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The story goes that sometime in the early '80s, Warren Zevon was on a plane when he suddenly experienced frightening chest pains. Confronting his own mortality, a desperate Zevon begged God: "Please don't let me die, and have Jackson Browne write a song about me."

Of course, Zevon survived that scare, but a year ago doctors diagnosed him with advanced lung cancer and informed him he had three months to live. Faced with the options of resting or trying to produce as much music as possible in his remaining months, Zevon chose the latter option. If anyone was going to chronicle Zevon's passing, it wasn't going to be Browne - who made a mini-career out of memorializing fallen friends in the '70s - but Zevon himself. He immediately began work on The Wind, enlisting the help of pals like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bob Thornton, and, of course, Jackson Browne.

Over the years, Zevon cultists have tended to see his lack of commercial success (with the exception of the 1978 fluke hit "Werewolves of London") as proof of the record industry's shallowness (as if we needed such proof), but it's never been that simple. His deep, husky voice was always a limited instrument, and his records often suffered from misguided production. Even his early classics (Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy) make you wish that those cynical, black-humored anthems had been played by a hard-nosed rock band, instead of slick, L.A. session pros.

But Zevon's greatness as a writer can't be denied, and he quickly reminds you of his way with a phrase on The Wind's opening track, "Dirty Life and Times": "It's hard to find a girl with a heart of gold/When you're living in a four-letter world."

Understandably, though, the prospect of death inspires unprecedented sentimentality from this notoriously irreverent man. Ballads like "El Amor De Mi Vida," "Please Stay," and "Keep Me in Your Heart" would have probably embarrassed a young Zevon, but they ring true from a 56-year-old man trying to say his last goodbyes to loved ones.

As a piece of music, The Wind doesn't rank among Zevon's first-tier works. As a diary of an artist's final days, however, it shows a rare grace and warmth. •

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