Rarely an artist knows they are making their last song.
Otis Redding finished the vocals on “Dock of the Bay,” left the studio at end of the session, and producer Steve Cropper never saw him again. Redding and members of his band died in a plane crash in Madison, WI on December 10, 1967. Though this poignant song was not intended as a final statement, what a beautiful and appropriate final statement it is.
One of Sam Cooke’s last songs was the breathtaking, ethereal and prescient “A Change is Gonna Come.” Soon after its release, he was shot and killed by an angry hotel clerk. John Lennon was gunned down by a mentally ill fan outside his apartment at the relatively tender age of 40, just as the bouncy, pristine, and cruelly optimistic “(Just Like) Starting Over” was being released. Buddy Holly’s last recording session before dying in a plane crash at the incredibly tender age of 22 included the timeless classics “Raining in My Heart” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
None of these amazing artists, Otis Redding, John Lennon, Same Cooke or Buddy Holly knew they were making their very last song, a song that might be seen as their final will and testament. Warren Zevon, on the other hand, knew.
Since Warren Zevon’s major label debut in 1976, he was known as a songwriter’s songwriter. Zevon’s songs were sharp, funny, tender and reflective. His noted admirers included Jackson Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Lindsay Buckingham and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few. Bob Dylan regularly covered his songs in concert. Zevon knew how to turn a phrase.
“I want to live alone in the desert
I want to be like Georgia O’Keefe”
-“Sentimental Hygiene” 1987
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
Walking through the streets of SoHo in the rain”
-“Werewolf in London” 1978
“After ten long years they let him out of the home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said”
-“Excitable Boy” 1978
“Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “I’m feeling kind of rough”
He said, “I’ll break it to you, son”
Your shit’s fucked up.”
-“My Shit’s Fucked Up” 1999
From the 1970’s to the early 2000’s, Zevon was a consistent and steady artist, producing album after album of catchy songs with bitingly honest and raw lyrics. In 2002 though, Zevon visited the doctor, something he didn’t like to do. He didn’t feel well. Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Rather than suffering through cancer treatments that would probably not extend his life a meaningful period of time, Warren Zevon recorded an album. His last album. The last thing he had to say.
The Wind is comprised mostly of songs Zevon had already begun to write before he got sick, but now these songs, which may have just been heard as darkly comic, sardonic tales took on entirely new meanings. Bruce Springsteen came to record with him. Don Henley, Ry Cooder, Emmylou Harris and more. They all came to honor this man whose songs meant so much to them.
The days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months. Zevon lived far beyond the dire prognosis of only a few months to live. The songs got finished. He saw his grandsons born. He performed on the David Letterman show. He got weaker, but he still had something to say beyond his wise advice on how each of us can make the most of our life. “Enjoy every sandwich” he would say, with a wry grin on his face. Lacking the strength to leave his home, a mini studio was set up in his living room to record the last song. His last song. His final statement. “Keep Me in Your Heart”.
“Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath
Keep me in your heart for a while
If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for a while”
Just a couple of guitars and a simple drum set played with brushes. Maybe a piano. The lyrics are not biting or funny. They are just sad. Is he singing to his family? Is he singing to his fans? Yes…he is.
“Sometimes when you’re doin’ simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while”
These lyrics are not morbid, and they do not ask the listener for any pity or anger on his behalf. He is just taking advantage of the opportunity to say goodbye.
“Hold me in your thoughts
Take me to your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes
Keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you”
The album The Wind was released on August 26th, 2003 and Warren Zevon died 13 days later on September 7th, only after he said goodbye. A beautiful goodbye. A tender goodbye. A perfect goodbye.
“Keep Me in Your Heart”
Written by Warren Zevon
Performed by Warren Zevon
Released August 26th, 2003