Born on January 24, 1947, in Chicago, IL. Married Tule Dillow, c. 1970s (divorced), married Crystal Bedford, c. 1970s;. children: Jordan, Ariel; Died, September 7, 2003, Los Angeles, California. Addresses: Record company--Artemis Records, 130 Fitth Ave., 7th Fl., NY, New York, 10011, website: http://www.artemisrecords.com. Website--http://www.warrenzevon.com;.
Warren Zevon's career took almost as many strange twists and turns as the stories of the bizarre characters in his songs. His lyrics were consistently called ironic and darkly humorous. In one last mordant, even macabre, twist, Zevon's greates t critical and commercial success would be The Wind, the album he recorded as he knew he was dying from cancer. He would not live long enough to celebrate his first-ever Grammy nominations and awards. The range of his lyrics, co mbined with his talents as a musician and composer, made Zevon a long-standing favorite of critics, fellow musicians, and devoted fans.
Zevon grew up in California and Arizona, but moved frequently thanks to his father's profession: professional gambler. Zevon spent his youth studying classical piano, but at 16 he ran away. His parents were divorced and he was getting into scr aps with the law. He reportedly took off for New York in a Corvette his father had won, taking his guitar with him. He tried to make his way as a folksinger with little luck.
Zevon moved to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles. There, he became part of a duo called Lyme and Cybelle, which resulted in his being offered session work. He began meeting other young singers and singer-songwriters who would come to be known as ar tists who formed the bedrock of the unmistakable sounding 1970s California rock scene. These included Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and members of the Eagles such as Timothy B. Schmidt. Zevon was busy writing his own songs, and one of his compositions, "She Got Me Man," appeared in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Finally in 1969 he got the opportunity to record his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive, which flopped.
He resumed session work. Zevon worked as a musical director and band member for the Everly Brothers shortly before the duo dissolved. In 1974, he went to Spain, where he played piano in a club for tourists. Meanwhile, Zevon's friends in California w ere working on his behalf. Linda Ronstadt recorded several Zevon songs including "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" and made his "Hasten Down the Wind" the title track of a 1976 album. The most significant help came from Jackson Browne, who persuaded Asyl um to release a solo album by Zevon, which Browne produced. The result, Warren Zevon, while not a big commercial success, did well enough with the public and with critics to give Zevon the opportunity to record again.
Browne and Ronstadt both aided with the new album as did Waddy Wachtel, Ronstadt's guitarist, who became a regular collaborator with Zevon. The result was 1978's Excitable Boy, which went gold and contained such hits as "E xcitable Boy," "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," as well as the hit "Werewolves of London." The popularity of "Werewolves of London" surprised Zevon, who told Stephen Fried of GQ that it was "a song that was really just a joke between friends." But that joke gave Zevon the clout to become a concert headliner.
Unfortunately Zevon would never match the commercial success of Excitable Boy in his lifetime. His next album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, made it into the Top 20 in 1980; that same year he released a live album, Stand in the Fire, which, according to Irwin Stambler in The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, "caught much of the fervor and excellent musicianship that made Zevon shows am ong rock's best in the early 1980s." The Envoy, recorded in 1982, flopped commercially and was to be Zevon's last until 1987.
The move from obscurity to sudden stardom and then back off the charts mirrored the turmoil of Zevon's life in the late 1970s. Leaning on the same friends who had supported him musically, Zevon sought treatment for alcoholism. He took two years off. The Envoy was his first sober studio effort, but its lack of success cost him his recording deal with Asylum. Instead of writing new songs and seeking a new deal, Zevon took to the road, playing solo acoustic sets in small club s. Reflecting on that time to Fried in GQ, Zevon said that the notion that he was down and out during this time made a good story but not a true one: "I wasn't starving or anything. I was making a living as a musician. In fact, on a purely economic level, you can make more money touring that way than with a band." But the failure of this album cost him more than his deal. Zevon relapsed, but soon sought an even longer treatment regime plus therapy. He also married and divorced t wice.
Newly sober, Zevon continued to persevere. He told Fried, "I thought that when I had ten or twelve songs I'd get a deal." He did--with Virgin Records--and in 1987 Zevon released Sentimental Hygiene. As in the pas t, Zevon received musical help from his friends, who now included Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry of R.E.M. The trio performed on most of the album's tracks while Bob Dylan and Neil Young played on one song each. Speaking of how it felt to return t o the studio and tour with a band again, Zevon told Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone, "I sort of like starting my career over every seven years or so, or I sort of have to, whether I like to or not."
Zevon returned to his pace of releasing a new album every two years or so. 1989's Transverse City so turned away from his characteristic humor that even his mother noticed. In an interview with Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, Zevon confessed that his mother told him, "You know, dear, this album isn't funny."
The tone of Zevon's 1990 release was not humorous either. Hindu Love Gods, officially issued by a band of the same name, resulted from one day of recording with members of R.E.M. during the Sentimental Hygi ene sessions. It consisted entirely of covers from a diverse group of performers, including Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, the Georgia Satellites, and Prince. Paul Evans reviewed the album in Rolling Stone, saying, "It' s real roots rocking -- done by smart, delighted fans."
In 1991 Zevon returned to more characteristic territory with Mr. Bad Example, which featured "Model Citizen" and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead"--shining examples of his trademark sense of ironic humor. Cra ig Tomashoff's review of the album in People also summed up Zevon's career to date: "Few people in rock have Zevon's knack for spinning strange tales over memorable melodies. This will surely be the album that breaks him into th e big time. If not, guaranteed the next one will."
Zevon continued in search of seemingly elusive commercial success. By the mid '90s, he had begun to attribute poor sales to a lack of support from the labels. "And, also, for some reasons that are fair enough and some reasons that are a little appalling," he told the Indianapolis Star in an article carried by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "the time and the place that I came from, however much it did or didn't have to do with my work, is held in contempt by contemporary cultural standards. Los Angeles in the '70s is probably the worst place you can possibly be from."
For Mutineer, he recorded in his home studio with new digital tools, a process he found freeing. Regrettably, it was neither the critical nor commercial success he sought. However, Tomashoff checked in with more praise in People calling it "another solid piece of work from one of rock's most dependable and underrated songwriters." Zevon later said the title was "a gesture of appreciation and affection to my fans, none of w hom bought the record." Giant dropped Zevon after its release.
In a 1996 wire service interview, Zevon said his next plan was to concentrate on getting a classical music piece performed. "I think the prospects of getting such a thing played are probably fairly good. I'm optimistic about it. I may be deluding myself, but we know there's an orchestra in every town, much less, city, in America," he quipped.
Actually, he could be frequently found subbing for band leader Paul Schaeffer on David Letterman's talk shows in the post-Mutineer period. Letterman proved a consistent, committed fan as well as friend. Letterman inv ited Zevon to be the first musical guest both on Late Night With David Letterman (NBC) and The Late Show With David Letterman (CBS).
Zevon continued the process of attempting to reinvent himself. It was not until 2000 that he would return to the studio. It had also taken five years for him to find another record label. He was signed by Artemis Records. The result was Life'll Kill Ya, released in early 2000. Buoyed by the modest success, he returned to recording relatively immediately. My Ride's Here was released in Spring 2002.
Zevon was diagnosed with an inoperable and aggressive form of lung cancer in late 2002. Doctors did not expect him to live more than a handful of months. With his mortality truly staring him down, and responding publicly with trademark darker-than-e ver gallows humor, Zevon elected to work on one last album. "It'll be a drag if I don't make it until the next James Bond movie comes out," he wrote in an official press release. (He survived to see Die Another Day< /emphasis> leave theatres.) His first response was reportedly to hole up with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner films. Both actors died of lung cancer. He soon decided to spend his time recording.
"I've never encountered anyone with his outlook and the strength, the humor, and the wisdom that goes with it," said author Carl Hiaasen, a friend and fishing buddy, as well as occasional Zevon lyricist, in a People interview. "At one point he said to me, 'I've been writing this part for myself for 35 years. Maybe this is just the way it has to go.'" He elected not to seek treatment.
The Wind was released in August of 2003, nearly a year to date from when he was diagnosed with cancer. Record company officials were reportedly unsettled by the prospect of promoting a "last" recording. Rather than spend money on advertising, they chose to put more funding into production. The recording process was documented by the cable television channel VH-1. Zevon said he wanted his cover of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" - in wh ich he is heard saying "open up, open up," - to be his first single. The album debuted on the Billboard charts at number 16. That publication's critic Adrian Zupp said it "hangs like a Picasso in a world of finger painting." Other critics concurred.
"Who knew it'd take terminal illness to make Zevon lay off the gallows humor?" opined Chris Willman, writing in Entertainment Weekly. "If The Wind is unsentimental, it's a lso happily unhygienic, sounding as ramshackle and energized as you'd hope a nothing-left-to-lose last blast would."
Zevon made his final public appearance on Letterman's show October 30, 2002. The entire hour-long program was devoted to Zevon. He said Letterman was "the best friend my music has ever had." During the broadcast, Zevon admitted that he " might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years. It was one of those phobias that really didn't pay off." Zevon performed "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Mutineer" - the last time he would perform in front of an audience.
When Zevon passed September 7, 2003, he had seen The Wind released to critical praise and, more importantly, had been able to see his first grandchildren, twins born in August.
After his death, his son and Rhino Records were working together to secure the re-release of Zevon's entire Elektra catalog. The hopes were to include unreleased material as well as material never released on compact disc.
When the Grammy nominees were announced, neither fans nor cynics were surprised to see him finally among the nominees. He had five nominations. There was a certain Zevon-esque irony to the entire accolades. The awards show broadcast in Feburary 2004 would also feature a Zevon tribute with appearances by Browne, Schmidt, Dwight Yoakam, Zevon's adult children, and others. That night, Zevon won his first-ever Grammy awards. The Wind won Best Contemporary Folk Album and "Disor der in the House," a duet with Bruce Springsteen won for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
"His hard-boiled side would say, 'I don't care about this. These people never got me,'" said Jorge Calderon, a producer and longtime friend in an post-Grammy article distributed by the Associated Press. "His other side, which was very Sammy Davis Jr ., that part of him would be loving it. He'd be dressed in an all-cashmere suit. He'd be here digging it."
by Lloyd Hemingway and Linda Dailey Paulson
Warren Zevon's Career
Released Wanted Dead or Alive, Imperial, 1970; musical director for the Everly Brothers, 1971-73; played lounge piano in Spain, 1974; released self-titled album on Asylum, 1976; Excitable Boy released, including first Top Ten single, "Werewolves of London," 1978; released Mutineer and is dropped by label, 1995; signed with Artemis Records and releases, Life'll Kill Ya, 2000; released My Ride's Here, spring 2002; diagnosed with lung cancer, 2002; The Wind released, August 2003; Final public appearance, October 30, 2002; Died, September 7, 2003.
Warren Zevon's Awards
Grammy, Best Contemporary Folk Album, for The Wind, 2004; Grammy, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (with Bruce Springsteen) for "Disorder in the House," 2004.
- Selected discography
- Wanted Dead or Alive Imperial, 1970.
- Warren Zevon Asylum, 1976; reissued, Elektra, 1992.
- Excitable Boy Asylum, 1978.
- Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School Asylum, 1980; reissued, Elektra, 1992.
- Stand in the Fire Asylum, 1980.
- The Envoy Asylum, 1982.
- Sentimental Hygiene Virgin, 1987; Re-release with Bonus Tracks,Virgin, 2003.
- Transverse City Virgin, 1989; rereleased with bonus track, Virgin 2003.
- (With Hindu Love Gods) Hindu Love Gods Giant, 1990.
- Mr. Bad Example Giant, 1991.
- Learning to Flinch Giant, 1993; rereleased limited edition, Warner, 1993.
- Mutineer Giant, 1995.
- I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology) Rhino 1996.
- Life'll Kill Ya Artemis, 2000.
- Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon Rhino, 2002.
- My Ride's Here Artemis 2002.
- The First Sessions Varese, 2003.
- Wanted Dead or Alive/A Leaf in the Wind Capitol, 2003.
- The Wind Artemis, 2003.
- Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit, 1983.
- Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Billboard, April 22, 1995; September 6, 2003; September 20, 2003.
- Business Week, September 1, 2003.
- Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 5, 2003; September 19, 2003.
- GQ, January 1988.
- Interview, April 1998.
- Keyboard, November 1, 2003.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 13, 1995; March 11, 1996.
- People, January 20, 1992; June 5, 1995; October 28, 2002.
- Rolling Stone, June 18, 1987; November 15, 1990; November 29, 1990; November 28, 1991.
- "Grammys Cast Somber Note Over Awards Show," Yahoo! News from Associated Press, http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20040209/ap_on_en_mu/grammys_34 (February 11, 2004).
- "SHHHHHHH . . . Warren Zevon's Sleeping. . ." PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/features/030909-zevon.shtml (February 12, 2004).
- "Warren Zevon," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 10, 2004).
- Warren Zevon Official Website, http://www.warrenzevon.com (February 12, 2004).