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Splendid Isolation

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

His hair is close-cropped for the first time in years, and his gray T-shirt is snug around a trim torso. He wears blue jeans and reflecting sunglasses that hide bright eyes revealed only when he slides on his regular spectacles. As he walks through the front door of an empty Los Angeles restaurant on a Saturday afternoon, Warren Zevon does not wear the frame of a survivor, of a man who endured rock and roll's wearying storm only to come out the other side a pale vestige. He looks more like a fighter in his prime, much younger than his 49 years.

He is elated this beautiful afternoon, he explains, because he has only now begun finishing a song he started writing 20 years ago. Back then he didn't know how to complete the song, "because I'm a really slow learner," he says with the sort of grin that indicates he's not being all that self-deprecating. All those years of keeping journals have come in handy: Lyric in hand -- one scribbled down decades ago, then forgotten until rescued -- he has now set about the task of finishing the melody. The song will likely appear on his next album -- whenever that may be, and for whoever might choose to release it.

Just as Rhino Records is releasing a two-CD anthology of Zevon's work titled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead -- which includes tracks from his 1970s successes on Asylum through his recent work on Virgin and Giant, not to mention some never-before-released soundtrack music -- Zevon does not have a deal with a record label to release his new material. In a world filled with musicians desperate to get a deal or get out of one, one of rock and roll's most literate storytellers struggles now with the task of trying to find yet another record executive who will at least pretend to care about his work.

"My deal with Giant Records ended about a year ago," Zevon says of the label that released four albums, including 1990's Hindu Love Gods (an album of blues covers recorded with R.E.M. minus Michael Stipe) and last year's Mutineer. "Those relationships tend to end about ten minutes after I hand over the second album."

Such has been the nature of Zevon's 20-plus-year career: That he is best remembered for one "odd" (his word) Top Ten hit, "Werewolves of London," is a travesty that negates a body of work containing some of the finest, sharpest stories ever set to melody, songs spanning all the way from "Frank and Jesse James," "Desperados Under the Eaves" and "Carmelita" off his eponymous 1976 Asylum Records debut to "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" off Mutineer. Outside the cult, he's remembered -- if at all -- as a novelty songwriter, a one-hit wonder who disappeared about the time the champagne went flat; to the cult, he's Hunter S. Thompson tapping out his tales on a piano.

Eighteen years ago, he was a superstar with few peers among the L.A. singer/songwriter set: Jackson Browne produced him, Linda Ronstadt covered his songs, the Eagles and Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham sang backup on his records, People sent reporters to chronicle his vodka-soaked exploits in the Hollywood Hills. He was a legend in the making, a hero of circumstance. Now he's a box-set subject encased in a cardboard tombstone, and he's not that happy about it.

Zevon remains "ambivalent" about the retrospective and all things "of a historical nature." He calls it an unwillingness to "reflect upon the '70s"; the folks at Rhino say it's his being "difficult." Zevon, at least, had final say over the song selection, if only to guarantee that Rhino didn't release "Excitable Boy in opposite sequences on two different CDs," he says, a thin smile crossing his face.

"I urged them to the value of putting out tracks from albums that were out of print, as opposed to one that was still selling every week for someone else," Zevon says. "I saw no harm in [the retrospective], but for reasons that have less to do with an eagerness to celebrate my illustrious career and more to do with being in just kind of a vague period between albums when it's nice to have something around."

Zevon does not look over his shoulder and think about what could and should have been. He recalls that in the days before his 86-year-old father died, his old man told him, "Don't look back." Nonetheless, that's exactly what he does during this lunch, easily if begrudgingly. After all, Zevon doesn't dismiss his past; he's still happy to perform "Werewolves of London" after all these years. "This might just be my vanity, but it doesn't seem like it's anchored to some camp phase in songwriting history," he says. It's just that he doesn't want the past to overshadow the now.

Sitting in the heart of Hollywood, Zevon now explains how he really never considered himself part of the singer/songwriter scene in L.A. during the mid-'70s. He rarely performed live in those days -- after his 1970 coming-out, Wanted Dead or Alive, came and went without ruining many innocent stereos, Zevon went on the road with the Everly Brothers as their music director and spent time performing in Spanish cantinas. He lived hard, drinking it up and drugging it up like hero Hunter S. Thompson (with whom Zevon can be seen shooting guns on the back of the Rhino box set's booklet), and got swept up in the Southern California rock scene even as he tried to keep an observer's cool distance. His songs shone a hazy light on L.A.'s tenebrous and tenuous side ("Desperados Under the Eaves" contains the immortal line, "When California slides into the ocean / Like the mystics and statistics say it will"), scorned the allure of decadent rock stardom ("Well I met a girl at the Rainbow Bar / She asked me if I'd beat her") and turned junkie desperation into an everyday condition ("I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town"). He defined a small bit of the Southern California sound that was turning the radio stations of Middle America into L.A. affiliates, but he also defied it: He liked his splendid isolation on the fringes. That's where the dangerous things happen when no one's looking.

"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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