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Warren W. Zevon

Warren W. Zevon

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Also Known As: Warren William Zevon Died: September 7, 2003
Born: January 24, 1947 Cause of Death: Lung Cancer
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA Profession:

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Equal parts scabrous and brilliant, Warren Zevon was a singer-songwriter whose no-holds-barred approach to his art and his life produced a spate of exhilarating, literate and darkly humorous songs in the 1970s and 1980s, including "Werewolves of London," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Lawyers Guns and Money" and "Excitable Boy." Fascinated with the grittier side of life, Zevon's material depicted the odd, often violent lives of fringe characters whose grip on their own sanity was tenuous at best. But like all born pessimists, Zevon was also a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, as evidenced by such gorgeous ballads as "Hasten Down the Wind," which made him a favorite of performers like Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. Zevon hit his stride in the mid-1970s with a string of hard-rocking albums that he supported with equally raucous live shows; unfortunately, his propensity for drugs and alcohol derailed his career on several occasions in the 1980s. He rebounded in the late '90s with a handful of records that took a rueful look at his own mortality, which eerily presaged a diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2002. After completing his final album, the Grammy-winning The Wind, Zevon died in...

Equal parts scabrous and brilliant, Warren Zevon was a singer-songwriter whose no-holds-barred approach to his art and his life produced a spate of exhilarating, literate and darkly humorous songs in the 1970s and 1980s, including "Werewolves of London," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "Lawyers Guns and Money" and "Excitable Boy." Fascinated with the grittier side of life, Zevon's material depicted the odd, often violent lives of fringe characters whose grip on their own sanity was tenuous at best. But like all born pessimists, Zevon was also a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, as evidenced by such gorgeous ballads as "Hasten Down the Wind," which made him a favorite of performers like Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. Zevon hit his stride in the mid-1970s with a string of hard-rocking albums that he supported with equally raucous live shows; unfortunately, his propensity for drugs and alcohol derailed his career on several occasions in the 1980s. He rebounded in the late '90s with a handful of records that took a rueful look at his own mortality, which eerily presaged a diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2002. After completing his final album, the Grammy-winning The Wind, Zevon died in 2003, leaving behind an erratic but unquestionably memorable career, as well as some of popular music's most gleefully mordant songs.

Born Warren William Zevon on Jan. 24, 1947 in Chicago, IL, he was the son of William Zevon, a Russian Jewish immigrant and professional poker player, and Beverly Cope Simmons, a Mormon of Scottish and Welsh extraction. His father's chosen profession frequently required the family to relocate, so Zevon spent much of his formative years in Arizona and Northern California. From an early age, he showed an extraordinary aptitude for music, as well as a prodigious intellect; one source cited that for a time, Zevon had the highest charted IQ in the city of Fresno. He was mentored by conductor Robert Craft while studying classical piano, and visited the home of Craft's friend and collaborator, Igor Stravinsky. But his pursuits were interrupted by his parents' divorce, and at age 16, he dropped out of high school become a folk singer in New York. His efforts were met with indifference, so Zevon returned to the West Coast, where he teamed with friend Violet Santangelo to form lyme & cybelle, a pop-psychedelic act with literary leanings. The pair released three singles, including "Follow Me," which rose to No. 65 on the Billboard singles chart in 1966, before Zevon departed the group to become a staff songwriter for their label, White Whale. He penned several tracks for its biggest act, the Turtles, as well as the song "She Quit Me," before being dismissed from the label's writing roster.

In 1969, Zevon recorded his debut album, Wanted Dead Or Alive. Produced in part by notorious Los Angeles songwriter and scene habitué Kim Fowley, the record, attributed to simply "Zevon," was released in 1970 to critical and listener disinterest, though one of its songs, "She Quit Me," was re-recorded as "He Quit Me" for inclusion on the "Midnight Cowboy" soundtrack. Its follow-up, alternately titled A Leaf in the Wind or Emblem for the Devil, failed to secure a release, and Zevon soon returned to work as a session player and jingle writer. For a period, he also played piano behind the Everly Brothers and served as their music director before their infamous breakup in 1973.

Zevon's dissatisfaction with the direction of his career, combined with a rapidly dwindling bank account, led him to move to Spain, where he played piano at a bar in Stiges owned by former mercenary David Liddell, his co-writer on the song "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." In 1975, he returned to Los Angeles, where he fell in with the burgeoning singer-songwriter crowed. Zevon also befriended Jackson Browne, who was riding high on the success of songs penned for the Eagles, among other acts, as well as his own solo efforts. When Browne's The Pretender (1976) reached the Top 5 on Billboard's album charts, he brokered a deal for Zevon with his label, David Geffen's Asylum Records, and produced his second album, Warren Zevon (1976) with a Who's Who guest list of Los Angeles music talent, including members of the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, as well as Bonnie Raitt and J.D. Souther. The record received lavish critical praise for Zevon's signature blend of darkly comic material like "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," which concerned a failed suicide attempt, and more intimate songs like the romantic ballad "Hasten Down the Wind," which Linda Ronstadt covered for her 1976 album of the same name.

Zevon toured both with Browne and as a solo act before releasing his third solo effort, Excitable Boy (1978). Though its song material was even more macabre than his previous effort - the title track concerned a psychopathic high schooler's murder spree on prom night, while "Lawyers, Guns and Money" detailed the downfall of a fringe criminal on the run from mobsters - Zevon's gleefully savage delivery and his backing band's hard-rocking drive connected with listeners, who sent the album to No. 8 on the Billboard charts. Excitable Boy also featured Zevon's best-known hit, "Werewolves of London," which enjoyed a six-week stint on the Top 40 singles chart. Now firmly ensconced as one of the decade's preeminent rock artists, Zevon became a popular touring act, but as audiences soon discovered, also a volatile one.

Alcohol had been Zevon's bĂȘte noire for years, and it frequently led to erratic, often confrontational behavior both onstage and off. It had also led to the dissolution of his relationships with Marilyn "Tule" Livingston, the mother of his son, Jordan, and wife Crystal, who had given birth to a daughter, Ariel, in 1978. He sought treatment for his disease in 1979 before returning to the studio for 1980's Bad Luck in Dancing School. A Top 20 album upon its release, it featured a typically stellar lineup of guest musicians and a songwriting collaboration with Bruce Springsteen on "Jeannie Needs a Shooter," but generated only a modest hit with a cover of the Ernie K-Doe oldie "A Certain Girl." Critical consensus hovered around the notion that Zevon's lyrical bite had softened, and a 1980 live album, Stand In the Fire, which was dedicated to Martin Scorsese, did little to improve his declining stock in the music business.

1982's The Envoy enjoyed a more positive response from the rock journalist brigade, but failed to connect with listeners, prompting Asylum to drop him from its roster. Zevon found out about the terminated record contract in a copy of Rolling Stone, which prompted a drug- and alcohol-fueled binge that nearly killed him. In 1984, he checked into a rehab facility in Minnesota, and spent the next few years gaining control over his substance issues and mental health. Zevon re-surfaced briefly in 1984 as a member of Hindu Love Gods, which also featured Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills of R.E.M. The group was placed on the back burner after a 1984 single, "Narrator," found no purchase on the charts, though the R.E.M. players would form the core of Zevon's comeback album in 1987.

After enjoying a career boost by the inclusion of "Werewolves of London" in Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" (1986), Zevon released Sentimental Hygiene (1987), a solid collection of rock tracks driven by his dark wit and literary wordplay, on his new label, Virgin Records. Buoyed by guest contributions from the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, George Clinton and Michael Stipe, Hygiene rose to No. 63 on the album charts, and spawned two Top 20 hits on the Dance Music and Mainstream Rock Tracks with "Leave My Monkey Alone" and the title cut, respectively. It was soon followed by 1989's Transverse City, a concept album inspired by cyberpunk author William Gibson. Despite another high-profile list of contributors, including Young, Jerry Garcia and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, it was a failure upon release, and ended his tenure with Virgin.

Upstart label Giant Records immediately signed Zevon to their roster, and wasted no time making a 1987 session with the Hindu Love Gods their initial release. The 1990 self-titled album was drawn from a collection of rowdy covers recorded in a single night during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, including a bluesy take on Prince's "Raspberry Beret," which rose to No. 23 on the Modern Rock charts. The following year, Zevon released Mr. Bad Example, which included a minor hit, "Searching For a Heart," and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," which, after a protracted legal battle, served as both the title and theme song of Gary Fleder's derivative 1991 crime drama.

As record sales continued to allude him, Zevon found financial security through touring, which was frequently a one-man effort with only his piano and occasional guitar due to his limited resources. These efforts were recorded for 1993's Learning to Flinch. He also penned numerous songs for movie soundtracks, including "Grand Canyon" (1992) and wrote scores for "Tales from the Crypt" (HBO, 1989-1996) and the short-lived revival of "Route 66" (NBC, 1993). There were also occasional acting roles on "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992-98), as well as stints as bandleader on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ) and with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a sort of fantasy camp rock group comprised of famous authors, including such friends and admirers as Stephen King, Dave Barry and Matt Groening.

In 1995, he released the self-produced Mutineer. Though its title track was later championed by Bob Dylan, who made it a regular part of his live performances, the album sank without a trace due to the collapse of Giant Records. Zevon would not record another album until 2000, when he signed with Artemis Records to release Life'll Kill Ya, a scabrous meditation on mortality with songs like "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and a bitterly humorous romp through Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again." Despite its coal-black tone, it received positive reviews as well as brisk sales, which prompted a follow-up, 2002's My Ride's Here. It continued his ruminations on death, breaking only for the novelty song "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)," which featured spoken vocals by David Letterman, and "Genius," which paid tribute to his long-ago mentor, Igor Stravinsky.

In 2002, after suffering from chest pains and shortness of breath during a performance in Edmonton, Canada, Zevon developed a chronic cough that forced him to break his 20-year ban on doctor visits and seek medical attention. He was diagnosed with inoperable pleural mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. Given only a few months to live, Zevon turned down treatment in favor of recording a final album, The Wind (2003). A constellation of celebrity admirers turned out to lend their support, including Brown, Springsteen, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder and actor Billy Bob Thornton, his neighbor and longtime friend. Its recording sessions were taped for a VH1 special, "Keep Me in Your Heart," which showcased Zevon as a man whose wit and intelligence had gone undiminished as his physical health declined. Zevon was David Letterman's sole guest on the Oct. 30, 2002 broadcast of "The Late Show." He gave what would be his last public performance on the show, as well as imparting his soon-to-be-famous observation on life and death, which stated that one should "enjoy every sandwich." Zevon would go on to exceed doctors' expectations by attending the birth of his twin grandsons by his daughter, Ariel, and seeing The Wind debut at No. 12 on the Billboard album chart. Two weeks later, he died at his home on September 7, 2003.

The Wind would go on to receive two Grammy Awards for Best Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for Zevon's duet with Springsteen on "Disorder in the House," as well as for Best Contemporary Folk Album. His son Jordan and daughter Ariel accepted the awards. The following year, Jordan served as executive producer on Enjoy Every Sandwich: Songs of Warren Zevon (2004), a tribute album featuring covers by Bob Dylan, Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, the Pixies and Adam Sandler, who had performed "Werewolves of London" on "Late Night." A second tribute album, Hurry Home Early: the Songs of Warren Zevon, was released in 2005. In 2007, his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, released a remarkably frank - at Zevon's request - biography and oral history titled I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.

By Paul Gaita

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