When Warren Zevon recently announced that he had terminal lung cancer, tributes started pouring in. Bob Dylan added four Zevon songs to his repertoire in recent concerts, and is collaborating with Zevon on his final album. Longtime Zevon fan David Letterman -- like Zevon, a man known for his subversive wit -- was uncharacteristically emotional and almost broke down when Zevon appeared on his show on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Zevon's prognosis is bleak, his remaining time measured possibly in weeks. He's being rightfully praised for the rich songwriting skills that produced cult classics like "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," not to mention his enduring hit "Werewolves of London." But friends and musicians in south Louisiana know a different side of Zevon, as the California rocker spent a substantial amount of time there in the '90s.
"He was booked to play Grant Street (Dancehall) and the booking agent called KRVS because Warren had expressed an interest in touring the area," remembers Lisa Richardson, the former music director for Lafayette's KRVS radio station. "Most musicians just know the airport, hotel and gig, but Warren was intrigued by the area and wanted to know more."
With artist Francis Pavy accompanying her, Richardson gave Zevon a primer on south Louisiana hospitality. "We took him all over. We went to Marc Savoy's store and hung out there for a long time. We went around Eunice and all the little places to eat there, and regrouped and took him to Enola Prudhomme's place for dinner. This was right when Beau Jocque was at his early peak, when his first Rounder album came out, and he was playing at Hamilton's. So we took him there, and it was just packed, and Beau rocked the house, and the floorboards were vibrating. I even dragged Warren out on the dance floor."
Zevon was smitten with the local culture, and immediately returned following his next gig in Houston. On his second trip, Richardson brought Zevon to former BeauSoleil accordionist Errol Verret's house. "Warren was touring in a Winnebago at the time with just his guitar tech and his manager," she remembers. "So we took him the long way back through Catahoula and onto the levee with this big old Winnebago, and Errol and (his wife) Beth had an amazing spread prepared. Warren fell in love with everyone he met. I think he found it refreshing that no one knew who he was, and didn't care. It's the same thing that everyone from outside the area finds, that people are so warm and open and giving. After his first visits, he would do things like if he was scheduled to play Letterman, he'd make it so his plane ticket would allow him to stop in Louisiana."
"He would always make time to get together with his Lafayette friends," says Breaux Bridge guitarist Sonny Landreth. "Once he's a friend, he's always there for you."
The greatest affirmation of that sentiment came when Beth Verret was diagnosed with cancer. Her friends arranged for a two-day benefit in October 1995 for Verret, held on the levee in Catahoula. When Zevon heard the news, he flew in from California.
"He found his way out there all by himself," remembers Richardson. "The second day of the benefit, the final group had everybody on stage, and Warren joined them. I know Beth really appreciated it, Warren showing that kind of generosity."
"He's just a true blue kind of guy, and said, 'Anything I can do to help,'" says Landreth. "I think he had a 12-string guitar, and he got up and played rhythm on traditional Cajun tunes. He didn't want to step out of the element of the culture, and wanted to be a part of it. It was a really powerful night, and it sounded awesome."
Zevon's selflessness is just one of many aspects of his personality that run counter to his public persona of the twisted, often acerbic songwriter. "I was on the back porch at Hamilton's talking with Warren one night, and all of a sudden he starts about (composer Dmitry) Shostakovich," remembers Richardson. "He has this whole vast knowledge of 20th century classical music."
Zevon is currently spending his time at home in California with his two children, and working on his final recording. He's facing his mortality with characteristic defiance, even joking in a recent interview that he hopes to survive long enough to see the newest James Bond movie. His Louisiana friends are also trying not to dwell on the future, instead celebrating Zevon's art and friendship.
"I have a photograph somewhere from that night of Beth's benefit," says Landreth. "It's really a special shot, taken sideways so you can see everybody on stage. Errol's on accordion, Tommy Alesi's on drums, and a whole bunch of other people are up there, including our dear friend Tommy Comeaux, who was killed in a bicycle accident." Landreth's voice trails off. "And Warren's there, too."
Messages to Warren Zevon can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.