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At Heavenís door
But Warren Zevon lives to see another album

Editor's note: Warren Zevon died on Sunday, September 7, after this story was published.

There are two major surprises about The Wind (Artemis), the album thatís almost certain to be Warren Zevonís last. The first is that itís finally out. The second is that Zevon is still alive. When he announced last September that heíd been diagnosed with lung cancer, nobody ó not his fans, not his friends, and not his doctor ó was expecting the prickly singer-songwriter to last another year. At the time, the forever wry Zevon announced that he was only hoping to make it as far as the release of the next James Bond movie. That film, with the ironically fitting title Die Another Day, came and went six months ago. And Zevon is still with us.

Yet The Wind is not a particularly depressing album. Poignant as hell, yes ó itís almost impossible for a dying man to cover Dylanís " Knockiní on Heavenís Door " without adding a little extra weight to the lyric. And the closing number, " Keep Me in Your Heart, " is a guaranteed tearjerker. But Zevon has recorded much darker-sounding albums. And he was writing death-obsessed tunes a long time ago, back when he seemed as healthy as an LA singer-songwriter whoíd survived the í70s could reasonably expect to be. Itís hard to say anything more about terminal illness when youíve already written a song called " My Shitís Fucked Up. "

The starting point for The Wind was a moment during Zevonís most recent public appearance, on David Lettermanís show last October. Asked what heíd learned from his illness, Zevon came through with some offhand profundity: " I realized how much youíre supposed to enjoy every sandwich. "

Indeed, The Wind ranks as one of the more unlikely party albums since Bruce Springsteenís September 11Ėinspired The Rising. Springsteen is one of many high-profile guests who show up to lend a hand ó he adds vocals and lead guitar to " Disorder in the House, " a garage jam so rough and scruffy, one assumes they warmed up with a few verses of " Louie Louie. " Throughout the disc, Zevon sounds like a guy whoís enjoying every sandwich and every power chord. The tone of The Wind harks back to the sound of his 1978 breakthrough Excitable Boy, on which a bunch of session guns whoíd done time backing Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne showed audible gratitude at getting some rougher stuff to play. Most of that LA studio crew is reunited here, and the old chemistry is rekindled. The cover of " Heavenís Door " (with Zevon shouting " Open up! " during the fade-out) may be chilling in context, but he could have performed it during his younger, drunker days to much the same effect. After all, not everyone was giving him long to live back then.

Yet the discís double edge is hard to overlook. For starters, thereís his voice: itís recognizably Zevon, but there are moments when he appears to be struggling to catch his breath. Thatís particularly noticeable on " Numb As a Statue, " though he uses his shortness of breath to comic effect, and the result suits the pissed-off tenor of the lyrics. The mood shifts on " Prison Gates, " which shows signs of having been recorded toward the end of the sessions, when the recordings were relocated to Zevonís home because he wasnít well enough to get to the studio. With his voice sounding frail and worn, itís the darkest moment on The Wind. Itís also the discís least resonant song ó obvious body-as-prison metaphors were never his style.

For the most part, though, Zevon keeps his sense of humor intact. The opening " Dirty Life & Times " is right in keeping with the rough-and-tumble Excitable Boy sound and persona. Not many songwriters whoíre staring down death would have the guts to admit that theyíre " looking for a woman with no self-esteem. " And " The Rest of the Night, " with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guesting, sounds like another " Louie Louie " homage ó at least until you realize that the line " We may never have this chance again " isnít just a throwaway.

But Zevon remains a savvy enough songwriter to know when to drop his guard for effect. On " El Amor di Mi Vida, " he tells a former flame that " I only wish it had been us, but Iím happy for your happiness " ó an admission he probably wouldnít have made back when he had an outlaw image to maintain. Finally, thereís " Keep Me in Your Heart, " which just might wind up as Zevonís " Imagine " ó an uncharacteristically sweet song that over time displaces " Lawyers, Guns, and Money, " " Excitable Boy, " and " Werewolves of London " as the single heís most remembered for. It may be the first potential rock standard written for funerals, with its haunting " sha-la-la " chorus. And yet, with lines like " Iím tied to you like the buttons on your blouse, " itís just prickly enough to remind us all that this is a Zevon tune. Itís fitting that a guy who came into music like a guitarslinging Hunter S. Thompson should go out in a blaze of tenderness.

Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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