The Day Warren Zevon Made His Last ‘Letterman’ Appearance
The singer-songwriter first showed up on a Letterman show in 1982, when he stopped by NBC's Late Night With David Letterman to promote his latest album, The Envoy. Over the next two decades, during which time Letterman switched networks to CBS for Late Show With David Letterman, Zevon popped by when he had a new record to sell, when he didn't have a new record to sell and to fill in for Letterman's band leader Paul Shaffer from time to time.
Before a 2002 concert, Zevon felt dizzy and soon was coughing long and hard enough that he went to see a doctor, something he never did. He was told he had inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer typically associated with asbestos. Because he didn't trust doctors, Zevon refused to get treated. He instead got together with some of his friends and past collaborators -- like Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen -- and made one last album, The Wind, which was released on Sept. 7, 2003, just 10 days before he died at age 56.
Almost a year earlier, Zevon appeared on Letterman's show one final time. Unlike every other night, Letterman didn't book any other guests for the hour. The entire show was just Letterman and Zevon, who talked about his illness and his music. And because they were longtime friends and mutual admirers, their chat steered from subject to subject with no set course, and a poignancy often scattered with laughs.
"First of all," Zevon said, "let me say that I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn't pay off."
For the next hour, it went like that -- riffing, laughing and joking between host and guest. But Letterman never steered Zevon toward anything he didn't want to talk about. The heaviness of the situation hung over nearly every word, but thanks to the pair's long and comfortable relationship, things never got too solemn. "I don't feel as bad as they say I am," Zevon said in a particularly reflective moment.
Then came the kicker. Letterman asked Zevon how the diagnosis had shaped his life over the past several months. "You put more value in every minute," he noted. "It's more valuable now. You're reminded to enjoy every sandwich." Enjoy every sandwich.
Watch Warren Zevon Perform on His Final 'David Letterman' Appearance
Zevon, sitting at a piano, also played three of his songs during his last appearance: "Mutineer," "Genius" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner."
"He rehearsed each of them with our band, including one that had a string quartet [that he] arranged," Shaffer told UCR in 2015. "This is a big workload for anyone, let alone somebody who was dying. But he was so happy to be working. That afternoon, as we rehearsed those three songs, even though I said, 'Warren, Just try to mark it and don't blow your voice,' he couldn't help it. It was so much fun playing that afternoon. He was a little more tired in the evening, as anybody would be, but especially somebody as sick like he was. But I remember those rehearsals were amazing."
Before he left Letterman's studio set for the very last time, Zevon handed the host his guitar. "Take care of this for me," he said.
The day after Zevon's death less than a year later, Letterman spent nearly one-fourth of his show talking about his late friend and his songs. "The music itself was just exciting," Letterman said. "It was just thundering and exciting and rhythmic and complicated. ... It was not the kind of rock 'n' roll you'd hear much of. And then the lyrics ... were so vivid. Each song was like watching a motion picture. He was a poet and a storyteller and a good friend of ours."
Almost 15 years after Zevon made his final appearance on Letterman's late-night TV show, the now-retired host was still championing his late friend. In April 2017, Letterman, while inducting Pearl Jam into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, appealed to Rock Hall voters to consider Zevon for a future class. "One day," he said. "I hope to come back here for the induction for my friend."