For the last act of his remarkable career, Warren Zevon achieved the impossible: “He got to attend his own funeral,” says his friend Jackson Browne with a fond laugh. No one in rock & roll deserved it more. For more than three decades, Zevon — who died of lung cancer on September 7th at the age of fifty-six, at his home in Los Angeles — addressed the high costs of hard living in songs such as “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” “Excitable Boy” and “My Ride’s Here,” with incisive comic detail and, as Browne puts it, “a fierce defiance, charging into that single fact of life: that it comes to a close.” In return, Zevon had the last word on his own mortality.
In August 2002, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare, lethal cancer that was devouring his lungs and liver. Zevon’s doctors gave him three months to live. Instead, he got an eternity: an entire year. He didn’t waste it. Shortly after his diagnosis, Zevon issued a public statement about his illness, then immediately set to work writing and recording The Wind, a final album of frank goodbyes, wry reflections and outright party songs, with an all-star cast of comrades including Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. That October, between sessions, Zevon flew to New York to give a poignant farewell live performance on Late Show With David Letterman.
Zevon also lived to attend the birth in June of his first grandchildren, twins to his daughter Ariel, and watch the August premiere on VHI of Keep Me in Your Heart, a gripping documentary of Zevon’s fighting spirit and failing health during the making of The Wind. Then, a few days before he died, Zevon learned that The Wind had sold more than 47,000 copies in its debut week of release and would enter the Billboard chart at Number Sixteen — his first Top Twenty album since 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.
“Warren did what he did at the end with the same kind of bravery that he approached the necessity and challenge of getting sober,” says Browne, referring to Zevon’s triumph over alcoholism in the early 1980s. “He did it publicly, and with a determination that allowed him to succeed.”
“Heaven knows, I’ve been pounding this subject into the ground for decades,” Zevon said with a baritone chuckle when I interviewed him last fall, just after he had started recording The Wind. “You get in front of people and say, ‘Here’s this deal we all dread. But here’s some laughs.’ I don’t see what harm it could do.” Yet there were moments in his last year when even Zevon ran out of jokes and stoicism. Making The Wind “was like a drug the creativity, the people that were coming to play, the beauty of the music,” says his good friend and longtime collaborator Jorge Calderón, who co-produced the album and co-wrote seven of its eleven songs with Zevon. “But there was also the other side of it for him: ‘This is all happening because I’m dying.’ ” Near the end, Calderón adds, Zevon did not read many of the rave reviews he got for The Wind “because they all talked about him dying. I remember him telling me, ‘Just tell me the good news.’ ”
Warren William Zevon was born in Chicago on January 24th, 1947 — the only son of a professional gambler (his Russian-Jewish father) and a Mormon (his Scottish-Welsh mother) — and raised in California, where he cut some singles in 1966 as half of a folk-rock duo, Lyme and Cybelle, and had two early songs covered by the Turtles. Zevon’s only major commercial success came in 1978 when “Werewolves of London,” a hilarious blues march about bloody debauchery, went Top Thirty. He sabotaged his career with heavy drinking; at the turn of the 1980s, he was living the noirish extremes he captured with such cutting language and hard-boiled candor in “Excitable Boy” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”
“He was able to laugh about the modern world and horrify you at the same time,” Browne says. “He could depict the place where those things meet, where you find the desire to go on living in spite of it all.” Unfortunately, for a time, Browne adds, “he fully volunteered to undergo whatever trial by fire was necessary to get at the truth.”
Zevon later dissected his hard-won sobriety with the same aggressive enthusiasm on the 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene, and he was already examining dying in droll detail, on Life’ll Kill Ya (2000) and My Ride’s Here (2002), before he found out about his cancer. “But the loving side I know was bigger than that other side,” says Calderón, citing exquisite Zevon ballads such as “Hasten Down the Wind,” “The French Inhaler” and “Accidentally Like a Martyr.” “You cannot write love songs like that if you don’t have a heart as big as the evening sky. You have to be able to love that intensely — and that was Warren.”
Except for that big trip to the hospital to see his grandchildren being born, Zevon spent nearly all of his last months at home, resting, recording some final vocals for The Wind and watching movies. And he died there “the way he wanted to die,” says Brigette Barr, who was Zevon’s manager, “without tubes and machines keeping him alive” — and secure in the knowledge that, blessed with so much extra precious time, he had used it wisely. Several days before Zevon died, he and Calderón spoke for the last time.
“I had the chance to tell him a few little stories that made him real happy,” Calderón recalls. “Then we talked about the album. And the last thing he told me was three words: ‘We had fun.’ ”