I won’t pretend any of the bad things that are about to happen came as a complete surprise. I knew the difference between the public Warren Zevon and the private Warren Zevon before I even signed on for Girl Friday duty. I hadn’t heard from him in two years, but then things began to cool between him and his girlfriend, Knots Landing babe Kim Lankford. She refused to go out on the road with him, so when he was coming to the East Coast, he called. A lot. I got home to my apartment on Rittenhouse Square one night and there were 18 messages from him on my answering machine.
Hello Anita this is Warren, haven’t seen you in a long time and I hope you call me back … BEEP … Anita, Warren again, I guess it would be helpful if I left the number, hang on I got it right … BEEP … Anita, Warren, I got cut off there. …
And on it went. It was classic Warren, simultaneously telling the joke and being the punch line. He always had a dark sense of humor, which is probably why he could always laugh at himself — he was black as coal on the inside. But even on the days that would end in shouts and blackouts, he could make me laugh. That’s why I stayed with him so long.
Never quite managing to match the commercial success of 1978’s Excitable Boy, though not for lack of trying, Warren was a very desperate man in 1982, breathlessly chasing and running from himself at the same time. You did not want to be around when Warren’s demons collided with his better angels. As talented and respected as he was, he walked around sad, insecure, and a little bit crippled on the inside. And as a result, he was ragingly self-destructive. I suppose he got that from the old man. He drank his Stoli right out of the bottle, too. Warren was born in Chicago, son of a pious Mormon mom and a hard-livin’, off-the-boat Russian wiseguy. William was his name, and Warren said he was a boxer, a mobster and a professional gambler, obviously savoring the pulp-fiction pedigree this bestowed on him. His parents split when he was young, and he moved to California with his mother, who raised him as a classically trained pianist. The day he was old enough to drive, he went out to Chicago to find the old man. The day Warren found him, he was laying carpet and down on his luck. Warren told him he wanted to live with him. The old man took a long pull off his vodka bottle and handed it to Warren. “You got a hammer?” he said. They got good and drunk that night. But Warren got the hell out of there as soon as he could, and I don’t think he ever really looked back. Or stopped running.