SINGER ZEVON’S LIFE ANYTHING BUT GRAY

Warren Zevon once opened his suitcase for me in a backstage dressing room. In it were gray shirts, gray pants, gray socks — even gray running shoes.

“Warren,” I said. “What’s the deal?”

“Hey,” he answered, with a deep laughing voice, “gray is who I am.”

Actually, gray was just the cloak he threw over himself. Warren himself was anything but. Blood red, perhaps, as in “Werewolves of London,” angry jade, as in “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” cynical yellow, as in “Excitable Boy.” But never gray, never pale, never dull.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Warren Zevon once sang. Then he went to sleep Sunday night, at age 56, and he died. Warren might have enjoyed the weirdness of that, but none of us did, at least none of us who had been bracing for the news since last summer, when he went to a doctor in the morning, thinking he had a cough, and emerged in the afternoon with a death sentence: You have cancer everywhere, they told him. Go home and say good-bye.

I was in L.A. then, and Warren and I went to lunch a few blocks from his apartment. We walked in the midday sunshine. I tried to make jokes, because Warren tried to make jokes. Then at the table, Warren looked at me and said,
“So . . . am I supposed to die with my boots on?”

He didn’t. He got depressed. He got angry. And then Warren — who, despite selling millions of albums, said he felt like “an organ grinder’s monkey” when he had to perform — got what he needed to stay alive. He got creative. He wrote lyrics. He wrote music. Friends came to record songs with him; so did big names like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. By the end, they were almost propping Warren up to sing. But he finished the album.

It came out two weeks ago.

This is the first line of the first song:

Some days I feel likemy shadow’s casting me

And now a shadow is all we have left.

Quick friends

Warren and I became friends in the mid-’90s, when he came to play with a novelty band of writers that I belong to. Warren loved writers. His apartment was high walls of books. His references were Kafka or Vonnegut or Carl Hiaasen.

He was always asking me to write him a sports song — “Make it hockey,” he’d say, “nobody sings about hockey” — and so one night we sat in the basement with a guitar and a piano and a case of Mountain Dew (Warren’s favorite) and in three hours, we put music to lyrics I had written about a misunderstood hockey goon. Warren loved it. And I loved that Warren loved it.

A few months later, I was on vacation on a faraway island, and the phone rang in the hotel. It was Warren. He said he was in the recording studio with Paul Shaffer and some guys from David Letterman’s band, and Letterman was there, too, and would it be all right if they changed one of the words in our song?

“You’re WHERE?” I said.

“In the studio.”

“You’re recording the song?”

“Well, yeah,” he replied, with that deep smirking laugh. “What did you think we wrote it for?”

A lovely soul

Warren sang about misfits and werewolves and Thompson gunners and death, and you might have thought from that he was distant or heartless, a permanent cynic. Nothing could be more of a lie. Warren was, I know this word sounds funny but, well, lovely, he really was, gentle and smart and, under it all, hopeful. Even a little romantic. He tried marriage, although it didn’t take, he tried parenthood, and, by his own standards, was a good father at the end. He stayed alive long enough to become a grandfather. My wife and I tried to fix him up once. We double-dated. There were no sparks, but I remember Warren dressing in a suit and holding the woman’s chair and I kept saying to myself,
“This is a rock star?”

I don’t know if he spoke to God near the end. But a few years ago, he wrote a song that ended this way:Don’t let us get sickDon’t let us get oldDon’t let us get stupid, all right?Just make us be braveAnd make us play niceand let us be together tonight.

That is as plaintive a prayer as I’ve ever heard. And I’d take one more minute with Warren, any way I could. I am looking now at an e-mail from him marked Dec. 25, 2002, responding to one I sent him about Springsteen and Petty. He wrote back:”They couldn’t hold a candle — or a hockey stick — to you. Best for the happiest of holidays. . . . Your little buddy.” Now Warren is dead and I don’t know if I’m crying for him or for me. All I know is that it hurts more than he would want it to, and this is really the first and only time that gray is the appropriate color.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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