He was dying… Hell, he was already dead. Why not have a drink and make an album?
In 2002, Warren Zevon finally conquered his fear of doctors only to be diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He rallied a hardcore and legendary group of friends together and with only months left to live, Zevon wrote and recorded The Wind.
The album kicks off with “Dirty Life and Times”, and you can damn near hear Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton chokin’ back the tears as they join in the last line, “Who’ll lay me out and ease my worried mind, while I’m winding down my dirty life and times?” The Boss joins Warren on the rockin’ “Disorder in the House”, and Springsteen rips through some of the meanest, most angst-ridden solos of his career while drummer Jim Keltner and long-time Zevon collaborator Jorge Calderon (who co-wrote the majority of The Wind) hold down the backbeat.
Tommy Shaw’s solemn 12-string introduces “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Thornton and John Waite repeat the title over and over again as Zevon chants, “Open up, open up, open up…” As powerful as the performance is, you might wonder why this cut sits so far from the… Um, end. But Zevon’s not pulling any punches in his final fight– plus, he’s saved the best for last. He rares back for a haymaker with “another bad one” in “Numb as a Statue” before landing a solid shot to the gut with “She’s Too Good For Me” featuring Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt.
Ry Cooder’s slide guitar shines in the darkness of “Prison Grove” as Jackson Browne joins Billy Bob, The Boss, T Bone Burnett, and Warren’s son Jordan in a chorus of moaning and mourning that still manages to groove. With the help of Calderon’s vocals, Zevon embraces regret like an old friend in “El Amor de Mi Vida”– and then things pick up when Tom Petty and Mike Campbell show up to keep the party going for “The Rest of the Night”. Zevon’s trademark humor is never more apparent than when he shouts, “Why leave now?”, and the songs’ chiming guitar hook is as simple and good as anything he’s ever recorded.
There’s a dissonant pain to “Please Stay” that goes from a trickle to a torrent when Emmylou Harris joins the chorus of, “Will you stay with me to the end? When there’s nothing left but you and me and the wind?”
Excuse me, I have something in my eye…
“Rub Me Raw” would’ve fit in fine among the Hindu Love Gods but on The Wind, it’s a battle cry. Joe Walsh slips in with a razor-sharp slide guitar– it’s an angry track and the album’s most defiant when Zevon says, “Now I’m shaking all over, I’m a shattering mess. But I’m gonna sit up straight, I’m gonna take it with class!” It’s the raging at the dying of the light, the shaking fist, and it’s the way you feel when you know you can’t win, but you throw your best punch anyway.
Warren Zevon was 56 when he passed away on September 7, 2003. Exceeding doctors’ expectations, he actually lived to see The Wind released that summer. Critics called it one of Zevon’s best if not the best album of his career. For those who might say that was only lip service to a dying man, I encourage you to consider the ultimate track.
The Wind is Zevon’s final, indelible stamp on the planet Earth. It’s the wry acceptance of a prophecy he himself declared in 1976 with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. With “Keep Me in Your Heart”, Zevon offers solace to loved ones– including his admirers, I think– while retaining hope for himself. He wanted to endure as long as he could, create until he absolutely couldn’t, and in his own inimitable way, Warren revealed the secret of life to David Letterman when he said, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
The Wind will receive a vinyl release through Mapache Records on December 27th. It’s available for pre-order now.