As I sat with my dying father in a Central Florida hospital bed, I listened to the air conditioner hum; I listened to relatives cry; I listened to Warren Zevon. When I was young, my family would take long car trips. We would always have to listen to Dad’s “crap,” old man music. I mean, c’mon, where was the Kris Kross and Vanilla Ice?
But my father would put in Zevon, and together we would sing out ardently during the epic to the undying, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
When my father was admitted to the hospital, he had me make him a tape. On it there was a heap of Zevon’s tunes, including the sultry “Mohammed’s Radio,” the adventurous “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and the captivating “Desperados Under the Eaves.” But, most importantly, I was to include “Roland.”
Sunday night, Warren Zevon joined my father in a world beyond yours and mine when he died in his sleep at home. In September of 2002, Zevon was given two months to live. The hardened rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he led had caused his body to deteriorate; cancer cells were burrowing vicious holes in his helpless lungs. He fought through it, living a full year longer than the doctors said he would. During that time he made music, caught up with friends and witnessed the birth of his grandchildren.
While he was dying, Zevon recorded The Wind, an album his friends such as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Walsh (just to name a few) helped create in tribute to the man. Some days he couldn’t muster the strength to get out of bed, so he even recorded from there.
Zevon was the master of satiric songwriting: period. During the ’70s and ’80s, Zevon wrote what can simply be described as pure and essential rock ‘n’ roll. His thunderous voice hammered home ironic quips and strong sentiment paired with rootsy, workman guitar ventures. He was admired most by the great songsmiths, from Bob Dylan on down. My father admired him and I admired him.
The music Zevon made conjured up scenes of gruesome killings, passionate love affairs and solemn soul searching. He wrote about the personal, the political and the possible. His music was his life, and in the end most may have never even heard of him. But that’s OK; Zevon was a selfless ambassador, offering tunes with a lesson to learn or ballads a man can sing along to with his son.
Zevon seemed to know that music is one of the greatest gifts this world has to offer. A testament to that is the fact that he immersed himself in it during his dying days. This man grew up with it, made it his livelihood and let it send him into death. My father’s life played out very similarly to that of Zevon’s, so it was easy to see why he had so much admiration for the musician. Writing is my way of conveying this same conviction.
Zevon was wrong about one thing. He once sang about loss with the words: “The hurt gets worse/ And the heart gets harder.” Sometimes, these days, I think of Zevon lying on his deathbed surrounded by his sons and grandkids, and I think of my father in his hospital bed flanked by my mother, grandmother and myself.
Both men died young, but lived life and experienced its music to the fullest. When this comes to mind, I just smile, knowing how content they would be to have passed their passion on to at least one starry-eyed music journalist. Then the hurt is lost, and the heart gets stronger.
Nick Margiasso is scene’s Entertainment Editor. Contact him at email@example.com