Primate Discourse: A Conversation with Warren Zevon

Q: Warren, youíre going to be 53 in a couple of days. Youíve been making albums for almost 30 years. Your latest and ninth album, Lifeíll Kill Ya, is your first album in almost five years. At this stage of the game, Iím hoping that itís not you who was in the house when the house burned down.
A: Well, I was in the house, Jody. I didnít suffer third-degree burns, but I got singed. I think we all know we can take considerable
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portions of the song as -- yeah, first person, firsthand experience. Remember what we always said, in the songwriting field, there isnít a section for fiction and a section for nonfiction. Itís all mixed together.

Q: Even though youíve been making music for about 30 years, Warren Zevon is not a household name like Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. What do you think the average music fanís perception is of you and your work?.
A: I donít think about what other peopleís perception of me is. At least not any more than anybody in any field does. Than the cable guy or the guy who parks your car or your dentist thinks. Perhaps to a fault it doesnít enter into the artistic process. You know, it enters into the daily interactions of real life as much as it does for anybody.

Q: I read that you were born in Chicago and grew up in California and Arizona. Where do you live now?.
A: Los Angeles.

Q: But this record, Lifeíll Kill Ya, does not sound like a quote, unquote "L.A. record".
A: Well, nothing ever sounded like an "L.A. record", really, to me.

Q: I think some of the early albums, when there was members of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles singing along and Jackson Browne was involved it had an L.A. vibe.
A: Well, Jackson Browne is from L.A., you know. And Glenn Frey was from Detroit and Henley was from Texas. Fleetwood Mac was English. Iím not trying to evade the label or anything, but itís the second biggest city in America and thereís a lot of people there.

Q: You were a self-taught piano player, correct?
A: No, I took piano lessons. I was a self-taught guitarist, with shocking results.

Q: How old were you when you started playing music?
A: Like three.

Q: So would the term prodigy apply?
A: No, you have to be good, not just enthusiastic. I studied piano for a while. But I always wanted to play it and I started writing classical music and getting into some classical music young enough to be called a prodigy. If Iíd been, you know, prodigiously talented or succeeded in any public way.

Q: Your relationship with Igor Stravinsky has been written about. Has it been overstated?
A: Itís always exaggerated. But thatís the nature of things. Sometimes you just stand back and smile and let it be exaggerated. Itís flattering. But I knew him, which is unusual, I think. I donít think there are too many of us old rock musicians who knew Stravinsky. And I visited him. I visited his house. But I was kind of taken under the
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wing of his associate, a great conductor and great music writer and critic named Robert Craft.

Q: Did you ever write your own symphony?
A: Yeah. I play it for a couple of people that are familiar with that kind of stuff. I played them, you know -- as you can imagine, I played them like the synthesizer sampler rendition of it.

Q: What was the reaction?
A: They liked it. 20th Century classical music, real modern music. Itís a funny thing. Looking back on it from a lifetimeís fascination, interest, itís interesting. But I have to say, at the end of the day, if the average person hears a piece of music and are really put off by it, thereís no criteria by which you can say theyíre wrong.

Q: Well, then, I want to make a left turn to some work you did earlier in your career -- in the early part of your career. You recorded a couple of singles as part of duo. You made jingles. The Turtles cut a couple of your songs. You did some session work. You also played piano with the Everly Brothers on the road. Did you always think that ultimately you were going to make your way as a singer/songwriter?
A: I never really had much choice and I always figured Iíd survive one way or another as a musician. I was real lucky because I always hadÖsome kind of Öwork came along at the last minute, anyway. And I was always able to make some kind of living as a musician. And I also never really got rich. And that might have been lucky, too, you know.

Q: In what way?
A: Well, because the less time you spend with the issues of being rich, they are like the issues of being famous. Theyíre not real issues, so theyíre not real life.

Q: And it leaves more time to be creative?
A: Thereís more of an exchange -- human exchange of ideas and feelings to be had on the bus stop than over the phone with your accountant. And if youíre rich, you spend a lot of time on the phone with your accountant. Itís necessary, I believe. Oh I know Iím happy and that means I must be lucky. That I know.

Q: There are Warren Zevon songs played on piano, Warren Zevon songs played on guitar. Is it intuitive how you decide which instrument youíre going to play on each song?
A: I guess, because I played the piano when I was a kid and I played it seriously and I had to learn -- I played it technically correctly and stuff and then I got jobs playing it. I never had as much fun playing the piano, really, as the guitar. I hate to say that. There were other issues like the fact that I ran out of pianos and didnít really own an acoustic piano from, oh, about the time Mondale lost until today, say. And those determined what kind of songs I wrote, too, because you donít form a real bond with an electronic keyboard, no matter how swift it is.
Phil Everly made me the music director, like Paul Schaffer kind of, on a TV show he had in about 1970, I think. And it was a great show. I remember he had Kristofferson on. He had a lot of people on that respected him so much, you know, because of the Everly Brothers, that they were very comfortable with him, and he was a great talk show host. It was on late at night for a season. Strange to remember this. And I was the piano guy. And I remember the night this kid came in. And he was, you know, kind of dressed up like I was. He came in and sat down and started improvising on the piano. And it was Billy Joel. Iíve told Billy this story over the years. And he started playing the piano, kind of classical rock piano, which nobody played, I thought, but me, in my loftiest dreams. And as I told Billy, I stood behind him for five minutes and then I turned around and I walked across the set and out of the studio (laughs). And thatís another, probably, one of the reasons why I didnít stay with the piano quite as much as I had.

Q: Warren, over the years, youíve written more than your fair share of songs about guns and violence, plenty of songs about outlaws and espionage. Your one-time producer, Jackson Browne called your genre song noir. Is it a dark, fatalistic notion that life will kill you?
A: No, I donít think itís -- I mean, the fact that life will kill you is just that. Itís a fact. I donít think this album is about aging issues. To me, itís not about aging, because Iím also lucky that Iíve had kids since I was a kid. So Iíve always been papa. In a way, I was old when I was 24, you know. So I donít think of myself in terms of, "oh, oh, I turned the corner, now Iím old." As Michael Caine said the other day, "I donít think Iím middle-aged. I donít know anybody 106" (laughs). So I donít think thatís the issue.
To me, the song is more about being dead. I think you have to spend a fair amount of time realizing that you will be, so that youíll remember to enjoy everything you possibly can every minute youíre not. You always want to try and tell younger people that, which is very difficult, because they donít really hear it because they feel a life has been imposed on them. And of course, theyíre absolutely correct. But still, you want to tell them, hey, you know, thereís a lot -- you can be having a lot of fun. Itís all good. As Snoop Doggy-Dog and my father used to say, "Itís all good."

Q: Iím surprised you say this isnít an album about aging. It seems to me that the thoughts of your own mortality bother you more now than when you sang Iíll Sleep When Iím Dead.
A: No, they didnít bother me then and they donít bother me now (laughs). Itís just as true now. Itís not tooÖis it truer? I guess itís truer. You know, when Jackson said that about song noir, I know he means it as a compliment and he means it in a style of -- in the sense of those Ď40s Los Angeles kind of tough-guy detective story writers that I had never read until I was compared to. But I donít really think of my songs as particularly violent. I guess my favorite author really of all was Escalus. And he was more violent, 2500 years ago, than anything on cable TV now. So was Shakespeare. All the time. Real violent. I mean, really, really violent. In every sense. I just think that popular music, as we understood it for a long time, was limited to a kind of -- not limited in any way, but you know, songs about a certain thing. Love songs, for the most part. And Rogers and Hart wrote great love songs. And J.D. Souther wrote -- writes great love songs. And it wasnít exactly what I was doing, that was all.

Q: Lifeíll Kill Ya isnít the first time youíve sung about karma and reincarnation. Your songs have always had religious allusions from Mohammedís Radio to the new song, Ourselves to Know. Were you brought up with certain religious beliefs that creep into your lyrics?
A: Yeah, I was, uh, I was brought up with religious beliefs. Christian religious beliefs. But you know, itís one of lifeís great searches and I donít like talking about it. And I donít like talking about it more than I do in my songs in public.

Q: Well, Iíll take another tact, then. Because, perhaps, the ultimate Christ-like metaphor and cautionary tale for those whoíve had fame and fortune is the life of Elvis Presley. You wrote about Elvis before in Jesus Mentioned. And Iím thinking heís the inspiration for Porcelain Monkey.
A: Yeah, Porcelain Monkey, itís hard to deny. I was writing a song with one of my oldest and best friends and most frequent collaborators Jorge Calderon. And we were working on a different song. Actually, a kind of violent and terrible song. Too terrible to talk about now. And I noticed on his songwriting notebook as we sat on the sofa suffering in my apartment, working, he had a postcard that turned out to be from Graceland - of the TV room, with the porcelain monkey sitting on the coffee table with the, you know, the onyx eyes. And that inspired us. I said, ďWhatís that?Ē And he said, ďThatís Elvisí porcelain monkey.Ē And then we had to spend the next week or two writing the song. Jorge and I talk all the time. You know, almost every day. And I called Jorge last night and his daughter -- his grown daughter was there, he wasnít. And she said, ďYou know, a friend of mine just came from a trip to Memphis and she said to me, ďYou know, I went to Graceland?Ē ďYeah.Ē ďAnd the most striking thing I saw in the whole place was this porcelain monkey of Elvisí.Ē

Q: To produce Lifeíll Kill Ya, you chose two guys, Paul Q. Colderie and Sean Slade. Their best-known production credits are with groups like Radiohead, Hole, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, not people who youíd think would be your first choice to produce your new record.
A: They were, though, when I found out they produced Radiohead. That was all the recommendation I needed. Radiohead is one of my favorite groups, which means out of two or three of all time.

Q: So you really like Radiohead and their records, yet the instrumentation on Lifeíll Kill Ya is very sparse. It doesnít sound tied to a
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specific time. Why did you keep things so stark?
A: I recorded the main parts of each song. You know, the vocal and the guitar, piano accompaniment at home, over years. And I had done it before -- I had done it the album before I had started doing that. And I enjoyed it very, very much. But I did a lot of things that were self-indulgent. Itís very hard not to when you have your own mini-recording studio. So I wanted to keep it very simpleÖat that point. So that if I did take it into a studio, I wouldnít have already created a lot of things that I couldnít undo.
I wanted to keep it simple because I find myself -- for the past few years, Iím essentially like a heavy-metal folk singer. I play by myself. For economic reasons, because Iím anti-social, and, because itís not as loud. Thereís a number of reasons. But I play alone, and I wanted to write songs that I was going to be able to play by myself without disappointing people, you know, disappointing their expectations in hearing the guitar solo from the record or the sax section or something. So that was the second reason.
And the third reason might just be because Iíve always loved Nebraska so much and John Wesley Harding and the records that were really like that. You donít really necessarily want to do it yourself, but I find that Iíve always liked the records that were really the person. And I like the shows that are really the person. I remember Bob Dylan solo. That was something else, singing Mr. Tambourine Man and youíve never heard it before. and I remember Jackson solo, and that was something else, too.

Q: So when you go out on the road with Lifeíll Kill Ya, will it just be you?
A: For the time being.

Q: Over the years, youíve had everyone from Bob Dylan to REM to Chick Corea appear on your songs. Did you purposefully avoid casting special guests on this record?
A: I didnít do it as purposely as Sean and Paul did. I had a couple of ideas. But their feeling was, you know, you havenít made a record that people listened to anyway in a few years. You know, you and Jorge and Winston, this is fine. You donít need any celebrities. You donít need any guest stars. And I appreciated themÖI appreciated that attitude.

Q: Your songs have been covered by, most notably, Linda Ronstadt, but also by country singer, Teri Clark, Shawn Colvin, Flaco Jimenez with Dwight Yoakam, Stevie Nicks. It seems that a lot of the new songs, especially the -- what I call the semi-disguised love songs in the middle of the album -- are ripe for interpretation. Do you have anyone in mind to sing any of the new songs?
A: I almost never send songs to people. Itís my experience that the idea of Tin Pan Alley, for me anyway, itís a myth. People have done songs of mine that seemed very unlikely. And on a few occasions Iíve sent songs to people. I sent a song that I wrote a few albums back to George Jones. ďI wrote this for you.Ē Nothing. Zero. I think, you know, how many records are they selling. So I donít really believe in that. You know, Iíve done it on some kind of weird whim occasionally or Iíve done it in secret. You know, Iíve secretly thought, boy, Jennifer Warnes could sing this song. But then I just write it and then I selfishly keep it.
I kind of wrote I Was in the House When the House Burned Down for my friend, Chris Whitley, because I was doing a tour with him. And I was driving to the Wal-Mart thatís about an hour north of Austin in a rainstorm in the middle of the night. You know where I mean? It was like Pflugerville or someplace. And I got the idea for the song. And I thought, gee, maybe Iíll write a nice slide guitar song for Chris. But of course, by the time I had written the song, I write so few songs and I need them so desperately, that I never give them to my friends. So I hung on to it.

Q: Outside of the Hindu Love Gods album of covers on record, you very rarely do other peopleís songs. What made you choose to do a version of Steve Winwoodís Back in the High Life Again?
A: Well, of course, it struck me as ironic, but also I love the song. I love Steve Winwood. All human beings love Steve Winwood.

Q: When I first heard your version of Back in the High Life Again, I was wondering if you were singing it straight or ironically. How did you approach it?.
A: Let me answer you this way: I wrote a song a few years ago for the great, unique American director, Alan Rudolph. And I wrote the song Searching for a Heart for a movie of his that didnít do very well. And strangely for an Alan Rudolph movie they had one of those test showings for a test audience in a mall and a theater in a mall, way out in the valley in LA. And the audience was laughing and hooting, but I guess they were laughing in the wrong places or something. It wasnítÖIt didnít go well. They have a focus group that gives their opinion and they give them $5 so they give a bad opinion and they hope theyíll get compensated for that. I donít know. But I stood outside the theater with Alan Rudolph and I said, ďI mean, I guess, I guess they donít know if itís ironic or not. They donít know if youíre trying to be funny or if youíre not trying to be funny, Alan.Ē And he said, ďWell, do they ask Neil (Simon) that?Ē

Q: Well, let me ask you: Song-wise, does Warren Zevon have a split personality, the sensitive balladeer versus the arch-narrator?
A: Well, if I had a split personality, Iíd only knowÖIíd only know it half at a time, wouldnít I? I mean, with all due respect to Alanis Morrissette, who I think is very, very good, I think that irony is something if you define that youíre being ironic, youíre automatically being not being ironic and vise versa, whatever that means.

Q: When these two elements of your songwriting personality are in the same song, you know, the sentimental Warren and the arch-Warren are in -- both in, I think, For My Next Trick, Iíll Need a Volunteer and Hostage-O, which are both on the new album, is it harder for you to get across what youíre trying to say than when you clearly do a sentimental ballad or clearly do a humorous song?
A: Unless Iím overwhelmed by some kind of toxic emotion, I donít know if itís every completely clear to anybody what theyíre trying to get across or what they want. And also, you know, my parents came from such incredibly different backgrounds and weíre so different from each other that thereís always been, I guess, two sides to me. Thatís what people always tell me. And thatís what people seem to perceive about me, but again, I try and spend as little time as possible addressing what people perceive about me.

Q: And necessarily, everything doesnít have to be a clear linear message that a song gets across. And youíve got these images sometimes -- Iíll throw a few of them at you: "sentimental hygiene", "monkey wash donkey rinse", "an invalid haircut", and my favorite new one is "you know I hate it when you stick your hand inside my head and switch all my priorities around." Where does this stuff come from?
A: I donít know.

Q: Well, do you keep a notebook around for when these phrases arise and then jot them down?
A: Well, certainly, like a comedy writer or anything else, you think of a phrase and youíre on the phone with a friend saying, oh, oh, you got a pencil? You know - thatís a goofy idea. I donít really keep notebooks or anything too much because if I get an idea that I like well enough, then I can go to work, then I have a job again. And I work on that song until I develop something out of the original idea.

Q: Thereís one song on Lifeíll Kill Ya, that is packed with outstanding imagery. Itís almost a Celtic gospel song. And it also stands out because it has some of the few harmonies on the whole album: Fistful of RainÖwhat inspired that song?
A: Jorge. That was Jorgeís idea. I think we kind of saw it as a Buddhist gospel song, about the, you know -- the harder you try to hold on to
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things, the more they slip through your fingers sometimes. And the more they flow, then the more they stay with you.

Q: In 1996, there was a double-disc anthology of your work, Iíll Sleep When Iím Dead, on Rhino Records. Did you feel it was definitive and did it motivate you to take a break after it came out?
A: I think it was reasonably definitive, within, you know, what they wanted. I guess I more or less picked the songs out. But, you have to understand, Iíve been motivated to take a break since 1965. Iím not a real ambitious person. Especially since I canít write more songs that I get ideas for. So it doesnít do any good to have better work habits in creating those tunes, which is the thing thatís really important to me job-wise.

Q: Was there a period, say, after Sentimental Hygiene, that some of your core audience stopped taking the ride with you?
A: You know, I donít think itís ever been a case of there being a big audience that stopped taking a ride with me so much as a big audience that accidentally stepped on a Mr. Toadís ride on the way to the funhouse, on the way to the Michael Jackson Expo. I donít know. I used to say that I was just a folk singer, that because I had had a hit record, I was sort of perceived of as like a down and out Ď70s superstar or something, as opposed to a very successful folk singer, which is how Iíve always seen myself.

Q: Lifeíll Kill Ya, to me, easily stands with your best work. And a lot of people think that with some of the earlier records, around the time of Excitable Boy. The last ten years recording-wise, some of the new albums havenít been as widely heard. Transverse City, The Mutineer. Was that disappointing to you?
A: Well, naturally, it was a little disappointing. But you know, some writers are wrongly appreciated for what they do at the beginning and then what they do at the end of their career. The fact that theyíre appreciated again in their career or after the one thing that they were appreciated for, even thatís unusual and lucky. But you just keep doing it if youíre a writer. Even if you try not to, youíll keep doing it. Sometimes itíll be better and sometimes itíll be worse, from various different points of view.

Q: Outside of making records, youíve become in high demand lately from a variety of media. Youíve contributed music to TV shows, movies. Was this an avenue for your songs that you sought out?
A: No. Like I said, I donít, I donít find, for my music, that seeking anything out does much good. People just come to me for some reason or another. I often never find out why they didÖbut they do.

Q: And youíve become a personality on the small and big screens lately from filling in for Paul Schaffer on the Late Show to a variety of other TV appearances. And youíre set to be in the film "South of Heaven, West of Hell" that was written and directed by Dwight Yoakam. Did you want to be an actor? Was that an ambition of yours?
A: It crossed my mind, but Iím certainly not an actor. Tom Waits is an actor. Iím not an actor. But I can do it. Itís fun. Oh, anything that gives you an excuse not to write is good.

Q: Is that why since youíve become multi-media you havenít written a book like your buddy Hunter S. Thompson?
A: Letís remember that Hunter S. Thompson is the finest writer of our generation. He didnít just toss off a book the other day. And no, I never think about writing a book. Iíll never write a book.

Q: What was it like performing Lawyers, Guns and Money at the Inaugural party for Minnesota Governor Ventura?
A: It was a lot of fun. And I just want to go on the record and say that the Governor performed a very fine version of Werewolves of London. He was criticized for it, as he has been for many things. But there was nothing wrong with his performance of Werewolves of London.

Q: Speaking of Werewolves, Iíd imagine every night you get on the concert stage you have to play Werewolves of London, you have to play Lawyers, Guns and Money. How do you keep that experience
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fresh?.
A: Getting on stage is always novel to me. I donít know why that doesnít go away. I mean, I never went on the road for a year or, you know, did any of that kind of touring. But I think, in a lot of ways, Iím like the goldfish in the Ani DiFranco song. You know, they go around the bowl and every time they see the little plastic castle itís like theyíre seeing it for the first time. Thatís me. Itís happinessÖor bliss.

Q: Lifeíll Kill Ya closes with this song thatís almost a prayer. Itís called Donít Let Us Get Sick. Itís such a beautiful end piece song. I know you donít write songs anticipating a reaction, but have you gotten a response from people that have heard that song? Whatís it been like?
A: I donít know. I think people like it. It means a lot to me.

Q: Why does Donít Let Us Get Sick mean a lot to you?.
A: Because itís pretty good and therefore I consider myself lucky to have written it (laughs). And because it has -- you know, it has a lot of feelings for a lot of people, and for me to say that itís got a lot of feelings for a lot of my friends in it is quite an admission (laughs). Itís more than I normally say about my songs.


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