A Buddy Tale

Senator Steve Cohen recalls the impact, in life and death, of pal Warren Zevon.


We've all had moments of personal history that are indelibly linked to this or that piece of music. One of mine, back in the late '80s, involved a vacation trip from Memphis to Topeka, Kansas, where I was driving my newly reconfigured immediate family to spend some time with my mother and sister.

Early in the trip, I plugged a cassette into the dashboard that featured an assortment of oldies, including Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," arguably the greatest novelty record ever made and one of the better rockers too. The bottom line: No other song on the cassette made it into play, as, taking time out here and there for conversation, we kept reversing "Werewolves" and replaying it and singing along with it -- notably the "Owooo!" chorus -- over and over.

All the way from Memphis to Topeka.

I got to meet Zevon later on, in Los Angeles during the 2000 Democratic convention, and tell him how much pleasure -- before, during, and after that episode -- this and other songs of his had given me.

The celebrated singer-songwriter-producer went bashful and blushed. He clearly enjoyed being enjoyed.

The man who made the introduction that summer day in L.A. was Memphis state senator Steve Cohen, who had become one of Zevon's closest friends and would remain one right up through last week, when he telephoned Zevon, who was rather publicly dying from a rare form of lung cancer, and promised to send him some portions of a white aparagus and mayonnaise concoction that the artist fancied.

"Send it on," said an enthusiastic Zevon, who was obviously having trouble breathing but who had "looked good" only two weeks before when Cohen visited him in L.A. They had watched the VH1 television special on the making of The Wind, Zevon's last album and one whose selections consciously reflect his sense of oncoming death.

"He'd always been concerned with life-and-death matters, his own and everybody else's," said Cohen, who noted that many of Zevon's compositions concerned cutting-edge issues -- the death penalty, racial hatred, Middle Eastern discord, and threats to the environment -- all without losing that characteristic Zevonian edge of whimsy.

"He wasn't political in the usual sense, but he didn't hesitate to get involved in a cause that meant something to him," said Cohen.

One of the causes that came to mean something to Zevon was Cohen's political career. The two first met in 1994 when Zevon, then appearing at the old Six-One-Six club on Marshall, agreed to do a special concert for a group of Young Democrats on behalf of Cohen's candidacy that year for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Cohen's long-shot campaign try fell short, but the friendship endured. Zevon returned to assist Cohen many times thereafter, notably during the state senator's race for Congress in 1996. And they often got together for purely recreational purposes as well -- the Lewis-Tyson heavyweight championship bout last year being a case in point.

The last time Cohen checked in on his friend was Sunday night, when the NFL's Tennessee Titans were playing Zevon's beloved Oakland Raiders on ESPN. The senator called to see if Zevon was watching and learned that his friend had passed. A life that had often been characterized by that exuberant chorus of "Owooo!" had ended quietly.

Cohen will go to Los Angeles this week to attend a public memorial service for Zevon.

On Notice

With a month to go, the city election may finally get some overdue attention.


For a while it looked as though the race for Memphis mayor might theoretically be impacted by reaction here and there to the damages and other consequences of the Great Windstorm of 2003. Though heavily favored incumbent Willie Herenton could do little to offset the situation, he had not exactly been front and center in the Giuliani mode, and that rankled some.

But that was then, this is now, and the issue, like the storm itself, seems to have subsided, even as another matter touted by Herenton's major opponent, Shelby County commissioner John Willingham that of legalized casino gambling for Memphis was neutralized in its turn by the mayor's renewed espousal of the same goal.

Given the fact that both major candidates were on the same page also with another probable will-o'-the wisp, the issue of city/county consolidation, there didn't seem to be graphic differences in point of view.

Granted, there are matters of personality and demographics that could make a difference. Willingham mused aloud the other day on the moment when, he said, he made a decision to run against the seemingly impregnable Herenton.

That was back in June, during a meeting of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon, at which area conservatives gather to hear this or that speaker on a public topic. Back then it was Herenton's turn, and, by and large, he acquitted himself skillfully before this audience cracking jokes and making a plausible case for himself as a guardian of public solvency.

There was one eerie turn, however, when Herenton got locked into a verbal back-and-forth with Charles Avery, husband of county commissioner Joyce Avery one which ended with the mayor saying, "You know, the world gets better when people like you leave here!" The mayor would later explain that he thought he detected racism in Avery's attitude, something stoutly denied by Avery and his tablemates, one of whom was Willingham.

"There was hatred on display, but it wasn't Charles'," says the commissioner, who claims that his mind was made up then and there to oppose what he saw as a "highhandedness" on the part of the long-term incumbent.

Willingham knows he has an uphill struggle on his hands, however. True enough, the city's dominant black population divided almost equally between Herenton and major opponent Joe Ford in 1999 (with the mayor reaping a far greater share of the white vote), but it is highly doubtful that a conservative white Republican even one with maverick tendencies like Willingham could do as well.

Nor can the commissioner count on wall-to-wall support among the city's whites not even among his fellow members of the local G.O.P., whose chairman, Kemp Conrad, and other influential Republicans are publicly dubious about Willingham's candidacy.

Meanwhile, other mayoral candidates of whom Beale Street entrepreneur Randle Catron is probably the most active also struggle to get traction.

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