He was a singer-songwriter
and musician born Warren William Zevon in Chicago, Illinois, to a family who had immigrated to the United States from Russia and changed their name from Zivotovsky.
His father William worked as a bookie for the mobster Mickey Cohen and
was nicknamed Stumpy Zevon.
The family moved
to Fresno, California, when he was still young and he would sometimes
visit Igor Stravinsky with the conductor Robert Craft to get tuition in modern
classical music around the time he was 13 years old.
He started a
duo with his student friend Violet Santangelo, using
the name lyme & cybelle
in lower case. They managed to reach
No. 65 on the singles chart with their “Follow Me” in 1966 and
got signed to White Whale record label. The song has since been considered
to he the first psychedelic pop record by their
then producer, Bones Howe, but he left the duo after their second single
failed to see any success. While
he was at the record label he also composed the songs “Outside Chance”
and “Like the Seasons” for the successful group The Turtles.
In 1969 his
song “She Quit Me” was changed to “He Quit Me” for
the soundtrack of the movie Midnight Cowboy and around this time he worked
as a writer of jingles and session musician. Also in 1969 he recorded his debut
album Wanted Dead or Alive but
with little commercial interest.
His second album, Leaf in the
Wind was unreleased.
In the first
years of the 1970s he worked as a keyboardist and band leader on tours by
The Everly Brothers. He would go on to work with each
brother separately on tours and recordings after they had decided to
disband the duo.
In 1975 he became
frustrated with the way his career was going so decided to relocate to a town
near Barcelona in Spain. He resided and performed at The
Dubliner Bar in Sitges, which is where he wrote
the song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” with the owner,
David Lindell. He didn’t stay very long in Europe as he was back in the US by September the same year.
He settled back
in Los Angeles where he shared accommodation with Lindsey
Buckingham and Stevie Nicks who would later gain
their own fame with Fleetwood Mac. He began working on his self titled album
in 1976 in collaboration with Jackson Browne who was his promoter and producer. He also had a shed load of contributors
that included the members of Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Carl Wilson and Linda Ronstadt
who went on to record several of his songs such as “Carmelita” and
“Poor Poor Pitiful Me”. The album was later deemed a
masterpiece in Rolling Stone Record Guide’s
He toured in 1977
and during that tour would also appear at concerts being staged by Jackson Browne
as a guest musician. One of
these appearances was recorded for Dutch radio and made its way to a bootleg
recording called The Offender Meets
His next album,
Excitable Boy, produced by Jackson Browne and Waddy
Wachtel, was released in 1978. It achieved popular and critical
acclaim and the single “Werewolves of London” became a Top 30
When the world
moved into its next decade he released his Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School in 1980. Although his cover release of the track
“A Certain Girl” made it to No 57 in the Billboard Hot 100 and he
collaborated on tracks with Linda Ronstadt and Bruce
Springsteen, it was still no enough to give the album a major critical and
commercial success. Towards the
end of the year his Stand in the Fire which was a live album recorded at LA’s
Roxy Theatre was issued and dedicated to Martin
In 1982 The Envoy was released, but once
again it did not retain the commercial success he wanted. The US special envoy to the Middle East, Philip Habib,
was the dedicatee for the title track and the song “Hula Hula Boys” had its lyrics used in an excerpt for
the 1983 book The Curse of Lomo by Hunter S. Thompson.
The next year,
after going through a divorce, he and the DJ from Philadelphia Anita Gevinson got engaged. He re-settled on the east coast of the
US but suffered a shock when he discovered that
Asylum Records had ended their association with him through a column he read
in Rolling Stone magazine. Already suffering from alcoholism and
drug addiction, the stress of this event pushed him further into the addiction
until he finally went to Minnesota in 1984 and entered himself into rehab. He and Anita went their separate ways
and aside from a small music project called Hindu Love Gods he put his career
on the backburner for a period of years so that he could successfully tackle
In 1987 he returned
to his music career and recorded the album Sentimental Hygiene with a band that was essentially made up of
the musicians he had worked with in Hindu Love Gods. He collaborated with Waddy Wachtel and Jorge Calderon
on the recording as well as having contributions by the acclaimed artists George
Clinton, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, Michael Stipe and Neil Young. At the same time he recorded sessions
for this album he also had an al-night session of rock and blues songs with
Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills from Hindu Love Gods and they which they
eventually released as a self-titled album.
City was the next album to surface in 1989. It was a concept album taking its inspiration
from the sci-fi books of William Gibson. Once again he had a line-up of contributing
artists that included Jack Casady, Chick Corea, Jerry Garcia, David Gilmour, Richie
Hayward, Jorma Kaukonen
and Neil Young. Once again it
was not a commercial success and Virgin Records pulled out of the contract.
However, he was signed very quickly
to Giant Records who were the label to release the Hindu Love Gods album in 1990. One of the released tracks from it was
a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” which went to No.
23 on the Modern Rock chart.
He returned to
work as a solo artist in 1991 and sang lead vocals for the Grateful Dead tribute
on the song “Casey Jones” which wa cedited to David Lindley. He also released his Mr. Bad Example which managed the minor
chart hit “Searching or a Heart” and also the song “Things
to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” which went on to be used as the
title of the movie of the same name with the track being played in the closing
He embarked on
a worldwide tour with many concerts being solo performances with little accompaniment
which were highlighted in his 1993 Learning
to Flinch which was likened Unplugged
and given airplay by college radios. He also appeared on the Larry Sanders Show in 1993 to
promote the album.
with several authors he admired with for some of his songs and on occasion worked
as a guitarist and music coordinator for the Rock Bottom Remainders who
were a group of writers that included Dave Barry, Matt Groening, Stephen
King and Amy Tan. He also wrote
the liner notes and performed on the double CD Stranger Than Fiction which was recorded by most of the authors
in the group along with Maya Angelou and Norman Mailer. The group perform an annual benefit
co-ordinated the music for the revived TV series Route 66 in 1993 and then contributed music for several of the TekWar movies
by William Shatner from 1994 to 1996 with his “Real
or Not” used as the theme.
Mutineer was his next album release in 1995 and although
it was the least commercially successful, possibly due to his record label
going under, Bob Dylan covered the title track in many of his 2002 US Tours.
In 1996 Rhino
Records released his I’ll Sleep
When I’m Dead (An Anthology) compilation. Two years later he covered for Paul
Schaffer on David Letterman’s late night shows, which was something he
had done since 1982 and would continue to do when needed for the next three
years. He and the singer Rick
Springfield appeared in two episodes of the TV series Suddenly Susan in 1999.
When the new
millennium came around he landed a contract with Artemis Records and released
Life’ll Kill Ya which
sold well and was critically acclaimed. His next album My Ride’s Here produced the songs “Genius”,
later used for a 2002 anthology and “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)”
which featured Paul Shaffer, David Letterman and his Late Night Band.
Around this time
he became close friends with the actor Billy Bo Thornton who lived in the
same building and had also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Warren had also suffered with a phobia of doctors
for most of his life but gave in and saw one after his dentist had persuaded
him following a dizzy spell followed by a nasty cough before he performed
at the 2002 Edmonton Folk Festival.
He was given a diagnosis of a form of lung cancer called peritoneal mesothelioma, which was inoperable, but he refused to
have treatment and instead launched into the recording of The Wind, which would be his final album.
Many of his close friends performed on it including Jackson Browne, Emmylou
Harris, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Timothy B. Schmit,
Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bob Thornton, Joe Walsh and Dwight Yoakam.
He appeared as
the only guest on the Late Show with
David Letterman in October 2002, speaking about his illness and performing
several songs. His final public
performance was on that show when he sang “Roland the Headless Thompson
Gunner” after being asked to by David Letterman. He later gave David Letterman his guitar
when they were in the green room after the show.
was unexpected, he managed to live until June 2003 when his twin grandsons
were born and August 2003 when The Wind
was released. The album made it
to No. 12 on the chart and the VH1 documentary Warren Zevon: Keep Me In Your Heart
was aired around the same time which helped the sales. It was later certified gold and he won
two posthumous Grammy Awards from the five nominations it received.
He passed away
at home Los
Angeles, California, in September 2003 with his ashes being scattered
in the Pacific
Ocean. He was 56 years old.
In 2004 his
son, Jordan, produced and performed his unfinished song “Studebaker”
for the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich:
The Songs of Warren Zevon. The further tribute albums Hurry Home Early: The Songs of Warren Zevon and Reconsider
Me: The Love Songs were released in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
2007 saw Rhino
Records releasing Stand in the Fire, Excitable
Boy and The Envoy were re-released
all with four unreleased bonus tracks.
That same year the double CD Preludes
– Rare and Unreleased Recordings was released by Artemis Records and
his ex-wife, Crystal, published the biography I’ll
Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Lie and Times of Warren Zevon.
In 2012 a book
of photographs of Warren under the title Lawyers, Guns and Photos was published by George Gruel
who had worked with him from 1978 to 1983.