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Splendid Isolation

For Warren Zevon, it's all about how he looks in the hat

"As far as being swept up, nobody swept harder than I did," Zevon says, grinning. "Nobody had a bigger broom than I did. I'm not saying that I sat in the back of a limousine snorting cocaine and drinking champagne -- I mean, I'm not admitting it here -- but it's not like I said, 'Excuse me, I'm a gentleman and a scholar, and I'm doing some translations of 14th-century poetry.' I was willing to concede that maybe there were one or two guys who were better writers than me no matter what I did -- one of them from [L.A.], another from the East Coast.

"I spent a lot of time around Jackson Browne. I spent a lot of time rehearsing in his studio working on the lyrics to some half-written song and looking at him, thinking, 'Aw, shit, look at what this guy writes.' But as [for being part of] a movement -- no, you never perceive things as they are while they're happening. It's the nature of history. As far as thinking I was part of something, that didn't happen until journalists started talking about the L.A. music scene, and then I would say, 'Well, that's because everybody lives in L.A.' I met Linda Ronstadt twice, so I don't know about a music scene. Linda was a great singer, Jackson was a great writer, but I didn't think of it .... J.D. Souther was one of the people I was closest to, and he's a great singer and great writer. But I didn't really see myself as part of .... I didn't see what was going on as a moment in history."

Zevon was Randy Newman with a nasty hangover and Tom Waits without the romantic notions; all three lived in Southern California and celebrated the cloudy days even as they hid from the sunny ones. There was no mistaking Zevon's cynicism for good humor, no easy laughs to be garnered from his potshots. He reveled in his anger, drank from deep cups of pessimism, played like an angel, sang like a devil. He was a storyteller who perfected the "song noir" form (Jackson Browne's words), a man who possessed "a cold eye, a boozer's humor and a reprobate's sense of fate" (Greil Marcus' words).

Whether he was describing Frank and Jesse James as "misunderstood" over a beautiful, near-symphonic arrangement or trading places with a gorilla in the L.A. Zoo or doing time in Detox Mansion with Liz and Liza, Zevon set out to tell a perfect story and set it to a perfect melody. He created a world filled with men who built cages with their prom dates' bones, government envoys and headless Thompson gunners who shot and bought their way through far-off jungles, con artists who ripped off their fathers' furniture stores and swindlers who plucked every last penny out of old ladies' purses at bingo night. And Zevon loved every last one of those bastards: They were his people, characters doing time on the fault line who were sure they'd still have to pay their hotel bills at the Hollywood Hawaiian even after the rest of the state was under the Pacific.

But he's a songwriter first, last and always. Although his best friends and collaborators and heroes are all journalists and novelists -- Thompson, Carl Hiaasen, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and so forth -- Zevon does not want to join their ranks; he is, after all, a musician for whom the perfect word and the perfect note carry equal weight. He's concerned not just with the excitable boy's misadventures but with how to tell it -- with a piano, with a guitar, with a wicked glare and a crooked smile.

"One of my best friends -- one of my really only close, close musician friends -- is a jazz musician, and he has nothing do to with rock," Zevon says. "He knows it's there, but the minute you say so-and-so's a really good musician, he says, 'Yeah, right.' My techniques are so crude compared to his, compared to the way he thinks about music and thinks about playing; he plays eight hours a day like a concert pianist, which is what he is. But I explained to him it's only half music, the other half is poetry, and it's the combination. That's why this word falls on this chord change this way. That's what it's about, and that's why I don't have more interest in writing [short stories or novels]. It's not really that character, it's the E flat major chord with the added sixth underneath it.

"I have a friend who's an actor. You've seen him. He got a good part in a movie, and his friends all gathered around him and said, 'Wow, we saw you in such-and-such. What were you thinking when you burst through the door in that scene?' And he said, 'How do I look in the hat?' That's a good one.

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