Tomorrow is the deathday of Warren Zevon. Zevon died in 2003 at age 56, cut down early by inoperable cancer. Zevon, an interesting guy with a mordant sense of humor, was placed in the unusual position of knowing his time was up as of fall 2002. He appeared as a single guest on David Letterman’s Late Show—where he was a frequent guest and sometime stand-in for bandleader Paul Shaffer—in October of that year knowing it was his last appearance, and released a final album, knowing full well it was a final album. He lasted almost a year after his final public appearance and barely a month after The Wind was released.
Today’s song is from Zevon’s breakthrough album, Excitable Boy. It’s an album where every song is at least a minor gem and some—like the title song, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Werewolves of London” and today’s song—are indelible bits of late Seventies rock that could have come from only one man. Zevon was friends with writer Hunter S. Thompson, who I read a lot, 1976-78, and today’s song always struck me as distilling some of the essence of HST, the progenitor of Gonzo Journalism.
The album was produced by Zevon’s longtime friend and supporter, Jackson Browne along with Waddy Wachtel, the guitarist. Browne’s not someone you’d ever link to the epithet “balls out rocker,” and that’s what today’s song needs to be. The recording sounds a bit polite, a bit restrained, when it really needs to have the shit played out of it. That’s my main gripe about the song and the album. It’s got that uninteresting clean California sound that so many things from out that way do. It needs a bit more Jersey and New York, or even Chicago—where Zevon’s from.
I’m not that familiar with Zevon’s subsequent work, except here and there a song my youngest brother Eric put on tapes he made his niece in the Nineties. Zevon, with his sense of humor and his ability to tell stories in songs, to say nothing of his friendship with and support by Letterman, and his collaborations with members of R.E.M., as well as Springsteen, and even poet Paul Muldoon, is a kind of picaresque figure, the kind of person who, when given less than a year to live and asked what he’s learned about life, says “enjoy every sandwich.”
“Lawyers, Guns, and Money” is the lyrical expression of someone who seems to be living in a kind of political thriller with noir overtones. The opening is priceless: “I went home with a waitress / The way I always do / How was I to know / She was with the Russians too.” Now, maybe a verse like that could be thought up by other people—particularly someone who grew up, as we all did, with paranoia about Russian spies as an expression of constant Cold War vigilance—but how to continue it? It gets better: “I was gambling in Havana / I took a little risk / Send lawyers, guns, and money / Dad, get me out of this.”
The call for “lawyers, guns, and money” is a kind of catch-all for any situation that’s gotten “serious.” A way of saying that, to wield real power and influence in the world, all you need is—no, not “love,” you hippy!—“lawyers, guns, and money.” And that, in 1978, seemed close enough to a realistic outlook. And if anything that’s all the more the case now.
Zevon throws in other fun bits as well: “I’m the innocent bystander”—an “identity” or “guise” often affected by the real perpetrator, and “I’m down on my luck”—which recalls to me (and probably to him) the character in Bugs Bunny cartoons, made to look like Humphrey Bogart, who claims to be “a fellow American down on his luck.” Then there’s that killer last verse which even got on the radio despite including one of the words George Carlin says you can’t say on the radio:
Now I’m hiding in Honduras
I'm a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan
Our man in Havana heads off to the quintessential “banana republic”—and the ending of the song doesn’t let us know if any of that aid ever reaches him. Which means that the last word from him may well be “the shit has hit the fan.” It’s a very compressed tale of some kind of international ne’er-do-well living the life while the life is taking its toll. The Russians are on to him, so we can only assume he’s doing some of Uncle Sam’s bidding—running from Castro’s Cuba to a place more U.S. friendly—but it’s not going well.
Zevon’s imagination tended to work with such hot-spot situations (see “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”) and tales with macabre-absurdist touches. His songs about love could be trenchant—“Poor Poor Pitiful Me” or full of pop sentiment—“Tenderness on the Block”—or equally noirish as his songs of adventure—“The French Inhaler.” In some of his later songs—like “My Ride’s Here”—he created gunslinger situations for famous names, and explored mortality, such as in this fitting “that’s the way it is” epitaph, from “Life'll Kill Ya”:
From the President of the United States
To the lowliest rock and roll star
The doctor is in and he'll see you now
He don't care who you are
Some get the awful, awful diseases
Some get the knife, some get the gun
Some get to die in their sleep
At the age of a hundred and one
Life'll kill ya
Life'll kill ya
That's what I said
Life'll kill ya
Then you'll be dead
Life'll find ya
Wherever you go
Requiescat in pace
That's all she wrote