It’s been a long year here at Album Du Jour. From that first day when I had no idea what album to write about and wound up writing up American Woman by The Guess Who just because that was what I had been listening to lately, to just yesterday when I spoke at length about an album that took 37 years to make without even talking about the music within, I feel I’ve accomplished my goal of exploring my often scattered thoughts about the albums that have been a part of my life in one way or another (yes, even Richard Harris’ A Tramp Shining and Hulk Hogan’s Hulk Rules).
While I started this little ol’ blog with no idea about the direction it would go in or what I would write about from day to day, there is one album that stuck with me from the moment I heard it, and I knew that it would occupy the final spot in this project as my pick for the best album ever made. Today, I am extremely thrilled to be writing about Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind:
Thought my “best album ever” would go to Johnny Cash, eh?
I had probably better explain myself, as I have been thinking about this for months. First, however, we’re going to talk about how this album came about, because that’s kind of important to the story.
In 2002, things weren’t really going bad for Warren Zevon. It had been somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years since he kicked his alcohol habit, and with the release of his Artemis albums, Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here, heretofore known as the albums with the most foreboding titles ever, he found himself with just enough modest success to keep a modest man like Zevon happy. With his new-found quasi-success, Warren decided to change up his daily routine a little with some exercise, a rather ironic health-kick, as he would put it himself.
Right around the time he played the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in Canada, in what must have been a grueling game of Tiddlywinks (kidding), Zevon noticed that it was becoming harder and harder to catch his breath. The problem got so severe that Zevon had no choice… but to go to his dentist.
See, Zevon had a strong dislike for doctors, which he would later describe to David Letterman as “a phobia that didn’t really pay off”. Once he described his symptoms to his dentist, he was referred to a cardiologist and finally an oncologist, and sure enough, he was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, an inoperable and deadly form of lung cancer often associated with breathing asbestos, which they used for insulation in houses a long time ago. Call it irony or poetic justice, but Warren Zevon, who had written far more than his fair share of songs about death, was himself to be done in by a disease more obscure than his career in the 90′s. Yeah, I hated that joke too but I couldn’t stop myself.
Either way, the doctors gave Warren Zevon 3 months to live, which could possibly be extended through chemo therapy. Warren opted out of treatment, and made a remarkable decision: to record one last album as a good-bye to his family and friends.
The doctors said “Fair enough” and proceeded to load him up with enough drugs to keep him going.
Warren immediately began writing new songs, and remarked later in a documentary that ideas and inspiration were finally coming swiftly, whereas his entire career was marked by slow and cumbersome songwriting. The songs that Warren wrote would touch on thoughts I imagine many people would have about dying, and while Zevon’s trademark wit is present throughout the text of the songs where they would fit, the songs took on a much deeper meaning. My theory is that Warren Zevon, being the genius he was, had always written songs intelligently, taking the rules and principals of songwriting and twisting them into something both magnificent and not at all serious, often within the same lines of music. The songs on The Wind are not all that lyrically innovative or musically fussy, and therein lies the secret of the album’s unmatched quality: Zevon was writing from the heart.
Three months passed, and pretty good time was being made on the album, but he was nowhere near finished. Still, Warren was still alive, so work continued. He celebrated his extra time on Earth the way most people do, by going on David Letterman as the one and only guest for the evening. Dave and Warren were great friends, and indeed Letterman is where you’d see Warren rocking out his latest songs more often than not. The interview with Warren and the musical performances (which include a brilliant performance of “Genius” and “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner”) was a thing of beauty, and one of the most profound things that I’ve ever heard a dying man say came from Warren when David asked him if he had gained any insight into life, given his condition, to which Warren said “Enjoy every sandwich”.
Such a simple philosophy, one that dates back to times before sandwiches I’m sure, but to hear it from someone like Warren Zevon (who, by the way, had the same positive attitude even before being diagnosed) in his condition just affirms it all the more. Indeed, whereas anyone else might clench their fists at whoever decided they should be taken out of life early, or even if given the opportunity to make an artistic contribution on the level that Warren was planning, someone may make a terrible, distraught, sorrowful artistic statement, Warren chose to take the philosophy behind “Enjoy every sandwich” and run with it. The album follows along a vague but discernible pattern, and with the cloud of mortality hanging over everything, acknowledged but never allowed to take over, the feel of the album is unlike any other album I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing.
The first move that the album makes is to exorcise, once and for all, the mischievous Zevon character, the “arch-narrator”, indeed the very Excitable Boy that had been wreaking havoc since day one. Like the infamous “Mr. Bad Example”, Warren is retiring from all his dirty deals, and he does it in the form of “Dirty Life And Times”. The song reminds me probably most of “Frank And Jesse James”, in that it evokes a very “Western” feel, singing praises upon the sacred 1, 4, and 5 progression that makes up 9 out of 10 Country songs (good ones, anyway) with the dirty distorted lap steel, provided by none other than Ry Cooder. As Warren sings the first notes, one may be taken aback by how rough his voice sounds, unless one had been listening to albums like Life’ll Kill Ya, which is somehow even rougher. Indeed, Warren made a solid effort to sing the notes as straight as possible, but when you’ve got lung cancer, it kind of knocks The Wind out of you (no pun intended, ok yes pun intended). Still, Warren’s got some help on some of the lines from Dwight Yoakam and actor Billy Bob Thornton, of all people:
Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me
Some days the sun don’t shine
Sometimes I wonder what tomorrow’s gonna bring
When I think about my dirty life and times
One day I came to a fork in the road
Folks, I just couldn’t go where I was told
Now they’ll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes
If I tell about my dirty life and times
While the lyrics may look pretty severe initially, the tone of the song is upbeat, as if Warren has evoked all the powers of Hank Williams to bring a light tune to the darkest of songs. Of course, in the typical Zevon fashion, the song soon lightens up entirely:
I had someone ’til she went out for a stroll
Shoulda run after her
It’s hard to find a girl with a heart of gold
When you’re living in a four-letter world
But if she won’t love me, then her sister will
She’s from Say-One-Thing-And-Mean-Another’s-Ville
And she can’t seem to make up her mind
When she hears about my dirty life and times
After which, Zevon lets out a barely-managed “Woo”, which may be one syllable that doesn’t really mean anything, but to me it brings back the spirit of Warren’s first two albums, wherein he loved to end lines with some kind of “woo” or “hey” or “yeah”, and thankfully, that spirit lasts through the entire album.
Gets a little lonely, folks, you know what I mean
I’m looking for a woman with low self-esteem
To lay me out and ease my worried mind
While I’m winding down my dirty life and times
That is possibly the best line in the whole song. Indeed, if I were dying that’s exactly what I’d be thinking.
“Dirty Life And Times” sets the mood for the album so well by letting the individuals who are hearing the album for the first time, who know what it’s about but don’t know the songs, completely at ease about what they’re listening to. The song is not a song of regret or quibbling, but an unapologetic look back at a notorious life lived to its fullest. Who needs to know what happened in the past? We’re moving on to the future and winding down for that last trip, wine and women in tow.
The second song is the Grammy-winning “Disorder In The House”, which is possibly an allegory for Zevon’s illness or the presence of an illness, but could also be easily twisted to be about politics, authority, even the economy. It’s just a general “shit has hit the fan” type song, and it’s one of the best rock songs I’ve ever heard. While the lyrics are among Zevon’s absolute best, what really makes the song is a special trip to the studio made by Bruce Springsteen, who canceled his plans to be home for Christmas to come and record on a couple of songs for his friend Warren Zevon.
Bruce Springsteen has gotten next to no mention on this blog, and I do apologize for that. Despite his most famous works being fist-pumping heavy 80′s Americana Rock, which I am not typically a fan of, I consider the man to be among the greatest of the “honest” rockers of today. The guy is all grit, stubble, flannel, and an irrepressible sense of fun when it comes down to it (of course, he can do stark music as well, Nebraska being a great example). Anyway, though I’m a bit new to Springsteen’s various sounds, you could call me a fan the moment I heard his contribution to “Disorder In The House“. On top of lending some very energetic backing vocals that, despite Springsteen having a voice that’s 3 stories tall and made of fists, still takes a backseat to Warren’s modest leading vocals, he applies not one, nor two, but three incredible guitar solos. Though they aren’t solos that are going to make a technically gifted guitarist green with envy, they are absolutely appropriate for the song, rough and sort of ramshackle, but full of soul.
Now that some fun has been had, things slow down and get serious for a moment. Warren Zevon does precious few cover songs, though he had been averaging at least 1 per album for a while. Given the subject matter of The Wind, there are few more appropriate cover songs to choose than Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Nevermind that it’s an insanely popular song to cover (sometimes insanely inappropriately so), I can’t think of a time that it has been covered by someone for whom the words were as close to literally true as can be achieved without dying first. Zevon’s cover is totally classy, working with the same instruments that gave such life to “Dirty Life And Times” only with someone else playing lap steel (instrument-aficionado David Lindley is my guess). The song isn’t quite on the tear-jerker level that some of the other songs that occur later on this album are, but it does a really good job of sort of “preparing” the listener for the emotional brick that’s about to come hurdling across the speakers right toward their fragile psychic defenses.
“Let’s do another bad one then, ’cause I love when the blood drains from Daaave’s faaace.”
This little bit of studio banter from Warren introduces the next song, “Numb As A Statue”, which is another upbeat zinger, this time featuring Warren on his number one axe: the piano. This song, more than the others, showcases Zevon’s ability to make a perfectly good song based on one really clever line:
I’m numb as a statue
I may have to beg, borrow, or steal
Some feelings from you
So I can have some feelings too
Which, even without the adverse conditions under which this album finds itself, is still an awesome line. The song unfolds, however, into more of a thinly-veiled admission of needing that special woman (with low self-esteem?), and lines like “get here before I fall asleep” bring the song back to the topic at hand. Still, it’s a very fun song, and it’s not the last one.
As is the grand Zevon tradition, The Wind features a love-lost serenade in the middle of the album. This particular one is called “She’s Too Good For Me”, and seems to be about a guy who suffers from guilt or poor self esteem or something, and leaves a relationship, citing that the girl is just too good for him. Interestingly, the song doesn’t seem to have an air of finality about it like the other songs have so far. In fact, a line of the song goes “I’d wait here for a thousand years, if she’d come back to me”, which is not typically the words that would come from someone who was supposed to be dead yesterday. Either way, the song has a nice mellow feel to it that keeps it sounding sweet but not too melancholy. It’s just a sad song, and what makes it even sadder is the addition of two of the Eagles: Don Henley, who you may remember me mentioning in the Johnny Cash American IV album as being the musical grim reaper, and Timothy B. Schmidt, who is actually a woman, don’t let the name and soul patch fool you. They provide some quite Eagles-esque backing vocal harmonies to the song, which is fine by me, honestly I think it’s cool that they came to hang out more than anything. Again, I just kind of hate the Eagles’ music is all.
As the first half of the album draws to a close, we’ve already covered a few topics that skirt around the issue that the person singing these songs is doomed, but none of them could be directly translated to that dire of a statement. “Prison Grove” can be, it’s about as much of an “I’m going to die” song as you can get without literally saying those words. The song is a minor key affair (the only one on the album, if you can believe it), and features some really haunting slide work, again by Ry Cooder. The words to the song are that of a prisoner on death row in a prison called, appropriately, Prison Grove:
An icy wind burns and scars
Rushes in like a fallen star
Through the narrow space
Between these bars
Looking down on Prison Grove
Dug in, hunkered down
Hours race without a sound
Gonna carry me to where I’m bound
Looking down on Prison Grove
Not only are the words dire and fatalist, but the whole army of backup singers that showed up for this session all hum along this very “Deathy” tune, like a funeral march or something. Still, Warren puts on a very brave face for his performance in this song, sending words of challenge against the crazy guitar lines that come in at the end, as if the guitar represented the coming of Death and Warren was taunting “Come on!” at it. Despite the somber tone of this song, which may be a bit much for some people, it’s the brave tone in Warren’s voice that makes it seem right, as if the man has no fear.
Of course, that tone changes dramatically for the next song. A very melancholy tune indeed, “El Amor De Mi Vida” opens with a piano part that has one of the most powerful tear-jerking chord movements in all of music: the minor 4th. Of course, the minor 5th is even worse, and if you can somehow combine the two, there won’t be a dry eye in the house, or you’re English and that’s just how you roll. Either way, the song is split between verses sung in English and the chorus, which is sung in Spanish by the man who helped write half of this album, Jorge Calderón. Zevon’s lines are that of someone who is both resigned to his fate of being alone and also regretful of words unspoken. It’s both touching and very clever that the words that Zevon regrets never being able to say are in another language, as if the character of the song is regretting not being able to say the perfect Spanish words simply because he doesn’t speak Spanish. Of course, this is an absurd take on the lyrics, but after hearing this album dozens of times, one tends to take more absurd meanings out of words. Speaking of meanings, the Spanish lyrics are translated thusly:
Tu eres el amor de mi vida (“You are the love of my life”)
Si solo te pudiera encontrar (“If only I could find you”)
Con todo el corazon te diria (“With all my heart I would tell you”)
Tu eres mi amor de verdad (“You are my true love”)
Man, what a song. It was kind of cool though, with my rudimentary understanding of Spanish, to have picked up on these lyrics without having to look it up the first time. Still, since it’s Spanish, the words just sound romantic without translation.
It’s about time to bring things back up, at least one more time. That job is left up to “The Rest Of The Night”, which is a song about Zevon partying his hardest. Of course, in keeping with the theme of the album, there is a sense of urgency to the song, though in any other context, it’s just the urgency of getting as much dancing done as possible while we still have the chance. This song represents an attitude that Zevon had nearly since the beginning, that life is a lot of fun:
Why stop now? Let’s party the rest of the night
Seven o’clock, Eight o’clock, Nine o’clock, Ten
You wanna go home? Why, Honey, when
We may never get this chance again?
Let’s party for the rest of the night
Of course, the party keeps on going until six, when Zevon recommends opening the “Bag of tricks”, so clearly he’s doing some serious partying (mind you, his bag of tricks at this stage of the game was doctor-prescribed). The song is light-hearted and fun, and Zevon even says “I’m starting to fall in love with you” which gives the sense that the character of the song is an older sentimental guy who has it all figured out and is trying to pick up the cutest young girl at the party. Mind you, what little I know of Warren Zevon makes this song seem awfully autobiographical (his girlfriend at the time was amazingly beautiful and looked to be in her 20′s). Another thing I like about this song is that it features a guitar hook between chorus and verse that is made up entirely of 2 notes, and of course is entirely catchy.
Now, while Zevon explores his idea of having fun with the time you have left in the world with the previous song, now things are taking a turn for the more sentimental. The song “Please Stay” is Zevon yearning, in all earnest, for his love to stay with him “Until the end, ’til there’s nothing left but you, and me, and the wind”. The song is an admission of a brief moment of honesty from someone who hides his feelings far too much (“Please stay, please stay, two words I never thought I’d learn to say”), and it’s a beautiful tune. To add to the beauty is the harmony work of none other than Emmylou Harris, who does a spectacular job singing the song with Warren. Also present is a stunning saxophone solo by Gil Bernal. By “stunning”, I mean that it’s a sax solo that’s actually really low key, which is perfectly appropriate for the song, and is thus directly against most sax players’ instincts. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but the very last note of the saxophone is allowed to die off until all that’s heard is the tuneless breath of the player, which always gave me a chill.
Now we come to the end of the album, where Warren has a few choice words for a few choice people. The penultimate track on this masterpiece is called “Rub Me Raw”, and “raw” is indeed the best word to describe what’s going on here. The song is a slow blues stomp with electric guitars and lots of attitude, especially from the slide guitar of one Joe Walsh of The Eagles (the only member I can consistently stand, purely for his guitar work and his rampant ridiculousness). Zevon throws out an apocryphal yet kickass tale of his plight:
I know these blues are gonna rub me raw
Every single cure seems to be against the law
Went and told my psychic
I said “Keep it to yourself,
I don’t wanna hear it
don’t be telling no one else”
Word’s out on the street
Whispers in the night
They come out of the woodwork
Wanna see what it’s like
Gonna run that voodoo down
How the crowd gets fickle when your face is to the ground
Oh no, these blues is gonna rub me raw
Only the very best Blues songs mention Voodoo, so Warren was very astute in doing so. The line “How the crowd gets fickle…” is in reference to people’s responses to his announcement of his diagnosis. Apparently, in the months that followed, Warren did the “Thing you’re not supposed to do”, and checked up on various internet places where people were discussing him, and was shocked and disappointed at some of the things they were saying about him (welcome to the internet, Warren, it’s a sad old place). Specifically, people were misunderstanding his refusal to get treatment for his illness, as if dying quicker was some form of rebellion, like avoiding drowning by getting eaten by a shark. “That’s why he’s our hero”, Warren sneered sardonically, channeling his so-called “fans” on the documentary VH1 made of this album’s production. Indeed, “Rub Me Raw” addresses these people a couple of times, the next time is in the following lines:
Now I’m shaking all over
I’m a slatherin’ (?) mess
But I’m gonna sit up straight
I’m going to take it with class
Old man used to tell me “Son, never look back,
Move on to the next case, fold your clothes and pack”
To the green-horned-chicken-hoppers I say
“Get yourself a trade,
Or go back to the chat room and fade in the shade”
Oh no, these blues is gonna rub me raw
Essentially telling people on the internet to screw off might keep this album from being “timeless” (who even uses chatrooms anymore even now, 6 years later?), but I’m glad he decided to deflate those pretentious idiots, whoever they are. As Warren himself put it, “It’s a sin to not want to live”.
Each of these lines, by the way, are punctuated by the snarling slide guitar that, again, is a case of the perfect guitar part for the perfect song, and like in “Prison Grove”, Warren does not take this punishment lying down, in fact he commands “Rub me raw!” before one of the final guitar solos. What an amazing man.
Speaking of amazing, now we have finally arrived at the end of The Wind, and what awaits us, as a final word, is the sweetest, most genuinely gentle song I’ve ever heard: “Keep Me In Your Heart“. Built around a the simplest of chord progressions and in the people’s key of G, the song’s verses and choruses contain only one line of melody, and the rest of the focus is on the lyrics:
Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you, it doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for a while
When you get up in the morning, and you see that crazy sun
Keep me in your heart for a while
There’s a train leaving nightly called “When all is said and done”
Keep me in your heart for a while
The lines are simple and beautiful, and each one is followed with the repetition of the song’s main line, which reminds me mostly of a liturgy in various Protestant churches, like a blessing almost. In fact, the chorus doesn’t need any further words, it’s merely “Sha la la la la la la la la li lo, keep me in your heart for a while”.
Sometimes, when you’re doing simple things around the house
Keep me in your heart for a while
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while
Clearly, though the audience may assume that Zevon is telling them to keep him in their hearts (which any fan will have done), this line makes it clear that he is talking to a specific woman, which gives the song not only a true meaning, but one that doesn’t disguise the fact that Warren is singing entirely about himself, not as a character, not as a half-truth, but he is saying good-bye in a very real way. The bridge changes the melody a bit:
Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you
I really start to lose it around this part of the song, yet he continues:
Engine driver’s headed North to Pleasant Stream
Keep me in your heart for a while
These wheels keep turning, but they’re running out of steam
Keep me in your heart for a while
With that, a chorus, and a final line of “Keep me in your heart for a while”, the book is closed on The Wind. It’s very fortunate that Zevon was able to finish the album with this particular song, because the rest of the album had taken it completely out of him, so he had to take a couple of months off until he finally had the strength to perform that song, which incidentally is one of the first songs he wrote upon hearing of his condition.
With the songs completed, Warren had nothing left to do but wait around for the birth of his twin grandsons, and to see the newest James Bond film Die Another Day (what an appropriate title). Warren lived until 12 days after his album was released (outliving doctors’ predictions by about 9 months), and then he was gone on September 7th, 2003. Recognize that date? Yeah, that’s 5 days before Johnny Cash also passed on, so that was a very sad week for me, if I had been as aware of both artists as I am now. Sure, I often cite Johnny Cash as my favorite artist, even though many artists have claimed that top spot before, but until I hear otherwise, Warren Zevon will go down in my book as one of the only examples of getting an album perfectly right, and given his time restraints, his miraculous resilience, and just the overall quality of the music, I consider The Wind to be the best album ever made.
Of course, I despite the word “best”, but when one looks at all the albums that have competed for that top spot (see part of yesterday’s entry), one sees albums that are technically innovative, unique to their genre, perhaps even albums that change the way other artists make their albums forever, but does that make any one of them, in and of itself, the best album ever?
Here’s the thing about Warren Zevon: he is not an artist that vies for the top spot of anything, in fact he wouldn’t even consider himself a “rock” artist for the majority of his career. Warren Zevon was a particularly brilliant man, a genius actually, who lived life to its fullest, no matter if he was commercially successful or not, and created great music for us musically-minded people to enjoy for the cleverness and subtlety and various other appealing qualities that I have already gone over in my writeups for each of those albums, but when faced with a very real deadline that happened to be a large enough window to fit an album through, Warren Zevon succeeded in a dramatically unlikely way to create an album that, on top of being a success simply in defeating the improbable odds stacked against it, perfectly encapsulates the meaning behind the very concept of albums.
The reason in my mind for albums versus “singles”, which were the only thing going until long-playing albums started really taking off in the 50′s or some other impossibly long time ago, is that a long-playing album can bring together multiple songs that all work toward the same goal: to serve as a reminder of the period of time that it represents, and all the emotion surrounding it. It’s kind of like a photo album as well, it’s made of many pictures with the goal of showing you an experience made up of places and times rather than just a single picture. When I think of how much an album “works” as an album, that is practically the only criteria I apply. What experience does the album take you through, and does it do it smoothly and cohesively, or does it just drop you from place to place in a scattered and thoughtless way?
Thus, for two reasons, this album is the best. For one, it is put together so smoothly that the whole thing seems like one song, and yet each song is varied enough to be its own entity and not draw from the other songs other than the feel, the “cloud” of mortality that hangs over the whole thing. The second thing about this album is the actual subject matter.
Warren Zevon was not “lucky” to die at the age of 56 as much as any one of us are “lucky” to be alive at this moment. Death happens, and it has to happen, and though the people who are still alive see it as being terrible, the point is that we’re still alive to fear Death. You are alive until you’re dead, and the thing that was fortunate, at least for this album’s sake, is that Warren had his mind locked on the knowledge that his end was coming very soon, and that he could go in a second. Really, the same is true for any of us, but one of the great psychological defenses we collectively have is the ability to kind of forget that we’re all doomed. Warren brought it up early in his career and said it bluntly in Life’ll Kill Ya, but in The Wind, every nuance of the performances had the actual presence of that realization that life was going to kill Warren “soon”. Even the production of the album, with all of Warren’s friends coming and making these relatively simple songs that all sound like friends getting together and having one last laugh with their instruments, is not anything fancy in terms of production values, but each song sounds like the musicians are all saying their good-byes.
So perhaps it’s because neither the album nor Warren Zevon made a splash on all these publications that insist on claiming that they know what the best album ever should sound like, and are thus more able to relate to just ordinary people who love music and are taken in by Warren’s love of life and his ineffable charm and astounding wisdom and humility, that makes this album great. To work so hard and get it all right in the face of death itself, with an illness that goes straight for everything one needs to sing, and still pull off a genuine and worthy performance, all without studio tricks or fancy production or indulgent “farewell” speeches is even more astounding. All of that, coupled with Warren’s very real musical genius in which he could make so much out of such simple arrangements, and do it all with that devilish smirk and raised eyebrow of his, makes me feel like life is indeed worth living, and that we all very much should enjoy every sandwich. That’s what makes the best album of all time for me.
So there you have it, an unlikely hero has helped show me what these albums I love so much are really all about, and with that, I can now close the book on this year-long project. I thank each and every one of you for coming along with me on this ridiculous journey, and don’t go deleting your RSS feeds or anything just yet, because you’ll be hearing from me again soon. Until then, have a wonderful new year, and enjoy every sandwich.