It is not often that television has anything of import to tell us, and even less often that it is able to arouse genuine emotion, as opposed to manufactured sentiment. And it goes without saying that these rare occasions do not take place on the sets of late night talk shows, which are usually home to triviality and self-promotion.
But recently, David Letterman did something that has perhaps never been done on television. On October 30th, he devoted his entire program to a terminally ill musician, Warren Zevon. The show was a celebration of Zevon’s music — he performed three songs — but it was also a public goodbye. It was a remarkable and moving program, and Letterman deserves credit for pulling it off so gracefully. So does Zevon, of course. Those who saw the show are not likely to forget it anytime soon.
Warren Zevon is a rock singer/songwriter who has never sold many records. With the exception of “Werewolves of London,” he’s never had a hit. But he is known and respected among his fellow songwriters for his barbed take on life and his unusual subject matter. His song catalog is rife with colorful titles like “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse,” “Sentimental Hygiene,” “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”
He has made a career out of the unusual, and his persona is that of the wild eccentric, an “excitable boy” always perched on the edge of danger. Ignoring the usual subjects of pop music fare, Zevon has tended to focus on the obscure and the weird, populating his songs with headless mercenaries, outlaws, serial killers, boxers, unscrupulous pharmacists, sinister doctors, and “Liz and Liza,” who keep him company on his blistering “Detox Mansion.”
Because he has been anything but a mainstream taste, Zevon has walked a lonely road in the music business. He was without a recording contract for a time in the 1980s, and his albums are rarely consistent from start to finish. Rather, they are like conversations in a bar with a neighborhood character — some extraneous, wandering observations surrounding a few tales you won’t soon forget.
He may not have had many of the suits on his side, but Zevon has been fortunate to have at least one powerful backer: David Letterman. He has appeared on Letterman’s program just about every time he has a new album, and it is clear that Letterman’s affection is real. Perhaps the late night host, who started out as something of a rebel himself and has long been conflicted about his career choices, admires Zevon’s resolute staying power, his refusal to go middle of the road.
And so there he was again on the Letterman set, walking out somewhat gingerly to generous applause. He would sit for a talk first, and one wondered how this would go. In the past, Zevon has indulged the very tired rock convention of obscurity in response to interview questions. But now, as would befit a man in his predicament, all pretensions were dropped. He did retain his crackling wit, as when he told Letterman that his “tactical error” in refusing to see a doctor for 20 years was “one of those phobias that really didn’t pay off.” At other points, the gallows humor was a bit
too close to the bone, and even Letterman winced:
Letterman: What was the diagnosis?
Zevon: It’s lung cancer that’s spread.
Letterman (pause): That’s tough…that’s tough…
Zevon: Well, it means you better get your dry cleaning done on special!
Unlike many celebrities who live recklessly and spend their waning days campaigning against their former behavior, Zevon accepted his illness as the likely result of choices he had made. “There are always consequences,” he said, refreshingly. Letterman asked if his illness gave him any insights into life and death. Zevon shrugged and said he didn’t think so, “Not unless I know how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.” There was a hush in the audience. And then Letterman did the most difficult thing, which was to conclude the interview. How to do that? Television is not designed for such situations. It is made to show images, not to comment on them. It turns most human sorrow to the mush of sentiment.
So Letterman simply said, “Thank you for being here, and thank you for everything.” With that, the segment ended, and the show returned for the performances.
Zevon sang two fairly recent songs, “Mutineer” and “Genius,” before concluding with one of his classics, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” One of Zevon’s well-kept secrets is tenderness and a gift for gorgeous melodies, and both were in evidence on “Mutineer.” What was also in evidence was the slow decline of his voice. The song’s lovely chorus requires the singer to go up high, and Zevon made a brave attempt at doing so. He didn’t quite get there. Yet the performance was spellbinding — a dying man performing at a kind of public farewell, singing a gentle song of companionship and trust: “You’re my witness, I’m your mutineer.”
Midway through the song, Zevon turned from his piano and looked at his musicians. He would repeat this gesture in each song he played. In “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” he looked over his shoulder at Paul Schaefer, who was leading the band with great gusto behind him. The men exchanged a glance of recognition, and joy. Musicians often exchange glances like this when they are playing and the playing is going well. But here those glances carried much more than pleasure — it was difficult to shake the sense that Zevon, like Letterman earlier, was saying “Thank you for everything.”
At the conclusion of the final song, Letterman had a second chance to say goodbye. Standing with Zevon at the piano, his arm around him, he said, “Warren, enjoy every sandwich.” To some, this might sound flippant, cold. But it was true to both men’s desire to avoid weepy spectacle, and it was true to Zevon’s defiant attitude. It was so much more honest than some cheap line like, “Warren, I know you’ll beat this thing,” that one can readily imagine other hosts uttering.
Zevon will not beat this thing, and he knows it. The entirety of the Letterman program was played out against that realization, without the slightest attempt to paper over the grim reality of his imminent death. This, and Zevon’s compelling musical performance, made for a truly moving hour. It is unlikely that television has ever handled something like this with such maturity. Terminal illness has long been a staple of made-for-television movies, which are almost without exception weep-fests, and add nothing in the way of understanding.
Like most people do in cases like this, Zevon has responded by focusing on the essentials — spending time with his children, and doing what he loves, in his case playing music. In one sense, there is nothing remarkable about such choices. What else would you do, after all? But in stepping out into public view and letting us see him, Zevon has been courageous. He has given people a look at what an encounter with death looks like, and an example of how to meet it — with stoicism, with humor, above all with dignity.
Critics who have followed his music point to its fascination with death, and its many hints at impending demise. They will, naturally enough, search the songs for the lyric that is most fitting for his epitaph. But watching his performance on Letterman, a different epitaph comes to mind — Yeats’s “Under Ben Bulben.”
That poem famously concludes thus:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
Over the years, many have puzzled over the meaning of that last line, but I would bet that Warren Zevon isn’t one of them.