It is the tenth anniversary of my husband Kevin’s death. Each year, I acknowledge the date by posting memories and updates along with a link to a favorite song. There are many from which to choose. Our lives were often centered around music—playing on the stereo system wired throughout our renovated farmhouse; our first date was to a concert. We curated playlists on our phones; toward the end, those were filled with songs that others had suggested to get him through the roughest parts of chemotherapy and radiation, or another surgery. When I tell people about the book I’m writing, they often ask if Kevin was a musician. I explain that he wasn’t, though he regretted not knowing how to play an instrument. Instead, it was my failed attempt at being a music writer in the 1980s that spurred me to take on this newest project.
On the occasion of this anniversary, I select “Hasten Down the Wind,” by Warren Zevon. He was a musician and songwriter we both loved. I was the first girl Kevin dated who knew Zevon beyond his hit, “Werewolves of London.” He was surprised that I actually owned Warren’s records. After multiple break-ups and make-ups, we permanently combined our record collections. The copies of “Excitable Boy” and “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” numbered four.
Shortly after Kevin died, I knew I needed to find other young widows. Grief groups were filled with sweet women in their seventies and eighties. I honored their losses, but their lives were different from mine. When my therapist encouraged me to start my own group, I pondered who that might be. On the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I heard a radio story about Yoko Ono and all she had accomplished in the years since. That would be my grief group, I decided: the wives of rock stars who died young. A quick internet search gave me a list of more than twenty, all with amazing stories. I would find them, talk with them, write a book about them, learn from them about recreating a life when the person you are most identified with is no longer. In the five years after Kevin’s death, I lost both parents, a best friend, our minister, and I watched our kids go off to college. How do I start life again, when so much of who I am is lost, I wondered?
She’s so many women,
he can’t find the one who was his friend
So he’s hanging on to half a heart,
He can’t have the restless part
He tells her to hasten down the wind
When I called Crystal Zevon to talk about Warren, she had just returned from protesting immigration policy at the Texas-Mexico border. She is a badass, as she was when the two first met, each involved in other relationships that could not withstand their powerful attraction, so strong it was noticeable at their very first meeting.
“We left people hurt in our wake,” she said.
“I understand,” I replied.
She shared that their relationship was intense and loving, but also difficult, stressed as it was by Warren’s alcohol abuse and insecurities. Though she didn’t write lyrics for “Hasten Down the Wind,” she did contribute to several other songs, including “Werewolves.” When they divorced, Crystal walked away from all of it, even any claim to royalties. She left LA for Vermont and a new life, returning only when Warren called her after his Stage IV cancer diagnosis twenty years later.
“You need to come home,” he pleaded. “You’re the wife.”
When Kevin received his Stage IV diagnosis, two years after cancer first came into our lives, we searched for a miracle. On trips to Chicago and Bloomington, Indiana, we played our favorite music, with Warren always in heavy rotation. He was never that well known, struggling instead to establish his own career, but best known for songs covered by artists like Linda Ronstadt. Kevin loved Zevon’s wit and vulnerability. After his diagnosis, Warren recorded a cover of Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” a brave song for someone who’s dying. But “Hasten Down the Wind” was Warren’s song for Crystal and their inability to live apart or together. Our courtship and marriage also had its trials, episodes that kept us from speaking for days at a time. Two strong personalities figuring out the give and take. And so, it became our song, too. It beautifully sums up the relationship of two people wanting their own lives while also trying to share that life with another.
Then he agrees he thinks she needs to be free
Then she says she’d rather be with him
But it’s just a whim
By which she hopes to keep him on the limb
So he tells her to hasten down the wind
Through our twenty-six-year marriage, I lived with a feeling that something was missing. Not an easy admission when you seemingly have it all. It was writing, and, in particular, writing about music, that I missed. As a young bride, I walked away from such a career, assuming it wouldn’t fit with marriage and kids, and not certain that I fit in the world of rock and roll. It took years before I realized all the hobbies I had were attempts at filling this void. Kevin often thought it was him, that I regretted marrying young or felt that he came up short. But that wasn’t it. We eventually worked things out. I returned to school for an MFA, he took on more home chores, fully supporting my goals. And then came a diagnosis. Crystal told me of Warren’s attempts at making up with her after difficult and even physical fights. “I left him, I had to leave to save myself. But in the end, I forgave him for it all, and I just loved him. I really love him and miss him” she said.
She takes his hand
She tells him nothing’s working out the way they planned
Warren Zevon died on September 7, 2003 after a three-year battle with mesothelioma; Kevin died on September 7, 2010, from Squamous Cell Carcinoma, the two now forever connected by this date. We played Warren’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” at Kevin’s memorial service, as he had requested. For a long time after, I couldn’t listen to any of Warren’s music, but especially “Hasten.” The words pulled at that heavy muscle memory—times when we were happy, when we sought common ground, when we held each other in love and in fear of the future. But then I spoke with Crystal, and she told me about going through Warren’s journals, learning about him all over again, facing the good and the bad of him and of their marriage. From that came her biography of Warren, one of her proudest accomplishments.
Though our last years were filled with illness, that is not how I remember Kevin or our marriage. I remember most how two people grew up together, learned and matured, argued and struggled, always knowing that an enduring love was at the root of it. Warren told us first, and then Crystal reminded me, that love is seldom pretty, rarely easy, but always worth it for that one special person. We must return to all the memories, she told me, wade through them, live with all the truths, and find our way forward from there.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Lori Tucker-Sullivan’s writing has appeared in various magazines and journals, including The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Motherwell, Passages North, The Sun, Midwestern Gothic and others, as well as the anthologies Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, 100 Words of Solitude: Writers on the Pandemic, and Red State Blues. Her essay, “Detroit, 2015” about her decision to return to Detroit after the death of her husband, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and listed as a Notable Essay of 2015 in Best American Essays. Her book, I Can’t Remember If I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy is forthcoming from BMG Books in 2022.