Warren Zevon: A Genius and Disaster

Review: 'Nothing’s Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon' by C.M. Kushins

Warren Zevon / Instagram

There aren't actually all that many lines in pop music that tell you, simply by their construction, who their writer was. And a man named Warren Zevon had a surprising number of them. You hear something like, I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain, as he sang in his 1978 "Werewolves of London." And you know it has to be him. Only him. The genius and the disaster that was Warren Zevon.

This was someone who could write that his lover was a credit to her gender. / She put me through some changes, Lord, / sorta like a Waring blender, in the 1976 "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Or They killed to earn their livings and to help out the Congolese, in the 1978 "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." Or I'm tied to you like the buttons on your blouse, in his 2003 song about dying, "Keep Me in Your Heart." They're great lines, clever rhymes, and they could only have come from one songwriter. The sadness, the ruin, of Warren Zevon is that there aren't enough of them.

This spring, 16 years after Zevon's death, we finally have the long-promised biography, Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon, by C.M. Kushins. It's worth reading if you're a fan. But then, Zevon didn't exactly have fans, in the traditional sense. What he had were a set of admirers among professional pop artists (basically including everyone who ever tried to write lyrics), and another set of cult followers who bought his records and talked him up as an underrated genius at every occasion.

He did have a brief period of fame in the late 1970s, following the release of Warren Zevon, the album with "Werewolves of London," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," and, in a song called "Desperados Under the Eaves," lines as good as If California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will / I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill. But he dissipated much of that fame through the 1980s in bouts of alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. (You know a man's living too large when even Hunter S. Thompson describes him as "a dangerous drinker.") Only in the days of his impending death from cancer in 2003, when all his lost friends remembered how much they had loved his work and rushed to honor him, did he return to mainstream popularity.

All this creates a problem for C.M. Kushins in Nothing's Bad Luck, since he can't quite decide for whom he is trying to write. The cult fans demand only new information, the mainstream audience need reminding of who Zevon was, and the music critics require analysis of Zevon's techniques. The songwriter's final album, The Wind, was recorded with the help of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and others, after Zevon was diagnosed in 2002 with inoperable lung cancer. Released only two weeks before his death, it received nothing but praise, including a pair of Grammy Awards. If Kushins had finished the book on that last tide of good will, the varying registers of the book might have passed unremarked. Now, however, a decade and a half later, Nothing's Bad Luck feels a disappointment.

Still, the book gives a reasonable survey of the artist's life and work. His father—William Zevon, or "Stumpy," as they called him—was a bookie and minor gangster in Chicago. His mother was a Mormon, much younger than her Jewish husband, who would eventually get a divorce and have only an occasional presence in the boy's life. Born in 1947, Warren Zevon proved a shy child, suffering from the many relocations to which his family situation put him. Some training in classical piano led him to decide to be a musician, and at age 16 he dropped out of high school, moved to New York, and tried to build a career as a folk singer.

Not much came of it. He put out a failed and now forgotten album in 1969, traveled with the Everly Brothers, and worked as the tavern entertainment at a bar in Spain. In 1975, he returned to Los Angeles, gathering friends Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Jackson Browne to produce his first real album, Warren Zevon, in 1976. He followed it up in 1978 with his most commercially successful album, Excitable Boy, with such semi-hits and cult classics as "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and the title track, "Excitable Boy."

Craziness followed, as Kushins documents. Drunkenness seemed to him a necessary condition for writing about drinking. Partying for singing party songs. Self-destruction for understanding his dance along the edge. Rolling Stone ran a long essay about him in 1981, a cover story called "The Crackup and Resurrection of Warren Zevon," about his recovery from addiction—and by the time it appeared, Zevon had already recovered from sobriety, with cigarettes, drink, and drugs again dominating his life.

It showed in his music, as he slipped from his stint of popularity. His 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, was released to reduced success—a decline basically matched by the nine albums he released through 2002. In Nothing's Bad Luck, Kushins uses interviews with some of Zevon's family and many of his musical friends to trace the effects of his addictive ups and downs. Zevon believed it all contributed to some of his deepest work, as it may have. But the stimulant-fueled madness also contributed to long bouts of writer's block and failures to identify his best work. It also inflamed the insecurities he carried from childhood, making him jealous, angry, depressed, and ill-mannered around his family and the friends who began to fall away from him.

His friends didn't forget him, of course, and when his lung cancer surfaced in 2002, they rallied round. The late-night host David Letterman devoted an entire episode to him, the only guest on that evening’s show. Determined to help provide for his family—money had been a constant worry throughout his career—Zevon managed to write some of his best songs in years and use the highest talents of his musical friends to finish his final death-is-coming album.

In the end, what are we to make of the life and work of Warren Zevon? Perhaps there is some critical benefit to the fact that Kushins's biography arrives decades after its subject's best-known albums and 16 years after his death. From this distance maybe we can judge the man a little more accurately than cult adoration or funereal sentimentality allows.

Perhaps judgment comes to this: Warren Zevon was a minor genius, ridden too hard by his demons to make the move to major genius of the pop-music genres in which he worked. His greatest achievement may be that he was himself and only himself, an artist who had only the smallest of gaps between the on-stage persona he constructed and the off-stage person he lived. In lyric after lyric, he produced songs that could only be by one writer. In performance after performance, he delivered work that could only be by one singer. In episode after episode, he lived a life that could only be by one person—the genius and the disaster that was Warren Zevon.