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.
— Carol Brennan