Lawyers, guns and money

January 24th marks the birthday of one of rock’s most gifted singer-songwriter-musicians. Regrettably, he left us nine years ago after a bout with lung cancer. (As he observed to David Letterman, "I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.") But it’s a good reminder—whether we’re talking about individuals or organizations—that it’s not how long you stick around that matters, it’s the difference you make. (More on that in a moment.)

The difference this individual made as an artist is writing and recording some of the smartest (and most brilliantly satiric) songs in the canon of rock—including “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Werewolves of London,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” and “Tenderness on the Block” (all covered by famous artists from Linda Ronstadt to The Wallflowers). But the most moving of his compositions, to my ears, was the lyrical “Keep Me in Your Heart” which he started writing the day he was told his cancer was inoperable. Check out this clip—with pictures from the VH1 doc on the final recording session of the great Warren Zevon.

For those of us who work at transforming—or in some cases resuscitating—organizations and businesses, the lesson is the same, however difficult it is to accept. Everything in the visible world has a life cycle. Whether as organizations or as individuals, we’re simply not “built to last.” (Lawyers, guns, and money won't change that.) Businesses and human beings all have expiration dates.

Our contributions, however, can be timeless.


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13 Comments

  1. Footnotes to the above...
    • Jordan Zevon, Warren’s son, is the one playing leftie guitar in the second clip. I love that he gets to sing the second verse, which contains the line, “Dad, get me out of this.”
    • Warren died from peritoneal mesothelioma, a lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos.
    • Warren’s final recording sessions, for his last LP "The Wind" included guests artists (as seen in the video) Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy Schmit, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmy Lou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Rye Cooder, and Jorge Calderon (who co-wrote several of the tunes, including “Keep Me in Your Heart”). .
    • David Letterman had Zevon on as the only guest for his entire show on October 30, 2002, during which Zevon discussed his cancer and performed several songs. (In the past Zevon had frequently filled in for Paul Shaffer as the show’s band leader.) The show is available on Youtube. Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hl9Tw2GzvA
    Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqWqyjUsCAw
    • Zevon’s most successful album "Excitable Boy"—which I highly recommend—was produced by Jackson Browne and Waddy Wachtel.

  2. I took my son Adrian III to some Zevon concerts back in the 80s. Once, he actually got Warren to sign the headrest on his old Dodge Dart.

    The Dart is long gone but the headrest lives in my son's home:)

  3. Nice post, John. I've loved Zevon since his debut album and have every one. When I had my Big Vinyl Clearout three house moves ago, my WZ albums were amongst the first to make the "There's no way I'm ditching these ones" pile. (Along with the Zappa and Zorn ones, btw. I proudly boast that with over 130 albums by people whose surname begins with Z I probably hold some kind of record. More than most record stores, in fact.)

    There's a book called, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead..." by his ex-wife Crystal that is highly recommended. He was not an easy man to live or work with: alcoholic, argumentative, opinionated, a bit selfish and restless. He had a few bad points, too. But he was able to inspire love and devotion in addition to exasperation and that comes through in his songwriting: his weaker songs - not that many of them, it has to be said - leave you frustrated because you know just how good he can be when he gets it right. Factoid: the book title namechecks one of WZ's best songs. Check it out.

  4. Great to hear the encomiums for Warren (which I'm also getting on email). I'm amazed I never got to meet him before I left LA in the mid-70s. We were playing in the same circle and one of my musician pals at the time, Roy Marinell, co-wrote "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy" with him. (Haven't seen Roy since, unfortunately.) And Waddy Wachtel, Warren's co-producer, was trying to get me to ditch the band I was in and join Waddy's fledgling group, which included Lindsey Buckingham. One of many roads not taken. (And that, as someone once said, has made all the difference.)

  5. Adrian, that might have inspired "Roland the Headrest Thompson Gunner."
    Mark, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is another classic. Too many to list.

  6. Gary, get back to me in another thousand years on that one.

    But, yes, there have been several small businesses that have lasted awhile — including a few hotels in Japan that have been around for 1300 years, a restaurant in Austria for 1200 years, and a pub in the UK for a thousand years (I think I played a gig there when it first opened). And then there's the Catholic Church that's been around for approximately 1700, 1900, or 2000 years — depending on your interpretation of history.

    But I would still question whether any organization or business will last forever, and 99.9999999999999999999% haven't lasted a century. Unfortunately, too many business consultants and too many business owners, executives, managers, etc. focus on organizational longevity rather than impact. Too much time and money spent on artificial life-support systems.

    Now this has got me thinking what the longest existing MUSICAL organization is. The longest continually existing rock band is, apparently, Golden Earring from The Hague, dating back to 1961. But I think the Royal Danish Orchestra has them beat by 500 years — with considerable turnover of personnel (I hope).

  7. I was not nearly aware enough of Zevon before his final months; knew the name, and Werewolves, of course. But I watched the Letterman show, and now when I hear "Keep Me in Your Heart" I have to stop what I'm doing so I can pay enough attention.

    Yes, avoiding the doctor for 20 years was a tactical error. But there was something amiss about connecting with twice as many fans in his final days as he had during his lifetime. Who DIDN'T he touch, when he could have?

    Probably hard to answer, talking about another man's life, but since these are *business lessons* from rock, that's my takeaway: I do NOT want all the people I could have helped to be looking on with regret during my final months, wishing we'd connected sooner. Sure, fans need to look for the Warren Zevons they need, but if we truly believe we're capable of helping others, I think we bear the responsibility of being loudly publicly visible about it.

    1. Joel - I think you have a point about, "...being loudly publicly visible..." but if it was that simple, everyone's favourite under-the-radar band would be doing arena gigs and certain products that get mass advertised would be mass ignored.

      WZ got a lot of support and backing in the 70's and this (combined with his talent) helped him to earn a certain amount of success. I think he didn't want to play the fame game and was anyway too maverick to be really, really big in what is essentially a very conservative and very fickle music market.

      The takeaway for me is that bands and products have their day. Sometimes, they can sustain a high level of success for a long time but this is very rare. Often, a band will simply run out of steam and it's better to pack up. Occasionally, if you're prepared to step back a bit to carry on doing what you love, you can downscale to a smaller market and still make a good living out of doing what you (and some real fans) really love.

      But above all: death sells. Whether you're Elvis Presley or Warren Zevon, nothing will sell out like the announcement that you are no more. *

      * Here in England, there used to be a brilliant 70's band called Dr. Feelgood. Their guitarist, Wilko Johnson, has been queitly working away ever since. Recently he announced he has terminal cancer and was putting on some farewell gigs (health permitting). He's been higher profile in what will be the last year of his life with radio and TV appearances, the gigs sold out, interviews etc. He's a great bloke and I wish him well but it proves, again... death sells.

  8. Death sells? I died on so many stages in the 70s & 80s I'm not so sure. But the notion that "bands and products" — and entire businesses — "have their day" makes a ton of sense. The Beatles, for instance, seemed to know when it was time to pull the plug. They had made their impact.

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