By Tommy Housworth, contributor
“From the President of the United States
To the lowliest rock and roll star
The doctor is in and he’ll see you now
He don’t care who you are
Some get the awful, awful diseases
Some get the knife, some get the gun
Some get to die in their sleep
At the age of a hundred and one”
– “Life’ll Kill Ya,” by Warren Zevon (2000)
It’s been sixteen years since Warren Zevon caught the last train out of town. The respectful thing would be to say that Warren succumbed to cancer, but I think he would have preferred the lawless language that hints at him jumping on the metaphysical 3:10 to Yuma.
As a longtime fan, I was particularly moved by Zevon’s journey during that last year of his life. I even began to see him as a kindred spirit of sorts. Springsteen aspired to something higher than I thought my character worthy, Tom Waits dug too deeply into the underbelly of it all. But Zevon, he seemed to have one foot firmly planted in cynicism, and the other in sentiment. As his dear friend Jackson Browne once said, “Warren was able to mythologize and satirize all at the same time.” That felt like familiar turf to me.
Zevon’s literary-infused lyricism resonated with me, and his inability to break out beyond a certain cult status gave him street cred and gave me hope for my own acquiescence with a certain artistic anonymity. Better, after all, to be admired by the right people (Dylan, Springsteen, REM, Hunter Thompson) than simply a majority of the people.
So, when Warren was diagnosed with terminal cancer – initially only a few weeks to live, so he was told – he got busy. Busy writing, busy recording, and busy planning an appropriate way to say goodbye to those of us who loved him.
His path was the one he’d so often taken: The Late Show with David Letterman. Since Dave’s days on NBC, Warren sat in for Paul, was a frequent guest, and was one of the few musical artists Dave seemed genuinely amped about having on the program. David was an honest-to-God fan of Zevon, and did his best to make sure the audience knew what a treat it was to bear witness to his smart brand of songcraft.
Warren appeared on Dave’s show for the final time on October 30, 2002. He was Dave’s sole guest. Warren performed three songs, including David’s requested favorite, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” which to my knowledge, is the only song about a revenge-seeking decapitated mercenary in the Congo. It’s definitely the best one on the subject. Point is, Warren was generous. Generous with his time and his music in those final days.
His greatest gift from where I sit wasn’t the touching farewell performance or even his lovely elegy, The Wind, an album recorded after his diagnosis and filled with such royalty as Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, and Jackson Browne. For me, it was a simple piece of advice that rolled off his tongue with earnest modesty and continues to resonate like the echoed chime of a mindfulness bell.
Dave asked Warren if there was anything he’d learned from the days he’d experienced since his diagnosis, knowing the finite nature of the equation. Warren’s words? “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Now, I’d heard Thich Nhat Hanh persuade practitioners to strive to “be present”. I’d read the teachings of Ram Dass encouraging readers to “Be Here Now.” And I’d certainly spent more than a few moments on a meditation cushion chasing down past demons and future anxieties, all in an effort to steal away a wisp of that rare currency known as the current moment. But “Enjoy Every Sandwich” put it in a new perspective for me. It was armchair Zen, but it was spoken by someone who could likely mark his expiration date on the coming year’s calendar. And, indeed, Warren passed away September 7, 2003, a few months after his twin grandsons were born, and mere days after The Wind was released to a public suddenly very eager to enjoy the final few morsels Warren had so lovingly prepared with his musical companions.
Personally, I continue to wolf down sandwiches with a thoughtlessness that embarrasses me. I need to get back to work, so I eat quickly. I like to multi-task, so I scroll through the news while I have lunch. I’m talking too much to my lunch companion to be truly aware of what shrinks away on the plate in front of me. Enjoying the actual sandwich seems to be the least of my aspirations.
A few years ago, when I had the pleasure of spending a week at Magnolia Grove – Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist monastery in Mississippi – we ate every meal in silence. At least an hour was blocked out for each meal. Occasionally, during the meal, a mindfulness bell would ring and we would stop chewing, set our utensils down, and just sit and listen. When the bell was done, we’d resume eating. I’ve never tasted food the way I did at Magnolia Grove. It was simple, homemade food – soups, rice, vegetables – all prepared with love and attention. To eat it with love and attention was something that should have been transformational. And it was…for awhile. Then, life in the suburbs got busy again. Facebook feeds nibbled at my attention. Time became something to pay attention to, much more so than the flavor, the goodness, of a warm, toasted tomato sandwich.
But Warren’s words continue to tug at me. They are a mantra, a gift scribbled on the paper inside every fortune cookie, an urging to not wait for a diagnosis or a detour to appreciate what is in front of me, right here, today.
So here’s to the BLT, the PBJ, and the pimento cheese spread. Here’s to the brimming avocado peeking out from underneath a fresh cut of lettuce, and the chicken salad that oozes beyond the confines of the crust onto your fingertips. Here’s to the Dagwood and the Caprese, the Club, the Melt, and the Gyro. Hummus on pita, falafel, Po’ Boys and Muffalettas. The Hero, the Cuban, and Grilled Cheese on Sourdough. Vegan, gluten-free, or meat lovers’ delight.
Here’s to the vegetable soup my brother-in-law makes that tingles with commingled flavors that took hours, if not days, to lovingly conjure. Here’s to the fried chicken my mom used to cook, chicken she’ll never feel well enough to cook again, and how that tasted and the childhood memories enveloped inside each bite. Here’s to thousands of peanut butter sandwiches we parents have assembled through sleep-flecked eyes every morning for school years that creep by until they are too quickly behind us.
Enjoy Every Sandwich, indeed.
Thanks, Warren. You served up so much more than memorable music. For me, you issued a challenge as to how to live my life. Just wanted you to know, I’m still working on it.