Warren Zevon’s career has taken almost as many strange twists and turns as the stories of the bizarre characters in his songs. Before beginning his solo career, Zevon worked extensively as a backing musician on stage and in the studio; he even wrote jingles. His first commercial success as a solo artist came in 1978 with the Top Ten single “Werewolves of London,” from the gold album Excitable Boy. Zevon’s next few recordings did not attain the same popularity, however, and Zevon did not release any new material for five years. Since then, though, he has returned to the studio for three solo albums and a collaboration with members of the pop group R.E.M. Ironic and darkly humorous lyrics remain his trademark, but he also has a serious side that Rolling Stone critic Elysa Gardner called “an almost folk-like earnestness.” The range of his lyrics, combined with his talents as a musician and composer, have made Zevon a long-standing favorite of critics, fellow musicians, and his devoted fans.
Zevon spent his youth studying classical piano, but at 16, he left his family’s California home, guitar in tow, for the New York folk scene of the early 1960s. From there he moved to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles, where he met and worked with Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, members of the Eagles, and other performers immersed in the popular southern California rock sound of the 1970s. Even then Zevon was busy writing his own songs, and one of his compositions, “She Got Me Man,” appeared in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Finally in 1970 he got the opportunity to record his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive, which flopped.
Lack of success put Zevon’s solo career on hold for a while. He worked as a musical director and band member for the Everly Brothers, and then in 1974, went to Spain, where he played piano in a club for tourists. Meanwhile, Zevon’s friends in California were working on his behalf. Linda Ronstadt recorded some of Zevon’s songs, making his “Hasten Down the Wind” the title track of a 1976 album, but the most help came from Jackson Browne, who persuaded Asylum to release a solo album by Zevon. The resulting album, Warren Zevon, while not a big commercial success, did well enough with the public and with critics to give Zevon the opportunity to record another one.
Browne and Ronstadt both clocked in on the new album as did Waddy Wachtel, Ronstadt’s guitarist, who became a regular collaborator with Zevon. The result was 1978’s Excitable Boy which went gold and contained such hits as “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson
For the Record…
Born January 24, 1947, in Chicago, IL. Education: Studied music with Robert Craft.
Singer and songwriter. Released Wanted Dead or Alive, Imperial, 1970; musical director for the Everly Brothers, 1971-73; played lounge piano in Spain, 1974; scored first Top Ten single, “Werewolves of London,” 1978.
Awards: Gold record for Excitable Boy, 1978.
Addresses: Office— 1880 Century Park E., #900, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Gunner,” as well as the hit “Werewolves of London.” The popularity of “Werewolves of London” surprised Zevon, who told Stephen Fried of GOthat it was “a song that was really just a joke between friends.” But that joke gave Zevon the clout to become a concert headliner
Unfortunately Zevon has never matched the commercial success of Excitable Boy. His next album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, made it into the Top 20 in 1980; that same year he released a live album, Stand in the Fire, which, according to Irwin Stambler in The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, “caught much of the fervor and excellent musicianship that made Zevon shows among rock’s best in the early 1980s.” The Envoy, recorded in 1982, flopped commercially and was to be Zevon’s last until 1987.
The move from obscurity to sudden stardom and then back off the charts mirrored the turmoil of Zevon’s life in the late 1970s. Leaning on the same friends who had supported him musically, Zevon sought treatment for alcoholism. The Envoy was his first sober studio effort, but its lack of success cost him his recording deal with Asylum. Instead of writing new songs and seeking a new deal, Zevon took to the road, playing solo acoustic sets in small clubs. Reflecting on that time to Fried in GQ, Zevon said that the notion that he was down and out during this time made a good story but not a true one: “I wasn’t starving or anything. I was making a living as a musician. In fact, on a purely economic level, you can make more money touring that way than with a band.”
Zevon also told Fried, “I thought that when I had ten or twelve songs I’d get a deal.” He did, this time with Virgin Records, and in 1987 Zevon released Sentimental Hygiene. As in the past Zevon received musical help from his friends, who now included Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry of R.E.M. The trio performed on most of the album’s tracks while Bob Dylan and Neil Young played on one song each. Speaking of how it felt to return to the studio and tour with a band again, Zevon told Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone, “I sort of like starting my career over every seven years or so, or I sort of have to, whether I like to or not.”
Zevon returned to his pace of releasing a new album every two years or so. 1989’s Transverse City so turned away from his characteristic humor that even his mother noticed. In an interview with Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, Zevon confessed that his mother told him, “You know, dear, this album isn’t funny.”
The tone of Zevon’s 1990 release was not humorous either. Hindu Love Gods, officially issued by a band of the same name, resulted from one day of recording with members of R.E.M. during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions. It consisted entirely of covers from a diverse group of performers, including Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, the Georgia Satellites, and Prince. Paul Evans reviewed the album in Rolling Stone, saying, “It’s real roots rocking—done by smart, delighted fans.”
In 1991 Zevon returned to more characteristic territory with Mr. Bad Example, which featured “Model Citizen” and “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”—shining examples of his trademark sense of ironic humor. Craig Tomashoff’s review of the album in People also summed up Zevon’s career: “Few people in rock have Zevon’s knack for spinning strange tales over memorable melodies. This will surely be the album that breaks him into the big time. If not, guaranteed the next one will.” Though Tomashoff’s assessment could point to any part of Zevon’s history, be assured that Zevon’s high marks have been true pinnacles indeed.
Wanted Dead or Alive, Imperial, 1970.
Warren Zevon, Asylum, 1976, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Excitable Boy (includes “Werewolves of London”), Asylum, 1978.
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Asylum, 1980, reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Stand in the Fire, Asylum, 1980.
The Envoy, Asylum, 1982.
Sentimental Hygiene, Virgin, 1987.
Transverse City, Virgin, 1989.
(With Hindu Love Gods)Hindu Love Gods, Giant, 1990.
Mr. Bad Example, Giant, 1991.
Learning to Flinch, Giant, 1993.
A Quiet Normal Life (The Best of Warren Zevon), Asylum.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1992.
GQ, January 1988.
People, January 20, 1992.
Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987; November 15, 1990; November 29, 1990; November 28, 1991.
Warren Zevon's career took almost as many strange twists and turns as the stories of the bizarre characters in his songs. His lyrics were consistently called ironic and darkly humorous. In one last mordant, even macabre, twist, Zevon's greatest critical and commercial success would be The Wind, the album he recorded as he knew he was dying from cancer. He would not live long enough to celebrate his first-ever Grammy nominations and awards. The range of his lyrics, combined with his talents as a musician and composer, made Zevon a long-standing favorite of critics, fellow musicians, and devoted fans.
Zevon grew up in California and Arizona, but moved frequently thanks to his father's profession: professional gambler. Zevon spent his youth studying classical piano, but at 16 he ran away. His parents were divorced and he was getting into scraps with the law. He reportedly took off for New York in a Corvette his father had won, taking his guitar with him. He tried to make his way as a folksinger with little luck.
Zevon moved to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles. There, he became part of a duo called Lyme and Cybelle, which resulted in his being offered session work. He began meeting other young singers and singer-songwriters who would come to be known as artists who formed the bedrock of the unmistakable sounding 1970s California rock scene. These included Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and members of the Eagles such as Timothy B. Schmidt. Zevon was busy writing his own songs, and one of his compositions, "She Got Me Man," appeared in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Finally in 1969 he got the opportunity to record his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive, which flopped.
He resumed session work. Zevon worked as a musical director and band member for the Everly Brothers shortly before the duo dissolved. In 1974, he went to Spain, where he played piano in a club for tourists. Meanwhile, Zevon's friends in California were working on his behalf. Linda Ronstadt recorded several Zevon songs including "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and made his "Hasten Down the Wind" the title track of a 1976 album. The most significant help came from Jackson Browne, who persuaded Asylum to release a solo album by Zevon, which Browne produced. The result, Warren Zevon, while not a big commercial success, did well enough with the public and with critics to give Zevon the opportunity to record again.
Browne and Ronstadt both aided with the new album as did Waddy Wachtel, Ronstadt's guitarist, who became a regular collaborator with Zevon. The result was 1978's Excitable Boy, which went gold and contained such hits as "Excitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," as well as the hit "Werewolves of London." The popularity of "Werewolves of London" surprised Zevon, who told Stephen Fried of GQ that it was "a song that was really just a joke between friends." But that joke gave Zevon the clout to become a concert headliner.
Unfortunately Zevon would never match the commercial success of Excitable Boy in his lifetime. His next album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, made it into the Top 20 in 1980; that same year he released a live album, Stand in the Fire, which, according to Irwin Stambler in The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, "caught much of the fervor and excellent musicianship that made Zevon shows among rock's best in the early 1980s." The Envoy, recorded in 1982, flopped commercially and was to be Zevon's last until 1987.
The move from obscurity to sudden stardom and then back off the charts mirrored the turmoil of Zevon's life in the late 1970s. Leaning on the same friends who had supported him musically, Zevon sought treatment for alcoholism. He took two years off. The Envoy was his first sober studio effort, but its lack of success cost him his recording deal with Asylum. Instead of writing new songs and seeking a new deal, Zevon took to the road, playing solo acoustic sets in small clubs. Reflecting on that time to Fried in GQ, Zevon said that the notion that he was down and out during this time made a good story but not a true one: "I wasn't starving or anything. I was making a living as a musician. In fact, on a purely economic level, you can make more money touring that way than with a band." But the failure of this album cost him more than his deal. Zevon relapsed, but soon sought an even longer treatment regime plus therapy. He also married and divorced twice.
Newly sober, Zevon continued to persevere. He told Fried, "I thought that when I had ten or twelve songs I'd get a deal." He did—with Virgin Records—and in 1987 Zevon released Sentimental Hygiene. As in the past, Zevon received musical help from his friends, who now included Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry of R.E.M. The trio performed on most of the album's tracks while Bob Dylan and Neil Young played on one song each. Speaking of how it felt to return to the studio and tour with a band again, Zevon told Anthony De-Curtis of Rolling Stone, "I sort of like starting my career over every seven years or so, or I sort of have to, whether I like to or not."
Zevon returned to his pace of releasing a new album every two years or so. 1989's Transverse City so turned away from his characteristic humor that even his mother noticed. In an interview with Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, Zevon confessed that his mother told him, "You know, dear, this album isn't funny."
The tone of Zevon's 1990 release was not humorous either. Hindu Love Gods, officially issued by a band of the same name, resulted from one day of recording with members of R.E.M. during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions. It consisted entirely of covers from a diverse group of performers, including Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, the Georgia Satellites, and Prince. Paul Evans reviewed the album in Rolling Stone, saying, "It's real roots rocking–done by smart, delighted fans."
In 1991 Zevon returned to more characteristic territory with Mr. Bad Example, which featured "Model Citizen" and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead"—shining examples of his trademark sense of ironic humor. Craig Tomashoff's review of the album in People also summed up Zevon's career to date: "Few people in rock have Zevon's knack for spinning strange tales over memorable melodies. This will surely be the album that breaks him into the big time. If not, guaranteed the next one will."
For the Record …
Released Wanted Dead or Alive, Imperial, 1970; musical director for the Everly Brothers, 1971-73; played lounge piano in Spain, 1974; released self-titled album on Asylum, 1976; Excitable Boy released, including first Top Ten single, "Werewolves of London," 1978; released Mutineer and is dropped by label, 1995; signed with Artemis Records and releases, Life'll Kill Ya, 2000; released My Ride's Here, spring 2002; diagnosed with lung cancer, 2002; The Wind released, August 2003; Final public appearance, October 30, 2002; Died, September 7, 2003.
Awards: Grammy, Best Contemporary Folk Album, for The Wind, 2004; Grammy, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (with Bruce Springsteen) for "Disorder in the House," 2004.
Zevon continued in search of seemingly elusive commercial success. By the mid '90s, he had begun to attribute poor sales to a lack of support from the labels. "And, also, for some reasons that are fair enough and some reasons that are a little appalling," he told the Indianapolis Star in an article carried by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "the time and the place that I came from, however much it did or didn't have to do with my work, is held in contempt by contemporary cultural standards. Los Angeles in the '70s is probably the worst place you can possibly be from."
For Mutineer, he recorded in his home studio with new digital tools, a process he found freeing. Regrettably, it was neither the critical nor commercial success he sought. However, Tomashoff checked in with more praise in People calling it "another solid piece of work from one of rock's most dependable and underrated songwriters." Zevon later said the title was "a gesture of appreciation and affection to my fans, none of whom bought the record." Giant dropped Zevon after its release.
In a 1996 wire service interview, Zevon said his next plan was to concentrate on getting a classical music piece performed. "I think the prospects of getting such a thing played are probably fairly good. I'm optimistic about it. I may be deluding myself, but we know there's an orchestra in every town, much less, city, in America," he quipped.
Actually, he could be frequently found subbing for band leader Paul Schaeffer on David Letterman's talk shows in the post-Mutineer period. Letterman proved a consistent, committed fan as well as friend. Letterman invited Zevon to be the first musical guest both on Late Night With David Letterman (NBC) and The Late Show With David Letterman (CBS).
Zevon continued the process of attempting to reinvent himself. It was not until 2000 that he would return to the studio. It had also taken five years for him to find another record label. He was signed by Artemis Records. The result was Life'll Kill Ya, released in early 2000. Buoyed by the modest success, he returned to recording relatively immediately. My Ride's Here was released in Spring 2002.
Zevon was diagnosed with an inoperable and aggressive form of lung cancer in late 2002. Doctors did not expect him to live more than a handful of months. With his mortality truly staring him down, and responding publicly with trademark darker-than-ever gallows humor, Zevon elected to work on one last album. "It'll be a drag if I don't make it until the next James Bond movie comes out," he wrote in an official press release. (He survived to see Die Another Day leave theatres.) His first response was reportedly to hole up with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner films. Both actors died of lung cancer. He soon decided to spend his time recording.
"I've never encountered anyone with his outlook and the strength, the humor, and the wisdom that goes with it," said author Carl Hiaasen, a friend and fishing buddy, as well as occasional Zevon lyricist, in a People interview. "At one point he said to me, 'I've been writing this part for myself for 35 years. Maybe this is just the way it has to go.'" He elected not to seek treatment.
The Wind was released in August of 2003, nearly a year to date from when he was diagnosed with cancer. Record company officials were reportedly unsettled by the prospect of promoting a "last" recording. Rather than spend money on advertising, they chose to put more funding into production. The recording process was documented by the cable television channel VH-1. Zevon said he wanted his cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"–in which he is heard saying "open up, open up,"–to be his first single. The album debuted on the Billboard charts at number 16. That publication's critic Adrian Zupp said it "hangs like a Picasso in a world of finger painting." Other critics concurred.
"Who knew it'd take terminal illness to make Zevon lay off the gallows humor?" opined Chris Willman, writing in Entertainment Weekly. "If The Wind is unsentimental, it's also happily unhygienic, sounding as ramshackle and energized as you'd hope a nothing-left-to-lose last blast would."
Zevon made his final public appearance on Letterman's show October 30, 2002. The entire hour-long program was devoted to Zevon. He said Letterman was "the best friend my music has ever had." During the broadcast, Zevon admitted that he "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." Zevon performed "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Mutineer"–the last time he would perform in front of an audience.
When Zevon passed September 7, 2003, he had seen The Wind released to critical praise and, more importantly, had been able to see his first grandchildren, twins born in August.
After his death, his son and Rhino Records were working together to secure the re-release of Zevon's entire Elektra catalog. The hopes were to include unreleased material as well as material never released on compact disc.
When the Grammy nominees were announced, neither fans nor cynics were surprised to see him finally among the nominees. He had five nominations. There was a certain Zevon-esque irony to the entire accolades. The awards show broadcast in Feburary 2004 would also feature a Zevon tribute with appearances by Browne, Schmidt, Dwight Yoakam, Zevon's adult children, and others. That night, Zevon won his first-ever Grammy awards. The Wind won Best Contemporary Folk Album and "Disorder in the House," a duet with Bruce Springsteen won for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
"His hard-boiled side would say, 'I don't care about this. These people never got me,'" said Jorge Calderon, a producer and longtime friend in an post-Grammy article distributed by the Associated Press. "His other side, which was very Sammy Davis Jr., that part of him would be loving it. He'd be dressed in an all-cashmere suit. He'd be here digging it."
Wanted Dead or Alive, Imperial, 1970.
Warren Zevon, Asylum, 1976; reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Excitable Boy, Asylum, 1978.
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Asylum, 1980; reissued, Elektra, 1992.
Stand in the Fire, Asylum, 1980.
The Envoy, Asylum, 1982.
Sentimental Hygiene, Virgin, 1987; Re-release with Bonus Tracks, Virgin, 2003.
Transverse City, Virgin, 1989; rereleased with bonus track, Virgin 2003.
(With Hindu Love Gods) Hindu Love Gods, Giant, 1990.
Mr. Bad Example, Giant, 1991.
Learning to Flinch, Giant, 1993; rereleased limited edition, Warner, 1993.
Mutineer, Giant, 1995.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology), Rhino 1996.
Life'll Kill Ya, Artemis, 2000.
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon, Rhino, 2002.
My Ride's Here, Artemis 2002.
The First Sessions, Varese, 2003.
Wanted Dead or Alive/A Leaf in the Wind, Capitol, 2003.
The Wind, Artemis, 2003.
Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
Billboard, April 22, 1995; September 6, 2003; September 20, 2003.
Business Week, September 1, 2003.
Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, September 5, 2003; September 19, 2003.
GQ, January 1988.
Interview, April 1998.
Keyboard, November 1, 2003.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 13, 1995; March 11, 1996.
People, January 20, 1992; June 5, 1995; October 28, 2002.
Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987; November 15, 1990; November 29, 1990; November 28, 1991.
"Grammys Cast Somber Note Over Awards Show," Yahoo! News from Associated Press, http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20040209/ap_on_en_mu/grammys_34 (February 11, 2004).
"SHHHHHHH …Warren Zevon's Sleeping…" PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/features/030909-zevon.shtml (February 12, 2004).
"Warren Zevon," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 10, 2004).
Warren Zevon Official Website, http://www.warrenzevon.com (February 12, 2004).
—Lloyd Hemingway and
Linda Dailey Paulson
Best-selling album since 1990: Life'll Kill Ya (2000)
Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon's cynical wit, fascination with the macabre, and propensity for creating oddball characters all seep into his lyrically weighted, often satiric music. Zevon's Excitable Boy (1976) is one of rock music's most acclaimed albums and many of his songs have become hits for other artists. Zevon's ability to find irony in the saddest places was reflected in the way he came to terms with his own grave health issues.
Although Zevon was born in Chicago, his childhood was spent shuttling between California and Arizona because his father was a professional gambler. Before they were divorced, his parents settled for a time in Los Angeles where Zevon studied classical piano. He left home at age sixteen and moved to New York City to be part of the burgeoning 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, but eventually found his way back to southern California a few years later. There he befriended and worked with many of the luminaries of that emerging folk rock scene, such as Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and members of the Eagles. He had sporadic success as a songwriter for the Turtles and April Stevens and finally recorded his first album, Zevon: Wanted—Dead or Alive (1969). The album went unnoticed by record buyers, although one song—"She Quit Me"—was used in the film Midnight Cowboy (1969).
After the album's failure, Zevon then went into survival mode as a jingle writer for commercials, a music director for the rock vocal duo the Everly Brothers, and a pianist in Spain at a touristy club before getting back to Los Angeles and signing a songwriting contract with recording giant David Geffen. This led to another shot at recording and he released Warren Zevon (1976). The album endeared Zevon to the critics and featured several songs that went
on to be recorded by other artists, including "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" and "Hasten Down the Wind," both of which became more prominent after Linda Ronstadt recorded them. The success of Warren Zevon began a cult following for Zevon and his next album, Excitable Boy (1978), put him at the forefront of the music industry. Excitable Boy is a timeless work reflective of Zevon's attention to the grittier aspects of life. It stunned critics and listeners. The songs mix solemn fact and sublime fiction to create intelligent and striking satires. Zevon paints an apocalyptic picture of violence in a revenge tale about a betrayed fortune hunter in "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." His offhand horror spoof, "Werewolves of London," became Zevon's biggest hit. "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" humorously chronicles the cries for help from a spoiled rich kid during some decadent Third World travels and the title song combines a happy-go-lucky melody with a staggeringly disturbing story about a boy's violent nature.
Zevon's subsequent recordings continued to fare well with ardent fans, but they never gave him the commercial success that seemed promised after Excitable Boy. Alcoholism and its recovery blocked his progress in the early 1980s along with the decade's changing musical tide, which, curiously, turned against songs with lyrical wit. Zevon, in addition to other strong songwriters including Loudon Wainwright III, John Prine, and Randy Newman, all suffered a drop in popularity during the 1980s. In addition, Zevon's recordings of that decade lacked his trademark bite and he did not return to that vein until Mr. Bad Example (1991), which contains the hilarious, "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead."
More than any other artist, Zevon sang songs about death and related topics. His albums' logo is a grinning skull. He titled his forty-four-song anthology release I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (1996). Some critics liken Zevon to the graphic crime novelists who spare no detail about violence in their books and Zevon counted authors Stephen King, Hunter Thompson, and Carl Hiaasen as close friends and occasional song collaborators. In 2000 he received high critical praise for his album Life'll Kill Ya (2000) and the same for his follow-up release, My Ride's Here (2002).
Zevon was a multitalented musician who generally alternated between guitar and piano in concert. He had a droll, straightforward singing style that seemed to announce the words as opposed to melodically singing them. But when called for, as in bittersweet songs such as "Accidentally Like a Martyr," his voice could be full of emotional power.
In August 2002 Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung and liver cancer. The news did not blunt his humor or his recording career; he went right to work on My Dirty Life and Times. Zevon stated that the album (which had not been released as of May 2003) is a goodbye to a wide-ranging list of friends. My Dirty Life and Times features many of his past collaborators, including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Petty, and Emmylou Harris. He died September 7, 2003.
Zevon wrote songs with the detail and zest of an investigative journalist. His body of work is produced not only from personal circumstances, but also as a comment about the world around him. It will serve as a journal of the times that Zevon lived.
Wanted—Dead or Alive (Imperial, 1969); Warren Zevon (Asylum, 1976); Excitable Boy (Asylum, 1978); Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (Asylum, 1980); Stand in the Fire (Asylum, 1980); The Envoy (Asylum, 1982); Sentimental Hygiene (Virgin, 1987); Transverse City (Virgin, 1989); Mr. Bad Example (Warner Bros., 1991); Learning to Flinch (Warner Bros., 1993); Mutineer (Warner Bros., 1995); Life'll Kill Ya (Artemis, 2000); My Ride's Here (Artemis, 2002).
Born Warren William Zevon, January 24, 1947, in Chicago, IL; died of lung cancer, September 7, 2003, in Los Angeles, CA. Singer and songwriter. Acclaimed musician Warren Zevon was best known for his 1978 hit "Werewolves of London," but the wry humor and tumbling piano riffs in it were hallmarks of many of his other songs, which went largely unappreciated over the course of his long career.
Zevon's roots were in Chicago, where he was born in 1947 to a mother who belonged to the Mormon church but had married a boxer of Russian–Jewish heritage. Zevon's father earned a living as a gambler, and his son later claimed he had links to organized crime as well. The family eventually resettled in Los Angeles, California, where the musically gifted young Zevon earned poor grades at Fairfax High School. After he quit school during his junior year, his father presented him with a sports car he had won in a card game. Zevon drove the Corvette cross–country to New York City to become part of the burgeoning folk–music scene there. He eventually wound up back in southern California in the late 1960s, where he formed a duo called Lyme and Cybelle. It had little success, but Zevon's songwriting talents were noticed by others, and one of his works was recorded by the Turtles and became the B–side to their hit "Happy Together." The royalties from "Like the Seasons" provided a lucrative source of income for him for years.
Zevon released his first LP, Wanted Dead or Alive, in 1969. The record was produced by the legendary Kim Fowley, but was a commercial flop. Zevon turned to writing commercial jingles for clients that included the winemaker Gallo, and in the early 1970s took a job as music director and keyboard player for the Everly Brothers. At the time, the two brothers were still touring steadily but not speaking to one another. Zevon's own personal life was dis-integrating as well, and his penchant for vodka became debilitating. At one point, tired of the Los Angeles scene, he and his wife fled to Spain, where he played in bars there. He was convinced to come back to record another album by his friend, the singer and songwriter Jackson Browne, who had urged a budding record label mogul named David Geffen to sign Zevon to his Asylum Records label.
The resulting LP, Warren Zevon, was produced by Browne and released in 1976. It featured a roster of well–known musical guests who knew and respected Zevon from his previous work as a song-writer and session musician, including the Eagles' Glenn Frey, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Beach Boy Carl Wilson, and Bonnie Raitt. The record failed to make a dent on the charts, but four of its tracks were recorded by Linda Ronstadt, including "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me." Zevon's next work, Excitable Boy, was the biggest commercial success of his career. It included the 1978 hit "Werewolves of London" as well as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money." These and the majority of Zevon's oeuvre, noted New York Times writer Jon Pareles, "were terse, action–packed, gallows–humored tales that could sketch an entire screenplay in four minutes and often had death as a punch line." Such songs, asserted Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune, "had a profound effect on the singer–songwriter pop of the '70s. In an ocean of male sensitivity, as defined by Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and other gentle crooners, Zevon brought a room–wrecking sense of abandon, dissolution, and desperation to his songs…"
That desperation was still spilling over into his personal life, and twice Zevon entered substance–abuse rehabilitation programs. His marriage ended, and this bleak period of his life found expression in his LP 1980 release, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. He eventually remarried—to an actress from the hit television series Knot's Landing named Kim Lankford—and after a five–year period of inactivity since his 1982 release, The Envoy, released Sentimental Hygiene in 1987. Some members of R.E.M., still in the relatively unknown alternative–rock era of their career, played on it, and they also worked with Zevon on another project whose songs were released as the self–titled Hindu Love Gods in 1990.
Zevon spent the rest of the 1990s releasing albums of his songs that barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, but were favorites with critics, musicians, and longtime fans of his work. Cigarettes were the one habit he had failed to kick, and in August of 2002 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors told him that it was in advanced stages and inoperable, but Zevon went ahead with plans to record his thirteenth studio record. Appearing on it were a pantheon of music legends, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Ry Cooder, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, and Tom Petty.
Over the course of his career, Zevon's songs had been known for their morbid humor, including "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" and "Life'll Kill Ya," but he avoided dwelling on his fate when he wrote and recorded The Wind. "I feel the opposite of regret," he told the Los Angeles Times not long after the diagnosis of his fatal illness, according to his obituary by Geoff Boucher. "I was the hardest–living rocker on my block for a while.… Then for 18 years I was a sober dad of some amazing kids. Hey, I feel like I've lived a couple of lives."
Released in late August of 2003, The Wind debuted in the Billboard Top 20, but the 56–year–old Zevon died days later at his home in Los Angeles on September 7, 2003. Posthumously, Zevon won Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Wind and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for the track "Disorder in the House," which he sang with Springsteen. He is survived by his two former wives, two children, and two grandchildren.
Chicago Tribune, September 9, 2003, sec. 1, p. 5; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/08/obit.zevon.ap/index.html (September 8, 2003); E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,12457,00.html?eol.tkr (September 9, 2003); Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2003, p. B9; New York Times, September 9, 2003, p. A29; Times (London), September 9, 2003, p. 31; Washington Post, September 9, 2003, p. B6.