Warren William Zevon was born in Chicago to a Jewish boxer/gambler and a Mormon housewife in 1947. The only child, he was named after his grandfather (Warren) and his father (William). The nomadic family ended up in Los Angeles when Zevon was still a child. With an unhappy home life, he emerged himself in music. While a teenager he studied and discussed classical music with his idol, Russian composor Igor Stravinsky. During this time, Zevon also discovered folk and rock music thanks in part to the advent of Bob Dylan.
Zevon stated that he "almost finished high school," quitting to pursue a love of music. His first taste of success was as part of the duo lyme & cybelle, with female singer Violet Santangelo (not, as many sources incorrectly state, Tule Livingston -- Livingston was Zevon's first wife). Their first single on White Whale Records, "Follow Me," made the Billboard
Hot 100 charts in March 1966. Zevon was also discovered as a songwriter during this time, as the Turtles recorded Zevon tunes (including "Like the Seasons," which was the B-side to their #1 hit "Happy Together").
Kim Fowley signed Zevon to a record deal in 1968. He recorded two albums, but only one -- Zevon: Wanted Dead or Alive
was actually released. While the album itself generated little interest or sales, one song from the album, "She Quit Me," ended up on the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy
. With the popularity of that album (thanks to "Everybody's Talkin'"), Zevon earned a gold album.
In the early 1970s Zevon found work as the piano player and band leader for the Everly Brothers until the duo disbanded in 1973. Zevon produced some of the solo Everly works. In 1974, he and second wife Crystal left the United States and moved to Spain, where Zevon played in bars.
Jackson Browne worked his way to superstardom in the mid-70s. Using his clout, he convinced Asylum Records to sign Zevon to a deal. Zevon returned to L.A. and recorded his debut for Asylum, Warren Zevon
. While the album did not sell well, it received rave reviews. Linda Ronstadt recorded four songs off the album, including "Hasten Down the Wind" (which was the title track of her 1976 album) and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" (which reached #31 on the pop charts and
#46 on the country charts in early 1978).
Zevon's greatest commercial success came in 1978 with the release of Excitable Boy
. The novelty hit "Werewolves of London" cracked the top 20, and the album went gold. Critics hailed the album as a masterpiece and nicknamed Zevon the "Sam Peckinpah of rock and roll" because of the violent themes of some of the songs. It was an overgeneralization of his work: while there were graphically violent songs on Excitable Boy
, there were also tender love songs such as "Accidentally Like a Martyr" and "Tenderness on the Block."
By the time success reached Zevon, his drinking problem also reached an apex. According to the late Paul Nelson's 1980 Rolling Stone
cover story on Zevon, in late 1978 Zevon took the .357 magnum pictured on the inner sleeve of Excitable Boy
and emptied the gun into the album cover (which is a close-up of his face). Zevon's wife and Jackson Browne set up an intervention program to confront Zevon with his alcoholic escapades. A visit from mystery writer Ross Macdonald, whose books Zevon read voraciously and could quote passages from verbatim, convinced Zevon that he needed help. He entered rehab, but even that could not save his marriage to Crystal. They divorced in 1979.
Zevon found a new spark in sobriety. In 1980 he released Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School
, filled with everything from a parting love song to his ex-wife ("Empty Handed Heart") to the autobiographical "Gorilla, You're a Desperado" to a cover of Ernie K-Doe's minor 1961 hit "A Certain Girl." Popular music, however, had undergone a massive change in the two years between Zevon albums, and Zevon's consistent sound was now out of step with the pop sounds of Christopher Cross or the new wave numbers by Blondie and the Knack. The album failed to match the success of Excitable Boy.
At the end of 1980, Stand in the Fire
was released, a live album showcasing the power of a Zevon live show. Rolling Stone
hailed it as one of the greatest live albums ever
In 1982 Zevon released The Envoy.
By that time, he was dating Knots Landing
co-star Kim Lankford. A number of Lankford's co-stars are on the cover of the album. The title song was written about Philip Habib, who at the time of the album's release was the U.S. envoy to the Middle East. Zevon sent a copy of the song to Habib, who replied to the singer.
Sales of each successive album after Excitable Boy,
however, were less and less. In 1983, Asylum Records dropped Zevon; however, they never notified him. Zevon read that he had been dropped from the label in the "Random Notes" section of Rolling Stone
. (He would later write about that in the song "Trouble Waiting to Happen.") With the combination of the break-up of his relationship with Kim Lankford, the unceremonious dismissal by Asylum, and the death of his literary hero Ross Macdonald, Zevon began drinking again. He went to Minnesota for rehabilitation, and got back on the wagon for good. He never drank again until near the end of his life, when he was dying from cancer.
Zevon made friends with Athens-based rockers R.E.M., who at the time were best-known as an underground/college band. They made some recordings together that were eventually released (more because of R.E.M.'s success) under the name "Hindu Love Gods" in 1989. The album featured covers of blues ("Mannish Boy"), country ("I'm a One-Woman Man") and modern rock (Prince's "Raspberry Beret").
The members of R.E.M. also backed Zevon on his first album on Virgin U.S. Records, Sentimental Hygiene
. One of the highlights of the album was "Detox Mansion," where Zevon humorously told the story of his recent rehab stay ("I've been raking leaves with Liza, me and Liz clean up the yard").
In 1989, Zevon released Transverse City,
an album that was musically a radical departure for Zevon. The album featured techno and synth music, but the lyrics were still unmistakable from Warren Zevon. The album marked the end of Zevon's stay on Virgin.
Zevon's next album, Mr. Bad Example
, was released on Giant Records in 1991. The album's title song was described by Zevon as the "world's first rock and roll polka song" and featured a tale of debauchery that one critic noted "no one ever thought to ask Zevon if it was autobiographical." The final song, "Searching for a Heart," contained one of friend David Letterman's favorite lines: "They say love conquers all, you can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun."
Zevon's music was used frequently in movies. "Werewolves of London" was on the soundtrack to The Color of Money,
and a Mr. Bad Example
cut became the title of the 1995 movie Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
. Zevon made a cameo in She's Having a Baby
at the end of the 1988 film to suggest a name for the baby. The name he picked was his music idol's first name: Igor.
Zevon made two more albums in the 90s, the 1993 live album Learning to Flinch
and 1995's Mutineer
. He took the rest of the 1990s off to, among other things, "learn to play the flute." Although not recording, Zevon was very busy. He was a frequent guest on David Letterman's shows (both the NBC Late Night with David Letterman
and CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman
), subbing when Paul Shaffer was on vacation.
In 2000, Zevon released Life'll Kill Ya
, an album heralded by many as Zevon's best work in years and one of his best albums ever. Zevon frequently used death in his work (i.e., "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead"), so an album filled with references to death was nothing new. The follow-up, My Ride's Here
, also featured implicit references to death ("You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared," "I Have to Leave," and the lyrics of the title track imply that the "ride" is a hearse). The references would prove prophetic.
One song on Life'll Kill Ya
(the title of which is not repeatable here) featured Zevon going to the doctor to be told that his "stuff" was "messed up." In Augst 2002, Zevon went to the doctor on the advice of his dentist because of constant shortness of breath. The diagnosis was lung cancer; more specifically, mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos. The cancer had spread from his lungs to his liver. Zevon was told he had three months to live.
Instead of lying down to die, Zevon went to the studio to work on an album. The result was The Wind
, an album partially about his diagnosis and partly a goodbye, but all in all life-affirming. The album featured many of Zevon's friends and frequent collaborators, including T-Bone Burnett (who co-wrote "Bed of Coals"), Bruce Springsteen (who co-wrote "Jeannie Needs a Shooter"), Dwight Yoakam (who sang back-up on "Heartache Spoken Here" and appeared with Zevon in the 2000 movie South of Heaven, West of Hell
), and Eagles Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. The album was released on August 26, 2003 to unanimous praise. VH-1 chronicled the recording of the album and aired the documentary as the first episode of a new series titled InsideOut
Zevon's last public performance was on dear friend David Letterman's show on October 30, 2002, where he was Letterman's only guest. On the show, he spoke candidly but with typical Zevon humor about his diagnosis. He performed three songs, "Mutineer," "Genius," and (at Letterman's request) "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." He also coined a phrase: when Letterman asked what he had learned from receiving a terminal diagnosis, Zevon replied that the main thing he had learned was "how you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich." The phrase would become the title of a tribute album in 2004.
Just twelve days after the release of The Wind
, Warren Zevon died in his sleep on Sunday, September 7, 2003. He was 56 years of age. He was survived by a son, Jordan, from his first marriage to Tule Livingston (who would die six months after Zevon, also of cancer), and daughter Ariel (who is an actress) from his marriage to Crystal.
In February 2004 The Wind
was nominated for five Grammy awards. It won two: Best Vocal Rock Performance, Duo or Group (for "Disorder in the House" with Bruce Springsteen), and "Best Contemporary Folk Album. The Grammy Awards broadcast featured many of the artists who had helped Zevon make The Wind
singing along with a video of Zevon to "Keep Me in Your Heart."
Jordan Zevon, in addition to his music career, has become a spokesman for mesothelioma awareness.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
by Crystal Zevon. Warren's second wife (the mother of Ariel Zevon) looks back at Warren's popularity during the Excitable Boy
era and his battle with the bottle.
(chronologically by original release/recording)
The First Sessions
Zevon Wanted Dead or Alive
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School
Stand in the Fire
A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon
Hindu Love Gods
(recordeded 1986, released in 1990)
Mr. Bad Example
Learning to Flinch
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: An Anthology
Life'll Kill Ya
My Ride's Here
Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon
Reconsider Me: The Love Songs
Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings
Enjoy Every Sandwich