By C.M. Kushins
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As is the case with so many musicians, the life of Warren Zevon was blessed with talent and opportunity yet also beset by tragedy and setbacks. Raised mostly by his mother with an occasional cameo from his gangster father, Warren had an affinity and talent for music at an early age. Taking to the piano and guitar almost instantly, he began imitating and soon creating songs at every opportunity. After an impromptu performance in the right place at the right time, a record deal landed on the lap of a teenager who was eager to set out on his own and make a name for himself. But of course, where fame is concerned, things are never quite so simple.
Drawing on original interviews with those closest to Zevon, including Crystal Zevon, Jackson Browne, Mitch Albom, Danny Goldberg, Barney Hoskyns, and Merle Ginsberg, Nothing’s Bad Luck tells the story of one of rock’s greatest talents. Journalist C.M. Kushins not only examines Zevon’s troubled personal life and sophisticated, ever-changing musical style, but emphasizes the moments in which the two are inseparable, and ultimately paints Zevon as a hot-headed, literary, compelling, musical genius worthy of the same tier as that of Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
In Nothing’s Bad Luck, Kushins at last gives Warren Zevon the serious, in-depth biographical treatment he deserves, making the life of this complex subject accessible to fans old and new for the very first time.
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THE ROAR OF THE REVOLVER WOKE HIM.
It had been a dream, yet an awful, familiar one. The echo of the hand cannon resounded in his ears. Warren’s eyes stared at the ceiling and he labored to think back through the hangover, scanning the details of the night. It had been the third time the recurring dream had taken hold of him—and with it, fevered shakes throughout his body.
He had awoken in the dream, too, blurring the line between reality and alcohol-soaked slumber. There, as in waking life, he had slowly picked himself up and out of bed, trying his hardest not to rattle the heavy head on his body. Everything ached, every muscle. The throbbing in his temples pulsated with each small move. He trembled in the dark.
Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands.
As if by instinct—or was it the skilled muscle memory of a piano player?—Warren reached out in the darkness, to his left, and found the heavy weapon in its usual place on the nightstand. The gun rested beside his eyeglasses, pills, and a cocktail glass—empty but for the languid millimeter of melted ice. He pulled the gun to his body and his hand brushed against the warm glass. At least he had used one, he thought, instead of just chugging straight from the bottle. And ice? Warren never usually cared that late at night.
The lucidity forced Warren to pause and sit up on the edge of the bed. He reconsidered the reality of the moment, the now. Was he awake, or was this the same old familiar dream starting again like a Möbius strip?
Gun in hand, he stumbled up and out of the bed, cautious not to wake Crystal. She had finally gotten to sleep, too, and rested silently in a fetal position. He watched her body rise and fall. By the window, Ariel’s bassinet was bathed in moonlight.
The combination of hangover and darkness left Warren fumbling toward the door on the legs of a toddler taking its first steps. He was bare-chested but had passed out wearing a pair of denims. He extended his free hand out to find the bedroom door and his toes side-stepped the books, pages of sheet music, empty bottles, and baby toys littered around the carpet. The weight of the .44 Magnum pulled his left hand straight toward the floor. The gun always felt heavier than he remembered.
He made his way down the stairs and felt for the broken section of bannister near the bottom. He let the splintered cavity guide him to the front door, then lumbered across the front yard. The cool air parted like a soft curtain. Warren breathed in slowly through his nostrils to calm his stomach muscles, trying not to vomit. Not quite dawn, the night was dark as the bedroom. He could just make out the shapes of palm trees swaying in the distance, tall and vague. They danced, silhouetted aberrations against the blue-black of the sky.
He would later write, “Don’t the trees look like crucified thieves?” And they did.
Clutching the heavy gun, Warren walked down the driveway and angled his body toward the road. His head wobbled atop his six-foot-tall, wiry frame, and his trademark wavy blond hair—worn long to his shoulders—was matted to the side of his face. Despite the Santa Barbara breeze, he was caked with sweat. He wiped the wrist of his gun hand across his forehead and let the moonlight lead him. The Magnum hung at his side and he imagined he was James Bond. Warren smirked as he mimicked the debonair strut of the secret agent walking within the iconic gun barrel of an unseen enemy’s scope—ready to turn and fire first.
Paul would certainly approve of the cinematic image. He’d have to share that with him, next time in New York.
Warren found a worthy spot just beside the mailbox. There, he slowly took to one knee, careful not to topple over on his side. He brought the gun up to eye level, a perfect military stance. His left hand, still shaky with the weight, cradled his right. Warren brushed his hair back with his shoulder. He took aim at nothing, just the abysmal darkness of the road. Although scarce at this hour of night, a car would be sure to pass at some point.
Featherhill Road, located in the heart of Montecito, ran roughly half a mile from east to west, its most eastern section becoming a straight line before merging into a sharp curve south for the rest of the road’s length. Facing both sides, Warren felt the perspiration dripping down his brow as his arms grew tired. He swallowed hard, his mouth dry and with the staleness of an ashtray coated in whiskey.
Any minute now, a license to kill.
Ahead and to the left, the opaque rows of valley oaks and manzanitas that lined the road were beginning to lighten. The diffuse lights of an oncoming car leaked across the branches like a stain. The car slowly snaked down Romero Canyon Road from the east. Warren knew it was just around the bend. He readied himself and felt his arms and legs stiffen. A Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum, truly as Dirty Harry claimed—the most powerful handgun in the world. It was worth the extra effort to cradle and aim. With the barrel over eight inches long in front of his face, he could barely make out a clear shot. The illuminated trees continued to reveal about fifty yards in front, allowing Warren’s eyes to quickly adapt and sharpen behind his glasses. And no matter who was driving the oncoming car—man, woman, or child—a moving target was a moving target.
Finally, the white dots of the headlights rose above the curve. Warren’s heart beat faster, his hand shaking but his aim true. He watched intently as a black sedan smoothly curved up and straightened in his direction. Only seconds away. The shape of an anonymous figure began to grow clearer behind the windshield as the sedan gained momentum. Warren squinted into the growing high beams and took a deep breath. He felt his eyes tighten, the driver nearly distinguishable. From the height above the steering wheel, it was a man. His finger tightened on the trigger.
In the flash of an instant, the face behind the wheel became clear in the murky moonglow. The halo of shoulder-length blond hair was the first tell, then the finite glint of a bespectacled face.
It was him. Driving the car, it was Warren himself.
Without hesitation, Warren sucked in a deep breath and fired. The discharge filled his vision with white light. He felt his body give out and was thrown backwards with the kickback.
Then, he awoke, the shot’s roar still echoing in his head.
It took a few seconds in the silence for Warren to be sure it had all been a dream. He kept his eyes shut tight. He counted to ten. Out of habit, he reached to his left to find the gun, ready to check the chamber for a missing round. Instead, Warren’s arm bumped into a wall. Then, it all came back. He wasn’t home. He wasn’t in his bedroom or camped out on Jorge’s couch or in Phil’s guest house. Any sense of relief was instantly replaced with one of defeated misery. Just as he had for the past two weeks, Warren slowly opened his eyes to the sterile white walls of a private hospital room.
The kill mission may have been a dream, but nonetheless, Warren Zevon awoke to a very real nightmare. He knew what today was. The reality of it made him shiver. What did the doctors call it? Intervention therapy. Well, if it was good enough for Billy Martin…
After the last bender in New York, Crystal had finally reached her wit’s end. She had called Paul, desperately pleading with him for help. He, in turn, had called Jackson, desperately pleading with him for help. Without all hands on deck, they knew Warren would be dead within the year. Two quarts of vodka a day—plus all the drugs. What was he trying to prove? The album was selling so well this time. Eight years of blood, sweat, and tears and he finally had scored a genuine hit. What was he so unhappy about, anyway?
With a little research and a few phone calls, Crystal had found Pinecrest Rehabilitation Center. It was the only place in California, one of the first in the entire country, that offered the experimental therapy that Warren was about to receive. Under doctoral guidance, every person dear to Warren would gather together at the hospital, each clutching a laundry list of infractions that he had caused in their lives. Then, in order, they would read it aloud. Every detail and every wound—one by one. The drinking, the drugs—the lawyers, the guns, the money. The ego and the self-loathing. And Warren would to be forced to listen. To understand. To accept.
It was, by definition, a last-ditch effort to save Warren Zevon from himself.
He had been feeding the wolf for a long time.
WARREN WILLIAM ZEVON WAS BORN ON FRIDAY, JANUARY 24, 1947, in Chicago, Illinois.
It was the city that his father had long considered a spiritual home. As a professional gambler with ties to organized crime, many of William Zevon’s closest associates and business contacts were based there. Although his much younger bride, Beverly, would have preferred to stay near her family in Fresno, California, she had abided by her husband’s wishes. The move was just one of many facets of their relationship that enraged her parents, strict Mormons who had always tried to instill in their daughter the same devout faith and moral dogma by which they lived. Ellsworth and Helen Simmons made no secret of their disapproval in their daughter’s choice of a suitor. But while much of the Mormon doctrine had sunk in, Beverly just couldn’t be persuaded.
In later years, if Warren Zevon displayed signs of duality in both his life and music, one need not look much further for explanation than in the “opposites attract” dichotomy of his parents.
When William was only two years old, his father, Ruven Zivotovsky, had uprooted the family from their home in Kiev for a new start in America. Hopeful at the prosperity that the journey promised, Ruven also sought an escape from the rampant anti-Semitism that plagued the Ukraine. For nearly a century, the Judaic community remained the target of widespread pogroms—bloody riots primarily enacted as retribution for the 1821 death of Greek Orthodox patriarch Gregory V. Many Ukrainians continued to resent the Jews for forcibly carrying out Gregory’s execution, and by the time Ruven could transport his family to America in 1905, there had been over two hundred such riots throughout the country. Although his family would still be poor upon arrival, the New World would, at least, guarantee them their religious freedom. Upon arriving in New York, Ruven attempted to westernize his family as best he could, changing his own name to the less ethnic Rubin and the family’s surname to the more palatable Zevon. They settled in Brooklyn only to find that, while they had successfully escaped the bloodshed of Kiev, their new home presented the obstacles of severe poverty and social indifference.
Violence and desperation would follow the Zevon family for generations, later becoming major recurring themes in Warren Zevon’s music. When Warren was still a child, his father pulled him aside and reminded him of the stigma attached to their family’s humble roots. “You are a Jew,” he told the boy. “Don’t ever forget that.”
In Brooklyn, Rubin Zevon had six mouths to feed: his wife, Sadie, and sons William, Murray, Al, Lou, and Hymie. By his own admission, William Zevon and his family endured the typical immigrant experience—a life of squalor that he would later succinctly deem as “shit.” The five boys shared the same bed, each sleeping along the mattress’s width. William later admitted that his best memory as a child was receiving a cucumber for his birthday.
“Their father—my grandfather, Rubin—was a tough guy,” remembered Murray’s son, Sandford Zevon. “And Uncle Willie was also a tough guy, a pugnacious guy. They called him ‘Stumpy’ because of his height, but he would protect my father if there were any problems in the neighborhood. He worked at the reputation.”
To further his image as a young man not to be trifled with, William countered his small physical stature by taking up boxing. He also made no secret of his aim to escape the poverty in which his family lived. Seeking prosperity elsewhere, he and his brother Hymie left home while still in their teens. They headed to Chicago, where it didn’t take long for the brothers to become enamored with the danger and glamor that the city offered. It was, after all, the home of Al Capone’s criminal empire. Known to law enforcement as the “Chicago Outfit,” Capone’s underground conglomerate included bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, and other nefarious activities. Upon arriving in Chicago, William Zevon befriended two up-and-comers within that network—Mickey Cohen and Sam Giancana.
According to Sandford Zevon, it was Giancana who put the ambitious Zevon boys to work running numbers for the mob. “They both became involved with [Giancana], the mafia boss in Chicago,” he recalled. “Uncle Willie told me much later, when I visited him, that they were so young at the time, Giancana said they could work for him, but ‘no guns.’ They could only do book-working and running kinds of stuff, but only because they were still just kids.”
During World War II, William and Hymie headed to California. In the eyes of the American public, Hollywood was a glamorous juxtaposition to the war abroad. Much like movie moguls, underworld leaders played into the public’s romantic visions of flashbulbs, colorful stucco homes, palm trees, and cool desert winds. The numerous gangsters who had set up camp out west acted as prospectors to an opening market, albeit a criminal one. Arriving in Los Angeles, William reconnected with old friend Mickey Cohen, who was then working under Las Vegas founder Bugsy Siegel. Often portrayed by the media as a sort of criminal “matinee idol,” Cohen’s picture ran in the Los Angeles society pages almost as often as the celebrity glitterati. He soon put William to work running numbers and collecting gambling debts. Over time, the two became close, and when Cohen got married in 1940, William served as his best man. In his jailhouse memoir written years later, the mobster even recalled assigning William the task of keeping his dog, Toughie, at bay during the midnight wedding ceremony.
William and Hymie opened carpet stores in various western towns, including in Arizona and Fresno, California. At one point, Mickey Cohen’s former bodyguard Sam Farkas owned a stake in their Wilshire Boulevard location, fueling rumors of underground dealings happening behind the storefront. Eventually, the brothers had a falling out, leaving William as the chain’s sole owner.
Although William was arrested many times for suspicion of racketeering, he always eluded conviction. In his later years, William even entertained his grandchildren by referring to Capone as “Uncle Al” and telling them the infamous mob leader had actually been “a really nice guy.”
It was while running the Fresno store that William first met the young woman who would become his unlikely bride and mother to his only son.
Beverly Simmons was exactly half William’s age when their courtship began, but being willingly romanced by a fast-talking, forty-two-year-old New York Jewish bachelor was precisely the sort of rebellious act that had been brewing within her. Born on May 30, 1919, she was the product of a strict Mormon upbringing, complete with all its dogmatic tradition. Her parents, Ellsworth Blythe Simmons and Helen Nicholson Cope, were not pleased upon meeting “Stumpy” Zevon, who was easily the most colorful character ever to sit at their kitchen table.
Unlike Jewish immigrant William, Beverly could trace her heritage back decades—a fact that the Simmons family took great pride in acknowledging. All of her great-great-grandparents had either been first-generation American citizens, or were a mere step away from their Anglo-English roots. As practicing Mormons, the Cope-Simmons family tree could even be authenticated to Joseph Smith’s initial founding of the Latter-day Saints movement.
Beverly’s mother, Helen, was a woman who took her spiritual responsibilities and religious practices very seriously, viewing both as cultural moral codes. Like her own parents, her husband, and her daughter, Helen had been born in Salt Lake City. She married Ellsworth the day after Valentine’s Day in 1916. Their first child, Warren, was born the following year. When Beverly was born two years following Warren, it was discovered that she suffered from a crippling congenital heart condition, a fact that fueled her parents’ overprotective natures.
In 1946, while the Simmons family was living in Fresno, Beverly met William Zevon at one of his carpet stores. She was quickly drawn to the smooth-talking older man. To the chagrin of her parents, the blushing Anglo-Saxon Mormon girl quickly agreed to marry the wise-cracking Jewish salesman with rumored ties to the mob. At the groom’s urging—and against the vehement wishes of Ellsworth and Helen Simmons—the newlyweds relocated to Chicago. The honeymoon was short-lived. Beverly had abandoned her parents’ wishes for a traditional Mormon family life, yet the young bride still yearned for a semblance of normalcy to which William never quite related. Years of hard living on the road—drinking, gambling, and fending for himself—had shaped her new husband into a stubborn lone wolf. His personality and unorthodox lifestyle blurred the fine line between self-reliance and selfish bachelorhood. It was the latter which kept him out all night, playing marathon poker games and carousing until the wee small hours of the morning. None of that had changed by the time Beverly gave birth to Warren the following year.
William may have made it a point to instill in his son a self-awareness of his Judaic heritage, but the reverent tradition associated with it never seemed to factor into his roles as husband and father. Instead, young Warren was often subject to the fruits of his mother’s own strict childhood. The theological aspects, however, never truly sank in. “I was brought up with religious beliefs, Christian religious beliefs,” Warren later remembered. “But it’s one of life’s great searches and I don’t like talking about it. And I don’t like talking about it more than I do in my songs.”
In later years, he would be significantly more candid discussing the internal conflicts and personal demons that plagued his adulthood, attributing them to his ancestral namesake: Beverly’s older brother, Warren Cope Simmons, who had been born on the Fourth of July and later gave his life for his country as a member of the 30th Infantry Regiment—killed in action on November 10, 1943, while on a tour in Italy. The elder Warren’s legacy had been immortalized in a painting that hung in Ellsworth and Helen’s home. Like a specter, it had haunted the younger Warren throughout his youth. “Uncle Warren was sort of the dead figurehead of the family, and I was brought up to follow in his footsteps,” he later claimed. “My ideal was supposed to be a dead man—with my name, looks and career intentions. A dead warrior who’d been waylaid by his heroism. I guess that kind of background gave me the idea that destroying myself was the only way to live up to expectations.”
During Warren’s adolescence, his parents separated and reconciled nearly as often as they changed their place of residence. Although born in Chicago, Warren was primarily raised by Beverly in Fresno, where she eventually returned to live on the same street as her parents. Ellsworth and Helen Simmons refused to let their daughter live down the strange life that she had chosen for herself, making Warren witness to the verbal venom often directed toward his mother and absentee father. As Warren later claimed, “They treated him like a vagabond and a roustabout. It must have been terribly uncomfortable for him, so he wasn’t there a lot of the time. I wouldn’t have been either, if I’d had a choice.”
Having already weathered a long string of fights and separations from her husband, Beverly saw the darkest side of William Zevon one Christmas morning when Warren was nine years old. The couple was in the midst of one of their frequent separations and William arrived at the house unannounced to see his son. He had been up all night playing poker and had won Warren a Christmas present—an upright Chickering piano. Reluctant for Warren to be influenced by his father in any way, Beverly was adamant that the piano had to go. But for the child, the piano was a special gift that his father had specifically won just for him. It was the first musical instrument the boy had ever gotten his hands on and he was instantly fascinated by it. As Warren watched, his father ran to the kitchen and, like a circus performer, hurled a carving knife across the room. Missing Beverly’s head by barely an inch, the blade impaled the wall behind her. More terrified than angry, she fled to her parents’ house down the street.
William, however, calmed himself and sat Warren down on the piano bench. “Son, you know I gotta go,” he told the boy. “She’s your mother, so I guess you gotta stay.”
Warren was left behind to be raised in the forced regimentation and cold tradition of his mother and her parents. As irresponsible as he was, William had been Warren’s greatest champion, the parent who envisioned big things for his son’s future. The gift of a piano had proven the faith he had in the boy.
The Christmas episode would always hold a lasting impression on Warren. Not only had that morning ushered in an era of fatherless adolescence, but it had provided him a ringside seat to a first glimpse at real violence. And it had all been over a piano, no less. His piano—the first one he had ever touched.
For Warren Zevon, music and danger would forever be entwined.
Although William wasn’t present during much of his son’s youth, his intuition regarding Warren’s potential rang true. Throughout his elementary school years, Warren sat at the piano every chance he had, displaying a prodigious gift for recognizing and replicating melodies. An imaginative and intelligent child, he was soon using music as an escape from the turmoil of his home life. His passion for the instrument was to the apparent resentment of Beverly, who saw much of her husband’s personality in their young son. Begrudgingly, she slowly learned to accept it. When Warren was old enough to purchase his first guitar, she watched as he mastered that instrument, as well. By the time William could charm his way back into her life a few years later, their son had become an accomplished musician.
Granting William one more chance, Beverly moved into his oceanfront house in San Pedro and enrolled Warren in the local junior high school. There, Warren threw himself into the musical program. Although the piano and guitar were his true extracurricular passions, Warren’s ambition for a well-rounded education in music theory was quickly established; in a group high school yearbook photo of the program’s “Wind and Percussion Section,” a young Warren is posed clutching a clarinet, although his interest in mastering that particular instrument soon waned.
Quickly recognizing the young man’s talent, the school’s band teacher pulled some professional strings and arranged for Warren to visit the West Hollywood home of famed Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Now thirteen years old, Warren found himself discussing music theory with Stravinsky and his protégé, Robert Craft. In later years, Warren was often asked about this influential encounter by numerous journalists. “[I was brought to a session] by the band teacher at Dana Junior High School,” he claimed. “He was a classical session player, a trumpet player. He took me to a Stravinsky–Robert Craft session, and after that, I corresponded with Robert Craft and he invited me to come and visit them—which I did. So, I met Stravinsky, but I was in no way friends with him or anything.”
Craft, a renowned composer in his own right, also enjoyed young Warren’s precocious nature and maturity. “Though [Warren] seemed much younger than I anticipated,” he later recalled, “he was self-possessed and articulate beyond his years. After some conversation, I played recordings of contemporary pieces, not available commercially and unknown to him. He was keenly attentive and his responses were unambiguous; very young people are always judgmental, of course, but he supported his judgments with acute arguments… Mr. Zevon, on that first visit, reminded me of my own first meeting with Stravinsky, though I was ten years older and much less intelligent.”
Stravinsky and Craft had lasting impressions on Warren. At the time, he had been tempted to drop the piano to devote himself fully to the electric guitar. But the two composers successfully instilled in Warren a new love of classical music equal to his ongoing passion for rock and roll. He dedicated himself to studying advanced music theory, poring over original Stockhausen scores and listening to obscure German radio performances alone in his bedroom. He soon began working on an ambitious symphony of his own, titled simply Symphony No. 1—a project that he would tinker with for decades. Much to his disappointment, however, the visits with Stravinsky abruptly ended when Beverly left William for the final time and dragged him back to Fresno.
As Warren later remembered, “Nobody ever told me anything, and my parents’ marriage has been a mystery to me all my life. They didn’t even let me know that they’d gotten a divorce until long after the fact.”
"Nothing's Bad Luck is a riveting, definitive, and exhaustive account of the suspenseful and eventful life of one of rock's most gifted and eccentric singer-songwriters, and one of the best rock and roll biographies of the past decade."
—Jay McInerney, author of Bright, Precious Days and Bright Lights, Big City
- Amazon, "Best Books of the Month in Biographies and Memoirs"
—Kevin Avery, author of Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson
- On Sale
- May 7, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Da Capo Press