Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Horseman, Pass By

Back in November, Paul Beeston from the American Prowler wrote a touching review of the terminally ill Warren Zevon’s final appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show. I missed the program, since Letterman’s unfunny, threadbare shtick had driven me away from bothering to pay attention to his show years ago. And this is unfortunate since it appears I missed something extraordinary for TV, a sincere display of poignancy, dignity and human grace in the face of oblivion:

Like most people do in cases like this, Zevon has responded by focusing on the essentials -- spending time with his children, and doing what he loves, in his case playing music. In one sense, there is nothing remarkable about such choices. What else would you do, after all? But in stepping out into public view and letting us see him, Zevon has been courageous. He has given people a look at what an encounter with death looks like, and an example of how to meet it -- with stoicism, with humor, above all with dignity.

And so there he was again on the Letterman set, walking out somewhat gingerly to generous applause. He would sit for a talk first, and one wondered how this would go. In the past, Zevon has indulged the very tired rock convention of obscurity in response to interview questions. But now, as would befit a man in his predicament, all pretensions were dropped. He did retain his crackling wit, as when he told Letterman that his "tactical error" in refusing to see a doctor for 20 years was "one of those phobias that really didn't pay off." At other points, the gallows humor was a bit too close to the bone, and even Letterman winced:

Letterman: What was the diagnosis?

Zevon: It's lung cancer that's spread.

Letterman (pause): That's tough…that's tough…

Zevon: Well, it means you better get your dry cleaning done on special!

Unlike many celebrities who live recklessly and spend their waning days campaigning against their former behavior, Zevon accepted his illness as the likely result of choices he had made. "There are always consequences," he said, refreshingly. Letterman asked if his illness gave him any insights into life and death. Zevon shrugged and said he didn't think so, "Not unless I know how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich." There was a hush in the audience. And then Letterman did the most difficult thing, which was to conclude the interview. How to do that? Television is not designed for such situations. It is made to show images, not to comment on them. It turns most human sorrow to the mush of sentiment. So Letterman simply said, "Thank you for being here, and thank you for everything."


The subtext of the Beeston’s review is the value of life itself, and how Zevon’s final days were spent in acknowledgement of this, recognizing the value others bring to our own lives and simplistically put, recognizing how wonderful it is to be alive. As it ever was, it seems only those near death can fully understand this.

And in honor of the 30 Year Anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision and it’s vocal celebrant St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Laura Billings, I must say the uniquely human and objectively ethereal emotions displayed by Letterman and Zevon were brought to you exclusively by former unviable tissue masses, zygotes, fetuses and embryos.

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