloze Song.”

A Cloze Song is a classroom game you can use to teach English, to keep students awake and functioning with their second language. The setup is simple -- choose any song, knock out about 10 words, and have them listen to it and guess the words. I chose two of his classics for this -- “Werewolves of London” and “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner.” Nagging at me a bit was the knowledge that Zevon had never sold here, and that his songs were relative unknowns in a land of ballad rock, but I figured both these odd numbers were upbeat enough to catch their attention.

I shared first Roland and then Werewolves with three classes total, over a period of three days. By that time in the term, I was fairly close with most of the students, knowing most of them on a first name basis.

I remember the final class the best. I started by vocalizing the idea of a Cloze Song, which picked up the energy in the classroom. “ A Game!” everyone said. Thirty eyes lit up with the thought of it. I continued, and told them I was about to play a song from my favorite singer in the world, Warren Zevon. Several of them clapped, obviously interested to hear music from my “favorite” singer. I paused before continuing, and I could feel the lump in the back of my throat as I told them the following:

“Something happened to my favorite singer this week. Warren died earlier this week … that's why I want to play something for you today. That's why I chose to play his song.”

  There was silence in the classroom, and I could feel all their eyes looking at me. They had all heard the change in my voice and in that instance I felt closer with them than at any other point during the term. The earlier anticipation had now been replaced by something else. It was still a relaxing way to learn English for sure, but it now held some of the dark seriousness that resides at the edge of life. It became a celebration of Warren 's life and music.

And with that, I touched play, and the music filled the room.

I lost myself for a time in the rhythm of the song and then looked up at the class, at the students all filling in their missing words, listening hard to the verses and odd word choices of the master songwriter. My reservations that the music would not translate evaporated as I watched them -- heads bouncing to the rhythm, feet tapping the floor, and several kids howling along, making their own werewolf sounds. And then we played the song again, repeating the process and joining together with more werewolf howls, enmeshed in his intricate musical web.

I thought as I listened a second time, that somewhere Zevon was listening to the reverberation of Thai voices making werewolf noises, and that he'd be glad to know Thai students are not only listening and enjoying him, but learning English to his songs, and this would strike him as rather funny in a way.

Learning English at a funeral? That's a very Zevonesque concept.

Some time later, a copy of Zevon's final album “The Wind” arrived in my mailbox, an express gift from my friend John, who had alerted me to his passing in the first place. The circle was completed. I spent that day listening to the final songs of the man I discovered in college, who cheated death not physically but in spirit, who made poetry out of pain, and whose song “Werewolves of London” became the perfect “funeral” Cloze Song.

Goodnight, Warren , I'll see ya.

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