By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 24, 2003

Warren Zevon
"The Wind"
Artemis Records

The triumph of "The Wind," Warren Zevon's new album, rests on what it is rather than what it's about.

It's about the singer-songwriter's battle with inoperable lung cancer. But what makes it one of Zevon's finest works is music that stands on its own without the context of the artist's impending death.

It is, like Zevon's earliest work, direct and simple in execution, with no fat either lyrically or in instrumentation. The rockers rock, the ballads are beautiful, and the lyrics are at once specific to his medical condition and universal to the human condition.

Despite being written by a classically trained pianist, it's also a guitar album. The solos by a list of great slide and electric players recall the memorable leads on early albums, by Waddy Wachtel and David Landau, among many others.

"Dirty Life & Times" was to be the title track before Zevon was diagnosed. It's classic, self-deprecating Zevon, the man who "couldn't go where I was told/Now they'll hunt me down and hang me for my crimes/If I tell about my dirty life and times." Ry Cooder, a veteran of many Zevon sessions, contributes the slide work.

The Zevon/Jorgé Calderon rocker "Disorder in the House" is fueled by Bruce Springsteen's guitar. It is an apocalyptic, darkly funny metaphor for Zevon's disintegrating condition, with the singer "sprawled across the davenport of despair" while tubs run over, plaster falls, zombies stagger about on the lawn, menacing helicopters buzz the place, demons are loosed - and even the Lhasa Apsos are ashamed.

Another Zevon session regular, David Lindley, adds his lap steel guitar to "Numb as a Statue" ("I need to beg, borrow or steal some feelings from you"), and Joe Walsh of the Eagles propels the bluesy "Rub Me Raw."

Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers supports Zevon on "The Rest of the Night," a classic Zevon spit-in-the-devil's-eye rocker, with Petty on harmony: "Me tired? Well boo-hoo!/I'm starting to fall in love with you/Let's party for the rest of the night!"

But the ballads, including Bob Dylan's death-scene "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," are where Zevon, his voice no longer a robust weapon, is most affecting.

The wind has long been a Zevon metaphor, since Linda Ronstadt's lovely reading of his "Hasten Down the Wind" in 1976. The title of this CD is taken from "Please Stay," in which Zevon implores:

"Will you stay with me to the end?/When there's nothing left/But you and me and the wind/ ... Please stay/Please stay/Two words I've thought I'd never learn to say/Don't go away/Please stay."

Zevon is achingly vulnerable on "She's Too Good for Me," written for his girlfriend, Kristen, before his diagnosis. The spare, acoustic arrangement boasts harmony vocals by Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit.

Even more spare is the album's final track - Zevon's farewell. "Keep Me in Your Heart" features only Zevon's voice, co-writer Calderon's guitars and Jim Keltner's drums:

"Shadows are falling and I'm running out of breath
Keep me in your heart for awhile
If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for awhile"