Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003) was a Grammy Award-winning American rock singer-songwriter and musician. He was noted for his offbeat, sardonic view of life which was reflected in his dark, sometimes humorous songs, which often incorporated political or historical themes.
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 (in a '60s-ish affectation, 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 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" and "A Bullet for Ramona". Zevon's second effort, Leaf in the Wind, was scrapped (though a belated release was contemplated just prior to his death). In the early '70s, Zevon toured regularly with the Everly Brothers as keyboard player and band leader/musical coordinator. 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".
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 "Desperadoes 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.
Zevon followed Excitable Boy with 1980s 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 second wife Crystal 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.
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 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.
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 humorous 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 an 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 a Hindu Love Gods album.
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, 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.
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.
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 Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and Mitch Albom. Zevon also served as musical coordinator 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 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, superagent 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, Zevon is shown seated in a hearse on the cover), 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.
In interviews, Zevon described a lifelong phobia of doctors and said he seldom received medical assessment. In 2002, 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; ironically, 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.
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 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 acapella 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 comprised of interwoven interviews from many of Zevon's friends and associates, and is notable for its unvarnished portrayal of Zevon (reputedly at his request).
In 2006, Zevon's song "Lawyers, Guns and Money" was used as the theme song for producer Jerry Bruckheimer's short-lived Fox network TV 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.
In 2006, Zevon's song "Keep Me In Your Heart" (The Wind, 2003) was included in the Boston Legal season 2 episode "Too Much Information", which features Michael J. Fox portraying a man dying of lung cancer, a situation not unlike Zevon's when he wrote the song.
"Keep Me In Your Heart" also appeared in the TV show According to Jim, as the background music for a montage video, as the main character reluctantly celebrates his 50th birthday.
In 2008, Zevon's song "My Shit's Fucked Up" appeared at the end of the Californication season 2 premiere as David Duchovny's character was being beaten by a police officer and his newly reformed relationship seemed to be falling apart again.