On the 10th Anniversary of His Death, Watch Warren Zevon’s First & Last Appearances on Letterman

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Tom Waits and David Let­ter­man: An Amer­i­can Tele­vi­sion Tra­di­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • War­ren Zevon was a god amongst men.

  • Droy says:

    A god amongst men… Real­ly?

  • OldManPar says:

    Some music and musi­cians are made for great fame, oth­ers are appre­ci­at­ed by a lit­er­ate few who under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of the craft of the songs they record. Zevon was of the lat­ter group — even the rel­a­tive hit that was the “Excitable Boy” album shows song­writ­ing skill that’s far beyond oth­er records that sold far more copies.nnnMy opin­ion, sure, and not worth a lot, but Zevon is a musi­can’s musi­cian, and in a way, that’s a bet­ter accom­plish­ment than what some oth­er bands saw.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.