A year after learning he had an inoperable form of lung cancer — and more than twenty-five years after he began obsessing over death in song — Warren Zevon passed away in his Los Angeles home on Sunday; he was fifty-six.
Zevon was born in January 1947 in Chicago, the son of Russian immigrants, and grew up in Arizona and California. After meeting composer Igor Stravinsky, he began to study music in junior high and started a few local bands in high school. In 1969, Zevon recorded his debut album, Wanted: Dead or Alive, which generated almost no interest. He threw himself into musical odd jobs, including writing jingles (for Ernest and Julio Gallo wines, to name one) as well as songs for the Turtles (“Outside Chance”) and serving as pianist and bandleader for the Everly Brothers.
Though Zevon initially had no luck putting his own music over, Linda Ronstadt made his “Hasten Down the Wind” the title track of her 1976 album. Zevon had been living in Europe at the time and was talked into returning to the U.S. by Jackson Browne, who produced Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album, which included “Hasten” in addition to other favorites-to-be like “Desperados Under the Eaves,” and “Poor Pitiful Me,” which Ronstadt covered and scored a hit with in 1978 (she has also put her stamp on Zevon’s “Carmelita” and “Mohammed’s Radio”).
Warren Zevon earned a warmer reception than Wanted, and almost plays out like his debut album. Two years later, it was followed by Excitable Boy, which paired the more fragile songcraft of the self-titled album with gonzo bursts of cartoonish violence on “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Excitable Boy.” Zevon’s role as rock’s macabre jester worked for him, as Excitable Boy reached Number Eight on the charts in 1978 and included his only hit single, the iconic “Werewolves of London.” Three years ago, Zevon told Rolling Stone that the brutality of the songs was a mask to cover his other anxieties. “Sickness, doctors, that scares me,” Zevon said. “Not violence — helplessness. That’s why I turn to violent stories.”
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Two years later, Zevon issued Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, which reached Number Twenty on the charts. The larger-scale popularity of his previous album began to wane, but Zevon had established a foundation for cult fandom that would keep him in business for the next two decades.
Zevon struggled with alcoholism and had kicked the habit before releasing The Envoy in 1982, but a fall off the wagon and its ensuing publicity would prompt a five-year hiatus before he sobered up again and released Sentimental Hygiene. The album boasted a bigger sound and songs like “Detox Mansion” and “Trouble Waiting to Happen” that addressed his alcohol addiction and media coverage of it. The album also featured music by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, with whom Zevon would later record an album as the Hindu Love Gods in 1990.
In the Nineties, Zevon recorded Mr. Bad Example (1991), Mutineer (1995) and Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), which featuring beautiful ballads (like “Mutineer”) along with obsessive musings on death and failure (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” “My Shit’s Fucked Up”). He would also turn up on David Letterman’s late night talk show in the Nineties to fill in for musical director Paul Shaffer.
And while none of the albums put Zevon’s name back into the Top Forty, he retained a reliable legion of listeners — particularly among musicians (including Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty) and writers (Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiassen) — drawn to the lovely, awful duality of his music. As for the writers, Thompson, Hiassen, Paul Muldoon and Mitch Albom contributed lyrics to Zevon’s 2002 release, My Ride’s Here.
Hiassen’s novel Native Tongue included a protagonist who played Zevon’s music “in whatever state of despair or frustration he was in,” the author says. A few years later, at a book signing in Los Angeles, Zevon was among the readers in line. “I looked up and I couldn’t believe it,” Hiassen says. “I’d never met him or anything, I had all his music, but he introduced himself very politely and said, ‘I’d like to thank you for mentioning my music in your book.'”
After his diagnosis last September, Zevon set about to make a final album. Several of his musical friends, including Springsteen, Petty, Ry Cooder and Don Henley, offered their services, and the result was The Wind released two weeks ago. Though My Ride’s Here only mustered sales of 34,000 in more than a year, death was up for a collaboration on The Wind, prompting almost 50,000 people to snap up copies of the album in its first week, giving Zevon his first Top Forty album (Number Sixteen) in twenty-five years.
More important than sales figures was the album’s role as Zevon’s farewell note. Songs like “She’s Too Good for Me” and “El Amor de Mi Vida” found him in sentimental mode, making amends with some whom he has left behind and “My Dirty Life and Times” is self-deprecating and smirking. And the closing “Keep Me in Your Heart” was as earnest and vulnerable as he ever allowed himself to be on record.