February 1996, Burlington, VT
“Get Shorty” ruled the box office just a few months earlier, Warren Zevon is touring in support of his ninth studio album, “Mutineer.”
It was a cold month, warmed with anticipation of seeing Zevon for a second time — this a solo appearance at a small club above Nectar’s which offered a boatload more intimacy than the first-time arena show.
Early evening, I invest in a pointless quest to enlist restaurant co-workers into joining me. I’m met with strange resistance.
Part of the problem is our friend, the bartender, who’ll no doubt tell us when we ask for our bill that we owe something like $4. We’ll tip $80 because he gave us around $200 in food and booze, so everyone’s happy — except the owners, who, if you took this up with them, would refer to this as “stealing.”
Still, it’s hard to be another option in town going up against that — paying real money — and a miracle that bar is still in business.
Maybe I can coax someone’s inner Zevon as the night wears on? So far, not looking good.
I got a part-time job at my father’s carpet store
Laying tackless stripping, and housewives by the score
I loaded up their furniture, and took it to Spokane
And auctioned off every last Naugahyde divan
— “Mr. Bad Example” (1991)
You don’t get lyrics and narrative like this anywhere else. “‘Sweet home Alabama,’ play that dead band’s song.” When Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men are monopolizing the pop charts, a reference to “polyvinyl chloride” becomes all the more refreshing.
Somewhere whilst sucking down perks at our resident tavern, and still trying to twist arms, it becomes painfully obvious that Warren Zevon is an acquired taste. As much as I’d like the gang to experience an artist I deeply enjoy, I shouldn’t need to ask. If you’re one of us, you bought your ticket weeks ago. You’re probably already at the club, overjoyed with the better vantage point than the one I’ll have (by time I finally get there).
But now I’ve wasted so much time that I need to run if I have any chance of catching the start of the show. What if there’s no opening act? Brisk pace becomes jog becomes, indisputably, full-on sprint.
Panic sets in. Cold air only boosts the fear. What if I missed the first song, or can’t get a decent view of the stage because I invested so heavily in expanding the fan base? I’d looked forward to this night for months and maybe I should have focused on my thing, planned it all differently? A learning experience I’ll always regret, how did I let this to happen?
But suddenly, it turns out, everything is okay — I have plenty of time. I know this fact with total certainty because parked in front of the entrance is Warren Zevon, along with two guys who turn out to be his crew.
I’m frozen, on the spot where my feet stopped short on the sidewalk.
They had just unpacked a green minivan — he was touring light, helping haul equipment himself (respect), up two flights of stairs to the stage.
Warren and I lock eyes. My jaw drops, eyebrows climb to the top of my face.
Paralyzed in the moment — a rare crossroad in space and time — you sense the possibility that you might be a bit drunker than you thought you were just a few heartbeats ago. The need to have something clever to say is overwhelming — think of something fast — you get one shot at this.
Taking note of his ride, I roll with it and successfully form a sentence.
Razor-sharp, I burst out laughing — tears fill my eyes — it was that perfect. Almost the sense that this son of a bitch purchased a green minivan specifically so he could use the Chili Palmer line and I’m just another stooge who fell into the joke. Beautiful.
Extend my hand and he shakes it. Thank him for making my night and he smiles. He adds, “you’d be surprised how much stuff you can fit in one of these.”
I offer them my help but they’d just finished. He tells me to wait for them inside, so I do.
Thanks to karma and stubborn friends. Leave a minute sooner, 10 seconds later, run at a slightly modified pace — don’t time this out exactly as it happened — the story doesn’t exist, this never happened.
In retrospect, was able to camp a few feet from center stage and 15 minutes later had the pleasure of watching Warren Zevon beat the crap out of the next two hours. Guitar and piano, plenty of stories, laughs — you walk in admiring the songwriter, material and wit but leave reminded how gifted a musician he is. “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” maybe 300 of us in the crowd.
They say “Everything’s all right”They say “Better days are near”They tell us “These are the good times”But they don’t live around hereBilly and Christie don’t–Bruce and Patti don’t–They don’t live around here— “The Indifference of Heaven” (1995)
Except he swapped “Bruce and Patti” for “Brad and Gwyneth,” because by 1996 that was the more topical reference. Always current, whether in lyric or choice in tour bus.
Now 10 years since his passing — Warren Zevon’s last waltz (New York Times) — this narrow adventure remains on my highlight reel. It benefits nobody keeping it bottled up. Best way to show appreciation for living the story is to share it, so there it is.
Thanks again, Warren, for making my night.
© 2013, Soapy Johnson. All rights reserved.