Warren Zevon’s sardonic views on life and death are apparent in many of the songs he wrote.
An early example is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” which first appeared on Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album.
The sentiments expressed in that song reflected Zevon’s attitude and lifestyle during his first decades of rock stardom, which were heavily fueled by alcohol and drugs.
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” was his version of The Who’s famed line “Hope I die before I get old” or the earlier saying “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse!”
(To read about the real origin of the “Live fast, die young…” quote, which is often misattributed to actor James Dean, click this link.)
In the fall of 2002, at age 55, Zevon uttered a different, more poignant quip about life that became equally famous among his fans — “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Earlier that spring, Zevon had released the album My Ride’s Here. At the time, he said it was “a meditation on death.” A few months later, Zevon publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
One of the many longtime fans who were saddened to hear that news was David Letterman. During 1980s and 1990s, Zevon was a favorite musical guest of Letterman on his late night shows. Over the years, they became friends.
On October 30, 2002, Warren Zevon made one last appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. At Letterman’s request, he was the sole guest for the entire show.
During the course of the show, Zevon performed three songs: "Mutineer" from his 1995 album of the same name, “Genius” from My Ride’s Here and one of Letterman’s old favorites “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” from Zevon’s classic 1978 album Excitable Boy (the album that included his biggest hit, “Werewolves of London”).
Zevon’s usual dark humor showed through in much of their conversation.
For example, when Letterman initially brought up the lung cancer diagnosis, Zevon joked: “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for twenty years.”
Zevon’s answer was more serious when Letterman asked him if his approach to life and music had changed since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
He told Letterman:
“You put more value on every minute...You know I always kinda thought I did that. I really always enjoyed myself. But it’s more valuable now. You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich and every minute.”
Letterman asked if being aware of having terminal cancer gave Zevon some knowledge about life and death “that maybe I don’t know.”
In his reply, Zevon used the sandwich line again, making it forever memorable.
He answered thoughtfully:
“Not unless I know how much, how much you’re supposed to enjoy every sandwich.”
After this final appearance on the Letterman show, Zevon survived for about nine months — long enough to finish one more studio album, titled The Wind.
It was released on August 26, 2003. Less than two weeks later, on September 7, 2003, Zevon died.
I’ll admit that I teared up when I first listened to one of the songs on that album, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
I do, Warren.
And, at age 65, as I become ever more aware of the fragility, beauty and shortness of life, your words “Enjoy every sandwich” resonate ever more loudly in my mind.
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Further reading, viewing and listening…
• YouTube videos of Warren Zevon’s appearances on Letterman shows
• The official Warren Zevon website
• The Warren Zevon Other Page
• The AmercianHitNetwork.com post about Zevon’s last appearance on the Letterman show
• The American Spectator post about Zevon’s last appearance on the Letterman