Singer/songwriter Warren Zevon's ironic tales of physical and psychological mayhem have earned him a cult following and comparisons to figures as diverse as Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese.
The son of Russian immigrants, Zevon grew up in Arizona and California. He studied music briefly, and after meeting Igor Stravinsky during his junior high school years, Zevon taught himself to play guitar and began writing songs. He played in local bands and at age 16 moved to New York, then to the Bay Area. He wrote songs (including "She Quit Me Man," used in the film Midnight Cowboy) and released his debut LP, Wanted —Dead or Alive. It was poorly received, and he went to work writing jingles (for Ernest and Julio Gallo wine ads, a famous ketchup, and the Chevrolet Camaro) and as a pianist and bandleader for the Everly Brothers shortly before their breakup. Over the next couple of years he continued to work with each brother separately.
In 1976 Linda Ronstadt covered Zevon's "Hasten Down the Wind" on her album of the same title. The next year two more of Zevon's songs appeared on Ronstadt's Simple Dreams: "Carmelita" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," the latter of which was a hit for Ronstadt in 1978. Zevon, who had been living in Spain, was persuaded by his friend Jackson Browne to return to the U.S. and record. Browne produced Warren Zevon, which was released to critical acclaim; he would produce or coproduce all of Zevon's albums through and including A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon.
In 1978 Zevon had a #21 single with "Werewolves of London" from Excitable Boy (#8). But his career was temporarily set back by his alcoholism. He did not record for two years, and his live performances were few and erratic. His two 1980 releases, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (#20) and the live Stand in the Fire (#20), represented something of a comeback for Zevon. He announced he had given up alcohol and he released The Envoy (#93, 1982), the title track written about U.S. envoy to the Mideast Philip Habib. Sentimental Hygiene (#87, 1987) appeared five years later, with backing from members of R.E.M. He also recorded with three-quarters of that group under the name Hindu Love Gods in 1990.
While Zevon continues to be appreciated by critics, his sometimes edgy, satirical work eludes the mass audience. Transverse City, a science-fiction-inspired concept album, and Mr. Bad Example were not received as warmly as Zevon's earlier work. But starting with his second live album, 1993's Learning to Flinch, Zevon bounced back, showing that he retains his unique, original vision and remains a compelling writer and performer. And he also has a circle of dedicated admirers: He was invited to perform "Lawyers, Guns and Money" at Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura's inauguration party in 1998, and he is a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman, occasionally filling in for bandleader Paul Shaffer. The pared-down Life'll Kill Ya (which included a cover of Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life Again") was released in 2000 to excellent reviews.
In the early 1990s, Zevon composed and/or performed a number of theme songs and scores for television series, including The Drug Wars (1990), Tales From the Crypt (1992), Route 66 (1993), and Tekwar (1993).
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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