Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003) was an American rock singer-songwriter and musician noted for including his sometimes sardonic opinions of life in his musical lyrics, composing songs that were sometimes humorous and often had political or historical themes.
Zevon's work has often been praised by well-known musicians, including Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. His best-known compositions include "Werewolves of London", "Lawyers, Guns and Money", "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," all of which are featured on his third album, Excitable Boy (1978). Other well-known songs written by Zevon have been recorded by other artists, including "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (a top 40 hit by Linda Ronstadt), "Accidentally Like a Martyr," "Mohammed's Radio", "Carmelita", and "Hasten Down the Wind".
Along with his own compositions, Zevon recorded or performed occasional covers, including Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan". He was a frequent guest on Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman later performed guest vocals on "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" with Paul Shaffer and members of the CBS Orchestra.
Zevon was born in Chicago, Illinois to William Zevon and Beverly Cope Simmons. His father was born in Russia, and their original surname was "Zivotovsky". They soon moved to Fresno, California. By the age of 13, Zevon was an occasional visitor to the home of Igor Stravinsky where he, alongside Robert Craft, briefly studied modern classical music. Zevon's parents divorced when he was 16 years old and he soon quit high school and moved from Los Angeles to New York to become a folk singer.
Zevon turned to a musical career early, including a stretch with high school friend Violet Santangelo as a musical duo called lyme & cybelle (exercising artistic license, the band name eschewed capitalization). He spent time as a session musician and jingle composer. He wrote several songs for his White Whale label-mates the Turtles ("Like the Seasons" and "Outside Chance"), though his participation in their recording is unknown. Another early composition ("She Quit Me") was included in the soundtrack for the film Midnight Cowboy (1969). To suit its place in the film, the song was re-recorded as the female-centric "He Quit Me." Zevon's first attempt at a solo album, Wanted Dead or Alive (1969), was produced by 1960s cult figure Kim Fowley but did not sell well. Flashes of Zevon's later writing preoccupations of romantic loss and noir-ish violence are present in songs like "Tule's Blues" and "A Bullet for Ramona". Zevon's second effort, Leaf in the Wind, was called by his son, Jordan, "A bullshit money grab by the label". During the early 1970s, Zevon toured regularly with the Everly Brothers as keyboard player and band leader/musical coordinator.
Later during the same decade he toured and recorded with Don Everly and Phil Everly, separately, as they tried to launch solo careers after their break-up. His dissatisfaction with his career (and a lack of funds) led him to move to Spain in the summer of 1975, where he lived and played in a small tavern in Sitges near Barcelona owned by David Lindell, a former mercenary. Together they composed Zevon's classic "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner".
By September 1975, Zevon had returned to Los Angeles, where he roomed with then-unknown Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. There, he collaborated with Jackson Browne, who in 1976 produced and promote Zevon's self-titled major-label debut. Contributors to this album included Nicks, Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt. Ronstadt elected to record many of his songs, including "Hasten Down the Wind," "Carmelita", "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", and "Mohammed's Radio." Zevon's first tour in 1977 included guest appearances in the middle of Jackson Browne concerts, one of which is documented on a widely circulated bootleg recording of a Dutch radio program under the title The Offender meets the Pretender.
Though a much darker and more ironic songwriter than Browne and other leading figures of the era's L.A.-based singer-songwriter movement, Zevon shared with his 1970s L.A. peers a grounding in earlier folk and country influences and a commitment to a writerly style of songcraft with roots in the work of artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Though only a modest commercial success, the Browne-produced Warren Zevon (1976) would later be termed a masterpiece in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and is cited in the book's most recently revised (November 2004) edition as Zevon's most realized work. Representative tracks include the junkie's lament "Carmelita," the Copland-esque outlaw ballad "Frank and Jesse James," "The French Inhaler," a scathing insider's look at life and lust in the L.A. music business( which was, in fact about his first wife and mother to his son Jordan) and "Desperados Under the Eaves", a chronicle of Zevon's increasing alcoholism.
In 1978, Zevon released Excitable Boy (produced by Jackson Browne and guitarist Waddy Wachtel) to critical acclaim and popular success. The title tune (about a juvenile sociopath's murderous prom night) name-checked "Little Susie", the heroine of former employers the Everly Brothers' tune "Wake Up Little Susie", while songs such as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" used deadpan humor to wed geopolitical subtexts to hard-boiled narratives. Tracks from this album received heavy FM airplay and the single release "Werewolves of London", which featured Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, was a relatively lighthearted version of Zevon's signature macabre outlook and a Top 30 success.
Critic Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), called Zevon "one of the toughest rockers ever to come out of Southern California". Rolling Stone called the album one of the most significant releases of the 1970s and placed him alongside Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen as one of the four most important new artists to emerge in the decade.
Zevon followed Excitable Boy with 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. This album was dedicated to Ken Millar, better known under his nom-de-plume as detective novelist Ross Macdonald. Millar was a literary hero of Zevon's who met the singer for the first time while participating in an intervention organized by Rolling Stone journalist Paul Nelson that helped Zevon temporarily curtail his addictions. Featuring a modest novelty hit with the single "A Certain Girl" (Zevon's cover of an old R&B novelty record by Ernie K-Doe scored #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart), the album sold briskly but was uneven, and represented a decline rather than commercial and critical consistency. It contained a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen called "Jeannie Needs a Shooter", and the ballad "Empty-Handed Heart" featuring a descant sung by Linda Ronstadt, which dealt with Zevon's divorce from wife Crystal. (Crystal is the only woman he married legally although she is often listed erroneously as his "second wife". Marilyn "Tule" Livingston, the mother of his son Jordan, and Zevon were in a long-term relationship but never married.) Later during 1980, he released the live album Stand in the Fire (dedicated to Martin Scorsese), recorded over five nights at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.
Zevon's 1982 release The Envoy returned to the high standard of Excitable Boy but was not a commercial success. It was an eclectic but characteristic set that included such compositions as "Ain't That Pretty at All," "Charlie's Medicine" and "Jesus Mentioned," the first of Zevon's two musical reactions to the death of Elvis Presley (the other is the song "Porcelain Monkey" on Life'll Kill Ya in 2000). The title track was dedicated to Philip Habib, U.S. special envoy to the Middle East during the early 1980s. In the liner notes for the 1996 I'll Sleep When I'm Dead anthology, Zevon stated that after the song came out, Habib sent him "a very nice letter of appreciation on State Department stationery". The lyrics from another track, "The Hula Hula Boys," were excerpted in Hunter S. Thompson's 1983 book, The Curse of Lono.
In 1983, the recently divorced Zevon became engaged to Philadelphia DJ Anita Gevinson and moved to the East Coast. After the disappointing reception for The Envoy, Zevon's distributor Asylum Records ended their business relationship, which Zevon discovered only when he read about it in the Random Notes gossip column of Rolling Stone. The trauma allegedly caused him to relapse into serious alcoholism and he voluntarily checked himself into an unnamed rehab clinic somewhere in Minnesota in 1984. His relationship with Gevinson ended shortly thereafter. Zevon retreated from the music business for several years, during which he finally overcame severe alcohol and drug addictions.
During this interim period, Zevon collaborated with Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills (of R.E.M.), along with backup vocalist Bryan Cook to form a minor project called Hindu Love Gods. The group released the non-charting single "Narrator" on the IRS label in 1984, then went into abeyance for several years.
Berry, Buck and Mills served as the core of Zevon's next studio band when he re-emerged in 1987 by signing with Virgin Records and recording the album Sentimental Hygiene. The release, hailed as his best since Excitable Boy, featured a thicker rock sound and taut, often humorous songs like "Detox Mansion," "Bad Karma" (which featured R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe on backup vocals), and "Reconsider Me." Included were contributions from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, George Clinton, as well as Berry, Buck, and Mills. Also on hand were longtime collaborators Jorge Calderón and Waddy Wachtel.
During the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, Zevon also participated in an all-night jam session with Berry, Buck and Mills, as they worked their way through rock and blues numbers by the likes of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Prince. Though the sessions were not initially intended for release, they eventually saw the light of day as a Hindu Love Gods album.
The immediate follow-up to Sentimental Hygiene was 1989's Transverse City, a futuristic concept album inspired by Zevon's interest in the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson. It featured guests including Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, keyboard player Chick Corea and guitarists Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Neil Young. Key tracks include the title song, "Splendid Isolation," "Run Straight Down" (which had a promotional video that featured Zevon singing in a factory while Gilmour played his guitar solos) and "They Moved the Moon," the latter among Zevon's eerier ballads.
Transverse City was a commercial disappointment, and Virgin Records ended its relationship with Zevon soon after the album's release. Zevon, however, contracted almost immediately with Giant Records, and the first issue under Zevon's contract with his new distributor was the self-titled Hindu Love Gods album recorded during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions. The album included a cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret", which became a #23 Modern Rock hit in the U.S.
In 1991, Zevon, once again a solo artist, released Mr. Bad Example. This album featured the modest pop hit "Searching for a Heart" and the rocker "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead", later utilized for the title of the neo-noir film of the same name directed by Gary Fleder; after some skirmishing over the unauthorized use of Zevon's song title, the Zevon track was licensed to play over the film's end credits. Zevon also sang lead vocals on the song "Casey Jones" from the Grateful Dead tribute album, Deadicated (although the cut is credited to Jackson Browne slide guitarist David Lindley).
Zevon toured the United States (with the Odds), Europe, and Australia and New Zealand during this period.
Owing to his reduced circumstances, his performances were often true solo efforts (with minimal accompaniment on piano and guitar); 1993's live Learning to Flinch documents such a tour. The disc received some airplay on college radio and was considered Zevon's version of Unplugged. Zevon often played in Colorado to allow for an opportunity to visit with his long-time friend Hunter S. Thompson.
A lifelong fan of "hard-boiled" fiction, Zevon was friendly with several well known writers who also collaborated on his songwriting during this period, including Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and Mitch Albom. Zevon also served as musical coordinator and occasional guitarist for an ad-hoc rock music group called the Rock Bottom Remainders, a collection of writers performing rock and roll standards at book fairs and other events. This group included Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening and Amy Tan, among other popular writers, and it has continued to perform one benefit concert per year since Zevon's death.
An affiliated project for which Zevon both played and wrote liner notes is the offbeat 1998 album Stranger Than Fiction, a two CD set attributed to the Wrockers containing rock covers and originals by many of the Remainders authors plus such notables as Norman Mailer and Maya Angelou. Zevon oversaw music for the short-lived revival of the NBC series Route 66 (1993), contributing that series' main title theme, "If You Won't Leave Me I'll Find Somebody Who Will".
Occasionally, between 1982 and 2001, Zevon filled in for Paul Shaffer as bandleader on Late Night with David Letterman and later Late Show with David Letterman. One example was in 1998 when Shaffer traveled to Canada to film his cameo in Blues Brothers 2000.
In 1995, Zevon released the self-produced Mutineer. The title track was frequently covered by Bob Dylan on his U.S. Fall Tour in 2002. Zevon's cover of cult artist Judee Sill's "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" predated the wider rediscovery of her work a decade later. The album, however, suffered the worst sales of Zevon's career, in part because his label, superagent Irving Azoff's short-lived Giant Records, was in the process of going out of business. Rhino Records released a Zevon "best-of" compilation in 1996, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology). Zevon also appeared on the Larry Sanders Show on HBO, playing himself as a guest on the show.
After another five-year layoff, Zevon signed with industry veteran Danny Goldberg's Artemis Records and again rebounded with the mortality-themed 2000 release Life'll Kill Ya, containing the hymn-like "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and an austere version of Steve Winwood's 1980s hit "Back in the High Life Again". With record sales reasonably brisk and music critics giving Zevon his best notices since Excitable Boy, Life'll Kill Ya is seen as his second comeback. He followed with 2002's My Ride's Here (with morbid prescience of things to come), which included "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" (which was co-written by Tuesdays with Morrie author Mitch Albom, and featured Paul Shaffer, the "Late Night" band and a spoken guest vocal from TV host David Letterman) and the ballad "Genius", later taken as the title for a 2002 Zevon anthology, and a song whose string section illustrates the lasting influence of Stravinsky on Zevon's work.
At about this time, he and his neighbor actor Billy Bob Thornton formed a close friendship catalyzed by their common experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder and the fact they lived in the same apartment building.
In interviews, Zevon described a lifelong phobia of doctors and said he seldom received medical assessment. Shortly before playing at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 2002, he started feeling dizzy and developed a chronic cough. After a period of suffering with pain and shortness of breath, Zevon was encouraged by his dentist to see a physician; he was diagnosed with inoperable peritoneal mesothelioma (a form of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos). Refusing treatments he believed might incapacitate him, Zevon instead began recording his final album, The Wind which includes guest appearances by close friends including Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, David Lindley, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, and others. It has been said that the decision to include "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" was his, much to the dismay of the others in the project. At the request of the music television channel VH1, documentarian Nick Read was given access to the sessions; his cameras documented a man who retained his mordant sense of humor, even as his health was deteriorating over time.
On October 30, 2002, Zevon was featured on the Late Show with David Letterman as the only guest for the entire hour. The band played "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" as his introduction. Zevon performed several songs and spoke at length about his illness. Zevon was a frequent guest and occasional substitute bandleader on Letterman's television shows since Late Night was first broadcast in 1982. He noted, "I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years." It was during this broadcast that, when asked by Letterman if he knew something more about life and death now, he first offered his oft-quoted insight on dying: "Enjoy every sandwich." He also took time to thank Letterman for his years of support, calling him "the best friend my music's ever had". For his final song of the evening, and his final public performance, Zevon performed "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" at Letterman's request. In the green room after the show, Zevon presented Letterman with the guitar that he always used on the show, with a single request: "Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it." The day after Zevon's death, Letterman paid tribute to Zevon by replaying his performance of Mutineer from his last appearance. The Late Show band played Zevon's songs throughout the night.
Zevon stated previously that his illness was expected to be terminal within months after the diagnosis in the fall of 2002; however, he lived to see the birth of twin grandsons in June 2003 and the release of The Wind on August 26, 2003. Owing in part to the first VH1 broadcasts of Nick Read's documentary Warren Zevon: Keep Me In Your Heart, the album reached number 16 on the US charts, Zevon's highest placement since Excitable Boy. When his diagnosis became public, Zevon told the media that he just hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie, a goal he accomplished. Coincidentally, the film was titled Die Another Day.
Warren Zevon died on September 7, 2003, aged 56, at his home in Los Angeles, California. The Wind was certified gold by the RIAA in December 2003 and Zevon received five posthumous Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for the ballad "Keep Me In Your Heart". The Wind won two Grammys, with the album itself receiving the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, while "Disorder in the House", Zevon's duet with Bruce Springsteen, was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These posthumous awards were the first Grammys of Zevon's thirty-plus year career. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.