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“I had the shit ’til it all got smoked / I kept the promise ’til the vow got broke”

Unchained. Uncuffed. He might as well be in jail but instead he is onstage. This is the central joke of the first moments of Warren Zevon’s 1982 MTV-sponsored concert film at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. Handcuffs are literally removed before he launches into the first number, the psycho-cabaret “Johnny Strikes Up the Band.” Isn’t that funny? Dare I say hilarious?

Let’s set aside questions of whether we can continue to enjoy an artist after his many transgressions. Warren Zevon isn't just over the line. Warren Zevon obliterates the line. A destructive alcoholic and drug abuser, cruelly insensitive to friends and family, unrepentantly narcissistic. A wife beater and neglectful father. Consider him canceled. Now reconsider him. After a million blown chances, here he is again. Rail thin with no rope left and few fucks to give: Warren strikes up the band.

A phalanx surrounding him. Tough men who look like dock workers. Not glamorous in any way, in fact quite the opposite. They punch their instruments like punching clocks. But they punch hard, as if their fists were soaked in plaster and brine. Least glamorous of all is Zevon himself—absurdly dressed like a middle-management pervert in his half-unbuttoned blue oxford and slacks. Hair an odd orange mop of curls that may be a perm. Face unshaven. Round spectacles, fashioned but not fashionable. Not iconic like Lennon. Half clear and half dark. Like Zevon himself in this moment.

Here is the strange thing: I have never, even once, seriously considered what it would be like to carry on a conversation with Bob Dylan. Or Bruce Springsteen, or Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young. I’ve interviewed Elvis Costello—literally been on the phone with the man for half an hour—and while it was very interesting and pleasant, I was never once deluded into the impression we were really having a truly personal interaction. But when I listen to Zevon, I think about this: what if the two of us actually talked? Would we hit it off? Would we banter? Do we like all the same Elmore Leonard novels?

What is it about this malignancy that pulls me like the moon pulls on the tides? Why does he live in my head? Maybe I am a soft touch. Maybe I’m a mark. Like so many women, I can’t resist a half-handsome smart guy with a ready and witty remark. That’s on me. I got hooked on a single song: “I Was in the House When the House Burned Down.” But that was years after 1982.

“I may be old and I may be bent / But I had the money ’til it all got spent”

He minces around performing his cover of Ernie K. Doe’s “A Certain Girl”—spinning Sufi-like at times—exciting up to a point but certainly mortifying as well. This has always been Zevon’s problem: he is too smart not to know that rock music gestures are fundamentally embarrassing and too desperate to be a rock star to resist them. As he addresses the Jersey audience, he can’t resist bringing up Springsteen by name or implication again and again—cheap pop to put it mildly. But then what else does he have? It’s been a long, hard road to cult status and he doesn’t remember a lot of it. Bruce is his friend. Bruce is fail-safe. When Zevon performs the adequate song they wrote together, “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” the audience reacts not because of the performance in question, which is perfunctory, but because he has leaned on the patronage of a local saint. Manipulative fuck. Same as it ever was.

But there are other insights, clearly observed and inarguable. “Charlie’s Medicine” from The Envoy—the story of the murder of Zevon’s own drug dealer—is performed with a rawness that challenges Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” to a street fight where everyone loses. It doesn’t matter that no one cares about the low-life casualties of rock’s endless and pointless bacchanal. They are ghouls and phantoms and nothing for the record books. “Bruce Berry was a working man.” “Charlie used to sell me pills.” Some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills. All gone. All gone. I will survive. I will survive.

“Play It All Night Long” is something else again. Weirdly digressive proto–Drive-By Truckers. Warren is worldly, sure, but what does Warren really know about the American South? This is something I’m going to ask him. But as three guitarists trade off solos, it’s finally apparent that he is genuinely on to something: “Sweet Home Alabama / Play that dead band’s song / Turn those speakers up full blast / Play it all night long.” He’s not knocking Skynyrd, he’s waving to them. He sees Ronnie Van Zandt on the highway to hell and promises to speed past him soon.

Next is “Accidentally like a Martyr,” dedicated to “the best filmmaker in the world, Martin Scorsese” (more abject pandering). If I could ask him—songwriter to songwriter—about one song, this is the one I’d inquire about. I never cared for it. Always seemed lyrically slapdash and imprecise relative to Zevon’s better work—as Robert Christgau once wrote: “No one has yet been able to explain to me what ‘accidentally like a martyr’ might mean.” It seemed like the worst kind of bad Dylan pastiche.

But then what do you know: when Zevon was dying a slow death from cancer, Dylan played it every night on tour with a dedication. Even borrowed the phrase “time out of mind” for an album title. So Zevon will say to me, with a sly smile: “I don’t know what it means either. But I guess Bob figured it out.” This fucking guy.

“I had the money until they made me pay / Then I had the sense to be on my way”

Zevon was always at his best when he was quick with a joke, and the jokes don’t come any quicker and funnier than on “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” which the band now rips through with a valorous rigor. The lodestar track from his self-titled debut possesses a world historic riff, a killer melody, and a reference to a woman at the Hyatt House who “asked me if I’d beat her” and resolves in the classic junkie’s avoidance tactic, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It’s all very fast and droll.

When he breaks into an equally ebullient version of “Excitable Boy” with the crowd whooping and laughing and clapping along, there is no ambivalence about this tale delightedly relayed about a young psychopath who rapes and murders his prom date and later digs up her bones for fun. We have to talk about Warren. There is the chance that something’s not right.

His bone-deep cruelty, mitigated only slightly by the knowledge of the terrible dependencies and obsessive-compulsive predispositions that make his every last day on Earth a modified waking nightmare. His default toxic masculinity, made so much worse because of the blistering intelligence invariably in evidence in even his most slipshod work.

Then the concert culminates. “Werewolves of London,” the accidental novelty song that became a crucible. The dumbest fucking thing that he ever wrote and the thing he’ll most be remembered for. He calls out the E Street Band again to ritual applause.

I have to ask: “What does it feel like when they just want to hear the hit?”

He’ll shrug when he turns to me: “There may be many colors in the rainbow, but all money is green.”

“I had to drink from the lovin’ cup / I stood on the banks until the river rose up”

When he finally got clean, he really got clean. A fragile sobriety after many failed attempts, adhered to with a life-and-death dedication and an endlessly compulsive routine. This was the crucial action of his life’s third act, until death was inevitable, at which time he threw himself into a debauched denouement with zest and determination. Never one for half measures. In any case during those sober, middle years he grew in many ways even more eccentric, but also gentler and more reflective. If you would ever have had a chance to talk to him, I suppose this would have been the time.

I never had the chance but I know someone who did. Amy Rigby, another songwriting hero of mine and author of the stupendous forthcoming memoir Girl to City, actually toured with Zevon and was willing to share her journals from that time. 

February 6, 1999, New York City: I was looking forward to impressing my hometown crowd with newfound stagecraft and showbiz wiles. It was not to be. In a set resembling performance art, I broke strings, knocked over water bottles, tripped on my cord. The jaded New Yorkers bought it! In an act of true chivalry, Mr. Zevon himself came on stage to lend his guitar and kindly strapped it on me and plugged it in, admonishing me to “take it easy.” He won a lot of hearts, mine included.

He always insisted I share his dressing room and have at the deli tray. He complimented my outfit every night. He listened to my set. He told me I was good. He took me to dinner and said “Don’t burn bridges if you can help it. I try to be able to walk into any restaurant in L.A. and not have to hide from anyone.” He asked about my daughter, and told me about his kids. He asked about my love life. He worried about his hair. He talked to Don Henley on the phone a lot. At the NYC show at Irving Plaza, when I broke my second string of the night, he strolled out onstage and strapped his guitar on me. “Take it easy,” he whispered in my ear, in that deep voice. “Vaya con dios.”

So there you have it, straight from the source. Warren Zevon, boys and girls. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Warren Zevon. Take it easy. Vaya con dios. Enjoy every sandwich. Every epigram, every outrage, every insult, every compliment, every conquest. “Keep me in your heart,” he sang, rather sentimentally for a man of his disposition. “Reconsider me,” he begged somewhat desperately, though you had to marvel at the sheer audacity. Fifty-six vigorous years spent playing with matches and squeezing out sparks. And when the house finally burned down, sure enough he was in it.  


“A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Elizabeth Nelson

Elizabeth Nelson is singer-songwriter for the Washington, D.C.-based garage-punk band the Paranoid Style, a civil servant in the field of education policy, and a regular contributor to the Ringer, the Oxford American, the New York Times Magazine, and Pitchfork, among others. In 2020 Spin magazine ranked the Paranoid Style the twenty-seventh best rock & roll band currently working, thereby adding twenty-six names to her renowned Enemies List.