James Campion, a noted music journalist who grew up in the Bronx, admitted that after a writing hiatus it was a girl he was dating in Bay Ridge that inspired him to return to his craft. As a result of his rekindled romance with writing, he was able to author a number of music-related projects including his engaging and informative new book about the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon.
Zevon was one of the shining lights in the burgeoning California music scene of the early ‘70s. He began his career in the late ‘60s writing songs that were recorded by groups including the Turtles, and working as a band leader for Phil Everly. After a few album misfires he finally broke through with his 1978 album “Excitable Boy,” that included his biggest hit, “Werewolves of London.”
During his early songwriting years, he formed friendships with a who’s who of future pop superstars including members of Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, with whom he collaborated on songs, and Linda Ronstadt, who ultimately helped further his career by recording his songs such as “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Hasten Down the Wind.”
Zevon’s life and career are more than worthy of analysis and author James Campion has written a stunning new book “Accidentally Like a Martyr-The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon,” about the performer who died in 2003 at the age of 56 after a year-long bout with lung cancer.
The author interviewed those closest to Zevon, including a wide array of songwriters, producers and family members, in order to examine his life through the songs he wrote. In so doing, Campion broke down Zevon’s life into 13 insightful essays that not only recall the artist’s life story but also shed valuable new light on the songs, which ultimately are his greatest legacy.
Campion’s other works include “Shout it Out Loud-The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon,” and “Deep Tank Jersey: One’s Man’s Journey into the Soul of a New Jersey Club Band.”
He took the time to answer some questions before a book signing at the BookMark Shoppe in Bay Ridge.
Brooklyn Eagle: What made you want to write a book about Warren Zevon?
Campion: Well, the short answer is that there was really nothing written about him in this way. I interviewed Crystal Zevon, his ex-wife who wrote the book “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” about Zevon in 2007, which was a George Plimpton style biography. It’s a great book but she doesn’t really break the songs down because it’s a full biography.
I really didn’t want to write a biography, I wanted to write essays that revolve around his songs. I started with one about my favorite Warren Zevon song, “Desperados Under the Eaves.” It was so much fun that I pitched it to my publisher after having finished the book about Kiss, and they liked the idea and said go and do a couple more and by the time I did I realized it would be my next project.
Brooklyn Eagle: How big a part do you think Linda Ronstadt played in Zevon’s success?
Campion: She played a very big part. The first time I heard a Warren Zevon song was when Linda Ronstadt recorded “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” When I interviewed J.D. Souther — who was her former lover and wrote many songs that she recorded — for the book, he said that Linda could see the beauty and the core of a song and that’s what Warren gave you when he wrote songs.
He didn’t always perform them that way, but when you hear her do “Carmelita” or “Mohammad’s Radio,” you realize how she brought his work into the mainstream and she genuinely loved his work, although when she first met him she thought he was a psychopath.
Brooklyn Eagle: Would you say that “Werewolves of London” is Zevon’s most famous song?
Campion: It’s by far his most famous song. Not everyone knows who Warren Zevon is but everyone knows “Werewolves of London.” I often say that Warren Zevon was popular for eight months in 1978. That’s 40 years ago and he died in 2003 so he’s been dead for 15 years. That’s a lot of space to try to pinpoint someone. So you don’t blame them for only knowing “Werewolves.”
Brooklyn Eagle: Tell me about the friendship between Zevon and Bruce Springsteen. Their collaboration “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” is one of my favorite songs.
Campion: Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s brother, David Landau, was Warren’s bandleader during the second half of the “Excitable Boy” tour. He told me that the night Springsteen saw Warren play for the first time he ended up in the limo with the two of them and he watched them form this bond. They talked until three in the morning. He said that Warren was three sheets as he normally was and he didn’t think Bruce drank a thing, but there was something about that connection.
There was a deep love and respect that Bruce had for Warren’s work and the fact that Warren wasn’t as big as him. He really bled for him and wanted him to be bigger. And there might have been a part of Warren that envied Bruce for his success. You know Bruce broke from his tour in 2002 and cancelled his Christmas break to go and spend a week with Warren at the end. He really loved him very much.
Brooklyn Eagle: Zevon enjoyed a close friendship with David Letterman. How did that develop and is it true that “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is one of Letterman’s favorite songs?
Campion: Yes, that was the last song Warren played in public live on the David Letterman Show. And Dave wanted Warren to play “Desperados Under the Eaves” but he was dying and just didn’t feel up to it. It was really emotional when Warren gave Dave his guitar and said, ‘please take care of it for me.’ Warren always said that ‘David Letterman is the best friend my music ever had.’ No one [else] ever had him on, but Letterman really loved him.
Brooklyn Eagle: Zevon fought addiction most of his life but was able to keep rebounding and recording exceptional albums. Was that because he was driven by his art?
Campion: Yes, redemption is the key here, redemption and resurrection. Warren used to joke, ‘I have to reinvent myself every seven years.’ Warren had many situations where he easily could have died. And he was gone from the music business many times but he kept getting pulled back. He never, ever abandoned his art. His ability to write a song that could touch you never left him.
Brooklyn Eagle: Like Johnny Cash with the song “Hurt,” Zevon recorded the song “Keep Me in Your Heart” from “The Wind” in the face of impending death.
Campion: Right, Cash did do that. Warren was writing about death as he was facing it. David Bowie did that more recently and Gregg Allman did the same thing. He wrote songs about dying as he was dying. That’s why I called the book “The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon.” Because life is the art itself.
Brooklyn Eagle: What would you like readers to take away from your book and Zevon’s legacy?
Campion: My whole goal with this book is to shine a light on Warren Zevon. It’s kind of a crusade for me to get more people, another generation to listen to his songs and just to get people to understand how truly great this guy was.
Writing this book was one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences of my life.