Friday, August 22, 2003

NEW YORK — Terminally ill with cancer, Warren Zevon told producer Jorge Calderon that he wanted to record Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Mr. Calderon groaned. Anything but that, please. He still cannot listen to it without tears.

Mr. Dylan’s tale of a doomed gunslinger reaches a new emotional level coming from the voice of a man who’s really dying. The choice also — let’s be frank — reflects the 56-year-old singer’s well-known twisted sense of humor.

Given a death sentence by doctors, Mr. Zevon hasn’t retreated. He wrote and recorded a final album at a furious pace and opened his life to VH1 cameras for an intimate diary. The VH1 special premieres at 10 p.m. tomorrow, then “The Wind” CD comes out Tuesday.

And Thursday marks exactly one year since Mr. Zevon was told he had inoperable lung cancer and three months to live.

Jordan Zevon, the musician’s 34-year-old son, was happy the prognosis proved incorrect and his father was around for the birth of twin grandchildren, but he doesn’t hide his disgust at the doctors.

“Human beings have no right to tell other human beings how long they have to live unless they have some kind of firearm in their hands,” he said. “Thank God he didn’t take it and use it as an excuse to throw everything away and give up.”

After initially agreeing to answer some e-mailed questions, Warren Zevon was too sick to complete them, a publicist said.

The musician who’s known for “Werewolves of London” and “Excitable Boy” has been spending time with his family and watching a lot of television. Some days he’s well enough to talk to friends, some days not.

Mr. Zevon set short-term goals to help him through the year — big ones like seeing his grandchildren or finishing his album and small ones like a particular movie release, those close to him say.

A week before his diagnosis, Mr. Zevon had called Mr. Calderon and said he wanted to make another disc. The two men have been best friends since their first meeting in 1972, when a mutual friend asked Mr. Calderon for a ride to bail Mr. Zevon out of the drunk tank.

“The question was, ‘Do you still want to do that, or do you want to go to Mexico and lie on a beach and forget about all that,’ ” Mr. Calderon said. “He was going through that in his mind, what to do with such a shocking piece of news. Who knows how to handle that?

“He called back and said, ‘I still want to do this.’ ”

Mr. Zevon, who titled one best-of compilation “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and put a picture of a skeleton smoking a pipe on another, talks on VH1 about how he always has been interested in writing about death and dying. Circumstances gave him a perspective few, if any, active artists have shared.

His new music is poignant and emotionally direct. “Keep Me in Your Heart,” the first song written after his diagnosis, addresses Mr. Zevon’s condition most directly, beginning with the lyric: “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath.”

After playing on the song, veteran session drummer Jim Keltner told Mr. Calderon it was only the second time he had been moved to tears in a recording session. The first one was on Mr. Dylan’s original version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

“The album was full of all of those moments,” he said.

On “El Amor De Mi Vida,” Mr. Zevon writes specifically for a former girlfriend, telling her — as the title says — that she was the love of his life and he still regrets letting her get away.

Subsequent to recording the song, Mr. Zevon managed to get in touch with the woman for the first time in many years, Mr. Calderon said. She had moved away, married and was raising a family.

The album’s hardly a one-note tearjerker, however. Bruce Springsteen adds biting guitar and vocals to Mr. Zevon’s cranky look at the world, “Disorder in the House.”

“It’s the home of the brave and the land of the free,” Mr. Zevon sings. “Where the less you know the better off you’ll be.”

Sardonic humor sneaks in, too. “I’m looking for a woman with low self-esteem,” he sings, “to lay me out and ease my worried mind, while I’m winding down my dirty life and times.”

“We’d write a song and record it the next day, and before we could sit around and say, ‘This is great,’ we were writing the next one,” Mr. Calderon said. “We didn’t have much time to think and analyze and change things around, which gives this album a real honesty and immediacy.”

The biggest hurdle was Mr. Zevon’s flagging energy. “It’s not that his voice would go away,” Mr. Calderon said. “It was like, ‘Get him while he’s rested, and don’t work him too hard.’ ”

All sorts of famous friends showed up. Mr. Springsteen chartered a plane between concert dates to make a session. Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, John Waite and Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmidt appeared.

One song, “Prison Grove,” features guitarists Ry Cooder and David Lindley, with backup vocals from Mr. Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton and T. Bone Burnett.

Jordan Zevon, who runs his own music equipment company, believes the creative energy helped lengthen his father’s life.

The VH1 cameras record these sessions, as well as several personal moments. At one point, Mr. Zevon rails against fans who wrote on a Web site that he was being heroic in not seeking treatment for his cancer: “I think it’s a sin to not want to live.”

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