Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003) was a Grammy-award winning American rock/folk singer-songwriter and musician noted for weaving his offbeat, sardonic view of life into his music, composing dark, sometimes humorous songs often laced with political or historical themes.
Zevon's best-known compositions include "Werewolves of London", "Lawyers, Guns and Money", "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Johnny Strikes Up the Band", all of which are featured on his 1978 release, Excitable Boy. Other well known Zevon songs include "Accidentally Like a Martyr", "Mutineer" and "Mohammed's Radio".
Along with his own compositions Zevon recorded an occasional cover, including Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan". He was a frequent guest on The David Letterman Show and substituted for bandleader Paul Schaffer on occasion.
Zevon was born in Chicago, Illinois to William "Stumpy" Zevon (formerly "Zivotovsky") and Beverly Cope Simmons, a Mormon from Salt Lake City, Utah. "Stumpy" Zevon was a boxer, small-time criminal and Mickey Cohen associate of Russian Jewish origin and a relative of folk/blues-singer, Jedaiah Zivotovsky, they soon moved to California. By the age of 13, Zevon was an occasional visitor to the home of Igor Stravinsky where he, alongside Robert Craft, briefly studied modern classical music. Zevon's parents divorced when he was 16 and he soon quit high school and moved from Los Angeles to New York to become a folk singer.
Zevon turned to a musical career early, including a stretch with high school friend Violet Santangelo as part of a Sonny and Cher-type male/female duo called lyme & cybelle (exercising artistic license, the band name eschewed capitalization). He spent time as a session musician (notably as piano player and band leader for the Everly Brothers) and jingle composer. He wrote jingles under the pen name "Barry Manilow". He wrote several songs for his White Whale label-mates The Turtles ("Like the Seasons" and "Outside Chance"), though his participation in their recording is unknown. In the 1960s, Zevon also toured and recorded with Manfred Mann. Another early composition ("She Quit Me") was included in the soundtrack for the film Midnight Cowboy (1969). Zevon's first attempt at a solo album, Wanted Dead or Alive (1969), was produced by 1960s cult figure Kim Fowley but did not fare well in the marketplace. Flashes of Zevon's later writing preoccupations of romantic loss and noir-ish violence are present in songs like "Tule's Blues", "A Bullet for Ramona", and the album's title track. Zevon's second effort, Leaf in the Wind, was scrapped (though a belated release was contemplated just prior to his death). In the early 1970s, Zevon toured regularly with the Everly Brothers as keyboard player and band leader/musical coordinator. He later toured and recorded with Don Everly and Phil Everly, separately, as they tried to launch solo careers following their break-up. His dissatisfaction with his career led him to move to Spain in the summer of 1975, where he played in a small bar in Sitges near Barcelona owned by David Lindell, a former mercenary. Together they penned Zevon's classic "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner".
Return to L.A. and major-label debut
In the mid-1970s, Zevon returned to Los Angeles, where he roomed with then-unknown Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham and became associated with the then-burgeoning West Coast music scene. There, he collaborated with Jackson Browne, who in 1976 would produce and promote Zevon's self-titled major-label debut. Contributors to this album included Nicks, Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt. Ronstadt elected to record many of his songs, including "Hasten Down the Wind", "Carmelita", "Poor Poor Pitiful Me", and "Mohammed's Radio". Zevon's first tour in 1977 included guest appearances in the middle of Jackson Browne concerts, one of which is documented on a widely circulated bootleg recording of a Dutch radio program under the title The Offender Meets the Pretender.
Though a much darker and more ironic songwriter than Browne and other leading figures of the era's L.A.-based singer-songwriter movement, Zevon shared with his '70s L.A. peers a grounding in earlier folk and country influences and a commitment to a writerly style of songcraft with roots in the work of artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Though only a modest commercial success, the Browne-produced Warren Zevon (1976) would later be labelled a masterpiece in the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide and is cited in the book's most recently revised (November 2004) edition as Zevon's most realized work. Representative tracks include the junkie's lament "Carmelita", the Copland-esque outlaw ballad "Frank and Jesse James", "The French Inhaler", a scathing insider's look at life and lust on the L.A. music scene and "Desperados Under the Eaves", a chronicle of Zevon's growing alcoholism. It was during this period that Zevon's excessive vodka intake earned him the nickname "F. Scott Fitzevon," a reference to the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose early, alcohol-fueled death Zevon seemed bent on repeating.
Success - Not just a four letter word
In 1978, Zevon released his breakthrough album, Excitable Boy, to critical acclaim and popular success. The title tune (about a juvenile sociopath's murderous prom night) name-checked "Little Susie", the heroine of former employers the Everly Brothers' signature tune "Wake Up Little Susie", while songs such as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" used deadpan humour to wed geopolitical subtexts to hard-boiled narratives. Tracks from this album received heavy FM airplay and the single release "Werewolves of London", which featured Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, was a relatively lighthearted version of Zevon's signature macabre outlook and a Top 30 hit. Rolling Stone called the album one of the most significant releases of the 1970s and placed Zevon alongside Neil Young, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen as one of the four most important new artists to emerge in the decade. Years later, Bob Dylan would use a line from Zevon's lyrics for "Accidentally Like a Martyr" as the title of his album, Time Out of Mind.
Zevon followed Excitable Boy with 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. This album was dedicated to Ken Millar, better known under his nom-de-plume as detective novelist Ross Macdonald. Millar was a literary hero of Zevon's who met the singer for the first time while participating in an intervention organized by Rolling Stone journalist Paul Nelson that helped Zevon temporarily kick his substance addictions. Featuring a modest novelty hit with the single "A Certain Girl" (Zevon's cover of an old R&B novelty record by Ernie K-Doe scraped its way to #45 on the Billboard Singles Chart), the album sold briskly but was uneven, and signaled a decline rather than a step toward commercial and critical consistency. It contained a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen called "Jeannie Needs A Shooter", and the ballad "Empty-Handed Heart" dealing with Zevon's divorce from wife Crystal (Marilyn "Tule" Livingston -- the mother of Jordan Zevon -- and Zevon were in long-term relationship but never married: Crystal Zevon is the only woman he legally married although she is often erroneously listed as his "second wife") and featuring a descant sung by Linda Ronstadt. Later in 1980, he released the live album Stand in the Fire (dedicated to Martin Scorsese), recorded over five nights at the The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.
Personal crisis and first comeback
Zevon's 1982 release The Envoy is perhaps the least known of his major label studio albums, an erratic but characteristic set that included such compositions as "Charlie's Medicine" and "Jesus Mentioned", the first of Zevon's two musical reactions to the death of Elvis Presley (the other is the song "Porcelain Monkey" on Life'll Kill Ya in 2000). The title track was dedicated to Philip Habib, US special envoy to the Middle East during the early 1980s. In the liner notes for the 1996 I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology), Zevon stated that after the song came out, Habib sent him "a very nice letter of appreciation on State Department stationery". The lyrics from another track, "The Hula Hula Boys", were excerpted in Hunter S. Thompson's 1983 book, The Curse of Lono. The Envoy was the first Zevon album to feature his son Jordan Zevon.
After the disappointing reception for The Envoy, Zevon was dropped by his label Asylum Records, which Zevon discovered only when he read about it in the "Random Notes" gossip column of The Rolling Stone. The trauma caused him to relapse into serious alcoholism, and he voluntarily checked himself into an unnamed rehab clinic somewhere in Minnesota. Zevon retreated from the music business for several years, during which he finally overcame severe alcohol and drug addictions. It was after this in 1986 that he released his compilation album A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon.
In this interim period, Zevon collaborated with Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills (all of R.E.M.), along with backup vocalist Bryan Cook to form a loose side project called Hindu Love Gods. The group released the non-charting single "Narrator" on the IRS label in 1984, then went into abeyance for several years. Berry, Buck and Mills served as the core of Zevon's next studio band when he re-emerged in 1987 by signing with Virgin Records and recording the album Sentimental Hygiene. The release, hailed as his best since Excitable Boy, featured a thicker rock sound and taut, often humourous songs like "Detox Mansion," "Bad Karma" (which featured R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe on backup vocals), and "Reconsider Me". Included were contributions from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, George Clinton, as well as Berry, Buck, and Mills. Also on hand were longtime collaborators Jorge Calderón and Waddy Wachtel.
During the Sentimental Hygiene sessions, Zevon also participated in a reputably drunk all-night jam session with Berry, Buck and Mills, as they worked their way through rock and blues numbers by the likes of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Prince. Though the sessions were not initially intended for release, they would eventually see the light of day as the album Hindu Love Gods.
The immediate follow-up to Sentimental Hygiene was 1989's Transverse City, a futuristic concept album inspired by Zevon's interest in the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson. It featured guests including Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, keyboard player Chick Corea and guitarists Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Neil Young. Key tracks include the title song, "Splendid Isolation", "Run Straight Down" (which had a promotional video that featured Zevon singing in a factory while Gilmour played his guitar solos) and "They Moved the Moon", the latter among Zevon's eerier ballads.
Later years and second comeback
Transverse City was a commercial disappointment, and Virgin Records let Zevon go shortly after the album's release. Zevon, however, almost immediately signed with Giant Records, and the first issue under Zevon's contract with his new label was the self-titled Hindu Love Gods album recorded during the Sentimental Hygiene sessions. The album included a cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret," which became a #23 Modern Rock hit in the United States.
In 1991, Zevon, once again a solo artist, released Mr. Bad Example. This album featured the modest pop hit "Searching for a Heart" and the rocker "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead", later utilized for the title of the neo-noir film of the same name directed by Gary Fleder; after some skirmishing over the unauthorized use of Zevon's song title, the Zevon track was licensed to play over the film's end credits.
Zevon toured the United States (with the Odds), Europe, and Australia and New Zealand during this period, notably playing cover versions of Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" alongside Zevon's usual staple of songs.
Owing to his reduced circumstances, his performances were often true solo efforts (with minimal accompaniment on piano and guitar); 1993's live Learning to Flinch documents such a tour. The disc received some airplay on college radio and was considered Zevon's Unplugged. Zevon often played in Colorado to allow for an opportunity to visit with his long-time friend Hunter S. Thompson.
A lifelong fan of "hard-boiled" fiction, Zevon was close to several prominent writers who also collaborated on his songwriting during this period, including Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and Mitch Albom. Zevon also served as musical coordinator and occasional guitarist for an ad-hoc rock group called the Rock Bottom Remainders, a collection of writers performing rock and roll standards at book fairs and other events. This group included Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening and Amy Tan, among other popular writers, and it has continued to perform one benefit concert per year since Zevon's death. An affiliated project Zevon both played on and wrote liner notes for is the offbeat 1998 album Stranger Than Fiction, a two CD set attributed to the Wrockers containing rock covers and originals by many of the Remainders authors plus such notables as Norman Mailer and Maya Angelou. Zevon oversaw music for the short-lived revival of the NBC series Route 66 (1993), contributing that series' main title theme, "If You Won't Leave Me I'll Find Somebody Who Will".
Occasionally, between 1982 and 2001, Zevon filled in for Paul Shaffer as bandleader on Late Night with David Letterman and later The Late Show with David Letterman. One example was in 1998 when Shaffer traveled to Canada to film his cameo in Blues Brothers 2000.
In 1995, Zevon released the self-produced Mutineer. The title track was frequently covered by Bob Dylan live on tour in the 2000s, and Zevon's cover of cult artist Judee Sill's "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" predated the wider rediscovery of her work a decade later. The album, however, suffered the worst sales of Zevon's career, in part because his label, super agent Irving Azoff's short-lived Giant Records, was in the process of going out of business. Rhino Records released a Zevon "best-of" compilation that same year, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology). Zevon also appeared on the Larry Sanders Show on HBO, playing himself as a guest on the show.
After another five-year layoff, Zevon signed with industry veteran Danny Goldberg's Artemis Records and again rebounded with the mortality-themed 2000 release Life'll Kill Ya, containing the hymn-like "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and an austere version of Steve Winwood's '80s hit "Back in the High Life Again". With record sales reasonably brisk and adulatory music critics giving Zevon his best notices since Excitable Boy, Life'll Kill Ya is seen as his second comeback. He followed with 2002's My Ride's Here (with morbid prescience of things to come), which included "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" (which was co-written by Tuesdays with Morrie author Mitch Albom, and featured a spoken guest vocal from TV host David Letterman) and the ballad "Genius", later taken as the title for a 2002 Zevon anthology, and a song whose string section illustrates the lasting influence of Stravinsky on Zevon's work.
At about this time, he and actor Billy Bob Thornton formed a close friendship, bonding over their common experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Cancer, death and The Wind
In interviews, Zevon described a lifelong phobia of doctors and said he seldom received medical assessment. Shortly before playing at the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2002, he started feeling dizzy and developed a chronic cough. After a long period of untreated illness and pain, Zevon was encouraged by his dentist to see a physician; when he did so he was diagnosed with inoperable mesothelioma (a form of cancer associated with exposure to asbestos, and also the same cancer that killed Steve McQueen). Refusing treatments he believed might incapacitate him, Zevon instead began recording his final album. The album, The Wind, includes guest appearances by close friends including Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, David Lindley, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and others. At the request of the music television channel VH1, documentarian Nick Read was given access to the sessions; his cameras documented a man who retained his mordant sense of humor, even as his health was deteriorating over time.
On October 30, 2002, Zevon was featured on The Late Show with David Letterman as the only guest for the entire hour. The band played "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" as his introduction. Zevon performed several songs and spoke at length about his illness. Zevon was a frequent guest and occasional substitute bandleader on Letterman's television shows since Late Night first aired in 1982. He noted, "I may have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years". It was during this broadcast that Zevon first offered his oft-quoted insight on facing death: "Enjoy every sandwich". He also took time to thank Letterman for his years of support, calling him "the best friend my music's ever had". For his final song of the evening, and his final public performance, Zevon performed "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" at Letterman's request. In the green room after the show, Zevon presented Letterman with the guitar that he always used on the show, with a single request: "Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it".
Zevon previously stated that his illness was expected to be terminal within months after the diagnosis in the fall of 2002; however, he lived to see the birth of twin grandsons in June 2003 and the release of The Wind on August 26, 2003. Owing in part to the first VH1 broadcasts of Nick Read's documentary Warren Zevon: Keep Me In Your Heart (which brought fresh attention to Zevon's illness), the album entered the national record charts at number 16, Zevon's highest placement since Excitable Boy. When his diagnosis became public, Zevon told the media that he just hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie, a goal he accomplished; coincidentally, the film was entitled Die Another Day.
Warren Zevon died on September 7, 2003, aged 56, at his home in Los Angeles, California. The Wind was certified gold by the RIAA in December 2003 and Zevon received five posthumous Grammy nominations, including Song Of The Year for the ballad "Keep Me In Your Heart". The Wind won two Grammys, with the album itself receiving the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, while "Disorder in the House", Zevon's duet with Bruce Springsteen, was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These posthumous awards were the first Grammys of Zevon's more than 30-year career.
He was cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles.
Posthumous releases and biographical works
A tribute album titled Enjoy Every Sandwich: Songs of Warren Zevon was released October 19, 2004. Zevon's son, Jordan Zevon, did a large part of the work on the album and performed "Studebaker", a previously unreleased Warren Zevon composition. A second tribute album, titled Hurry Home Early: the Songs of Warren Zevon (the line "hurry home early" is from the song "Boom Boom Mancini", on Sentimental Hygiene) was released by Wampus Multimedia on July 8, 2005. A compilation of early Zevon recordings, such as those from his days in lyme & cybelle, were released previously in 2003 as The First Sessions,
On February 14, 2006, VH1 Classic premiered a music video from a new compilation, Reconsider Me: The Love Songs. The video, titled "She's Too Good For Me", aired every hour on the hour throughout the day.
First-ever CD issues of the Zevon albums Stand in the Fire and The Envoy were released on March 27, 2007 by Rhino Records alongside a Rhino re-issue of Excitable Boy, with the three albums remastered and expanded from all previous versions by four tracks each. Noteworthy rarities in these editions include the outtakes "Word of Mouth" and "The Risk" from The Envoy sessions and "Frozen Notes" (Strings Version), a melancholic outtake from Excitable Boy performed on acoustic piano with a string quartet in the style of 1976's Warren Zevon LP. Also included on the expanded Excitable Boy CD is the brief but hilarious "I Need A Truck", Zevon's first-ever a cappella studio release.
On May 1, 2007, Ammal Records, the new label started up as a partnership with New West Records by Zevon's former boss at Artemis Danny Goldberg, released Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, a two-disc anthology of Zevon demos and alternate versions culled from 126 pre-1976 recordings found inside an old road case after Zevon's death. The album contains five previously unreleased songs: "Empty Hearted Town", "Going All the Way", "Steady Rain", "Stop Rainin` Lord" and "The Rosarita Beach Cafe", along with Zevon's original demo for "Studebaker", the song performed by Jordan Zevon on Enjoy Every Sandwich. Selections from an interview between Zevon and Austin-based radio personality Jody Denberg are blended with about 40 minutes of music on the collection's second disc.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, a biography/oral history compiled by ex-wife Crystal Zevon, was published in 2007 by Ecco Books. The book is made up of interwoven interviews from many of Zevon's friends and associates, and is notable for its unvarnished portrayal of Zevon (reputedly at his request).
References in popular culture
In 2006, Zevon's song "Lawyers, Guns and Money" was used as the theme song for producer Jerry Bruckheimer's short-lived Fox network television series Justice. The series ended after only 13 episodes. Coincidentally, seven years earlier Zevon's song "Even A Dog Can Shake Hands" was used as the theme song for the show Action, which also ran for 13 episodes.
"Lawyers, Guns and Money" was also included in the closing credits of Alex Gibney's documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson, it should be noted, was a friend of Zevon's.
In 2006, Zevon's song "Keep Me In Your Heart" (The Wind, 2003) was included in the Boston Legal season two episode "Too Much Information", which features Michael J. Fox portraying a man dying of lung cancer, a situation not unlike Zevon's. "Lawyers, Guns and Money" was also featured in the Boston Legal episode "...There's Fire."
In October of 2007, Kid Rock released "Rock and Roll Jesus" which featured the hit song "All Summer Long," a track that featured Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" as the main melody. This has caused some controversy as many don't see it as a homage but plagiarism.
"Keep Me In Your Heart" also appeared in the television show According to Jim, as the background music for a montage video, as the main character reluctantly celebrates his 50th birthday.
References to Zevon and his music abound in the Showtime television series Californication; the show references Zevon lyrics in dialogue, and his music appears frequently in the show. "Mohammed's Radio" appeared in "California Son", episode eight of the first season, and a cover of "Reconsider Me" by Steve Earle & Reckless Kelly appears in that season's finale. Hank Moody's Daughter's band also plays a brief cover of Zevon's "Don't Let Us Get Sick". "My Shit's Fucked Up" appeared at the end of the second season premiere as David Duchovny's character was being beaten by a police officer, and two versions of "Keep Me in Your Heart", one by Zevon and one by Jorge Calderón, were used in "La Petite Mort," the second season finale in which David Duchovny's character finishes up Lew Ashby's book—titled 'The Dirty Life and Times of Lew Ashby,' yet another Zevon reference.
Many artists have cited Zevon as being an influence including: Josh Groban, Tommy Krash, Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, Jon Bon Jovi, Taylor Dayne, Garth Brooks, Jim Jidhed, Art DeMatteis and Arnel Pineda.
- Wanted Dead or Alive - 1969
- Warren Zevon - 1976
- Excitable Boy - 1978
- Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School - 1980
- Stand in the Fire - 1980
- The Envoy - 1982
- A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon - 1986
- Sentimental Hygiene - 1987
- Transverse City - 1989
- Hindu Love Gods - 1990
- Mr. Bad Example - 1991
- Learning to Flinch - 1993
- Mutineer - 1995
- I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology) - 1996
- Life'll Kill Ya - 2000
- My Ride's Here - 2002
- Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon - 2002
- The First Sessions - 2003
- The Wind - 2003
- Reconsider Me: The Love Songs - 2006
- Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings - 2007
- Warren Zevon (Collector's Edition; Remastered) - 2008
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