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One last take

A crowd of pop music's best comes running to contribute to 'The Wind,' a parting statement from singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, stricken with cancer.

August 17, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Warren Zevon is dying and he wants to make a record. It was a jolting and macabre message to be sure, and that propelled it only faster through the wiring of famous friends, managers, agents and labels that links rock musicians to one another.

The ones who know Zevon best probably allowed themselves a sad smile. This was exactly the sort of thing you would expect from the singer-songwriter, whose grim and funny music always seemed like a margarita stand in a mausoleum -- sure, the songs all seemed say, have some fun, just don't forget where this big party is going to end.

So when the call went out, many answered: Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder and many others, some contributing from afar, others coming to see the stricken Zevon, who had gone public with the diagnosis of his terminal cancer.

Zevon is much beloved by many of his fellow artists (for his talent, to be sure, but also in equal measure for his uncompromising career path and wry charm) and the result of their collective efforts, "The Wind," is due Aug. 26 and has the feel of a tribute done while it still matters, when the honoree is still here.

The context of the album's recording, as well as the presence of VH1 cameras for a documentary that airs on that channel a week from today, makes it a strange hybrid between a tribute album and an Irish wake (although a mellow wake, especially considering Zevon was known in the 1970s and part of the 1980s for hellacious excesses).

For Browne, the project was "a task, an enjoyable task that you stepped into in hopes of, for a minute, finding some joy and dealing with grief." Browne and Zevon have been close friends for decades, and Browne produced the 1976 album "Warren Zevon," which put its title troubadour on the music map.

Since then, Browne has marveled at Zevon's songbook (with "Accidentally Like a Martyr," "Lawyers, Guns & Money," "Excitable Boy" and "Carmelita" among the most potent songs). "It's such a difficult place he is in," Browne said, "and he is approaching it as best he can in his trademark style of honesty and artistic courage."

Zevon has been bedridden since January. The album was assembled late last year, much of the work done in Zevon's home studio. "He had a choice how to proceed with his life at this point," says Danny Goldberg, chief of Artemis Records, Zevon's label. "It speaks of him as an artist that he wanted to make art."

Standing closest to Zevon on "The Wind" is Jorge Calderon, his longtime friend and collaborator. He produced the album, played or sang on all 11 tracks, co-wrote seven of them, and often laid down dummy lead vocals on songs when Zevon was too ill to show up. For him, Springsteen's visit was especially memorable.

"I've never heard Bruce play like that in my life," Calderon said. "What he brought emotionally into the room, the way he handled himself and gave of himself -- well, to me he is a national treasure." Calderon laughed and added that Zevon, after Springsteen played, shook his head and said, "So you are him."

Zevon has made a habit of deflating the melodrama with his one-liners. Another example: After Zevon heard one of his true idols, Bob Dylan, sprinkle his Los Angeles concerts with Zevon songs, the dying man cracked a smile. "Maybe this is worth it," he told Calderon.

Zevon included a Dylan song on "The Wind," much to the initial dismay of Calderon, who didn't object to the songwriter but to the song. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was hardly screaming out for reinterpretation, and he worried that it might be a bit clumsy in the emotional setting of the moment. "But I was wrong. When I heard him sing it, well, I knew I was wrong. His vocal takes it to a place I was not expecting."

The most compelling piece on "The Wind" is the final track, "Keep Me in Your Heart," a Dylan-esque song that bids farewell with lines such as "Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath/ Keep me in your heart for a while" and "I'm tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/ Keep me in your heart for a while."

Drummer Jim Keltner said he was overwhelmed with emotion as he played the final version. The song had to be assembled in layers, and Zevon, too ill to visit the studio, wasn't there the day the track was finished. "To be playing that song, to know the words and not have him there to sing it, well, it really hit me," Keltner said. "I was playing through tears."

Calderon remembered: "I kept thinking in helping with the songwriting that I had to put myself in the place of my dying friend."

With Zevon himself too ill for interviews, some of the artists involved agreed to speak to promote the cause of the album.

"It's hard to know what to say with something like this," said a hushed Billy Bob Thornton. The actor and singer sang backup on "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and another track. "Of all the things I've done in my professional life, all the things I will do, being part of this will be one of the things I know I'll remember the most."

Cooder called up, too, willing to help, but found himself at a loss for words. "It's hard to go back and put myself there again. That project was...." His voice trailed off and he asked if he could call back in a few days. That call never came.

Calderon spoke the most with the most ease: "There was joy in the work, and lots of emotion, of course, but Warren needed me to be there moving it forward, not letting us slip into a place where we would weep. I told him this has to be about joy. Let's eat the whole cake." Would that change with the album's release? "I really don't know."

Two days later, Calderon called back to change his answer: "I couldn't stop thinking about that question -- would all the walls that I had put up, would they all come down when I saw the finished album and Warren's picture on the front? Now I know that is exactly what is going to happen. I didn't realize it before. Now it's all I can think about. The walls are going to come down."

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