Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon died of lung cancer ten years ago tomorrow. I remember the day of his passing well, but at the time I was a little baffled by the enormous number of tributes to the musician, who I vaguely thought of (stupidly) as a novelty songwriter vaguely associated with the L.A. soft rock scene. How wrong I was. I arrived at the Zevon party late, but I finally showed up, and came to understand why almost every musician from the seventies and eighties that I admire deeply admires Warren Zevon and his hardbitten, witty, and unsentimental narrative style. There’s so much Zevon in so many troubadours I love: Joe Jackson, Tom Waits, Springsteen. Always on the cusp of stardom but never quite a star like peers and former roommates Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, and Jackson Browne, Zevon was nevertheless one of the most well-regarded writers of the L.A. rock scene. Whether it was his misanthropic commitment to his cynicism—as Allmusic describes his personality—that sidelined him or his struggles with acute alcoholism isn’t entirely clear, but he always had his champions among critics and peers alike.
In addition to the aforementioned luminaries, Zevon’s career was boosted by members of R.E.M., with whom he recorded under the name Hindu Love Gods, and—most visibly and consistently—by David Letterman, who had a twenty year relationship with Zevon as his guest and sometime substitute band leader. At the top of the post, you can see Zevon’s final appearance on Letterman’s show. The two attempt light banter but lapse occasionally into awkward pauses as they discuss Zevon’s diagnosis. The talk is frank and filled with mordant wit, as was Zevon’s way, and Letterman confesses he’s astounded at his longtime friend’s ability to keep his sense of humor. When Letterman asks Zevon if he’s learned something Dave doesn’t know about life and death, Zevon responds with the endlessly quotable line, “not unless I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.” In the clip above, watch one of Zevon’s final performances on the same show. He plays the powerful ballad “Mutineer,” a song with a fitting epitaph for Zevon’s life: “ain’t no room on board for the insincere.”
And in the clip above, see Zevon’s first appearance on Letterman in 1982, playing “Excitable Boy” and “The Overdraft.” Watching these early and late performances, I’m baffled again—this time by why Warren Zevon wasn’t a major star. But it doesn’t matter. Those who know his work, including nearly every major singer/songwriter of the last forty years, know how amazing he was. For more of Zevon’s amazingness, check out this full 1982 concert film from an appearance in Passaic, New Jersey. And please, remember to enjoy every sandwich.