Warren Zevon Biography
Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003), born in Chicago, Illinois, was a rock and roll musician and songwriter. 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.
Warren Zevon was born to a Russian Jewish father and a Mormon mother and soon moved to California. By the age of 13, Warren Zevon was a regular visitor to the home of Igor Stravinsky where he, along with Robert Craft, would study music.
Zevon turned to a musical career early, including a stretch as part of a Sonny and Cher-type male/female duo called lyme and cybelle (a band whose correct spelling is all lower case), and 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, though his participation in their recording is unknown. 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 60s 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 briefly, where he played in a small bar owned by David Lindell, a former mercenary. Together they penned Zevon's classic "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner."
In the mid-70s, Zevon returned to Los Angeles, and became associated with the then-burgeoning West coast music scene, resulting in collaborations with Jackson Browne, who would produce and promote Zevon's self-titled major-label debut; the Eagles, who appeared on Zevon's second album; and Linda Ronstadt, who both appeared on Zevon's albums and recorded her own versions of several early Zevon songs, including "Carmelita," "Mohammed's Radio" and a hit cover of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." 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 wistful insider's chronicle of 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 great but doomed American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose early, alcohol-fueled death Zevon seemed headed toward repeating.
In 1978, Zevon released his breakthrough album, Excitable Boy, to critical acclaim and popular success. The title tune (about a high school psychopath'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 humor 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 a relatively lighthearted version of Zevon's signature macabre outlook, was a top-thirty 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. Later, Bob Dylan would use one of Zevon's lyrics from "Accidentally Like a Martyr" as the title of his late-90s comeback album, Time Out of Mind.
Zevon followed Excitable Boy with 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, dedicated to detective novelist Ross Macdonald, a literary hero of Zevon's who met the singer for the first time while participating in an intervention 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 Yardbirds tune, which scraped its way to #45 on the Billboard Singles Chart), the album sold briskly but was uneven, and signalled 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 painful divorce from second wife Crystal and featuring a descant sung by Linda Ronstadt. In 1981 came the live album Stand in the Fire (dedicated to Martin Scorsese), recorded over five nights at the Roxy in Los Angeles.
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" (yet another treatise on addiction) and "Jesus Mentioned," Zevon's reaction to the squalid death of Elvis Presley, in which Zevon fantasizes about "digging up the King" for one last song. After The Envoy failed to find an audience, Zevon was dropped by his label Asylum Records, a fact Zevon discovered only when he read about it in the Random Notes gossip column of Rolling Stone Magazine. The trauma caused him to relapse into serious alcohol abuse, and he voluntarily checked himself into an unnamed rehab clinic somewhere in the state of Minnesota. Zevon retreated from the music business for several years, during which he finally overcame severe alcohol and drug addictions.
In this intermittent period, Zevon collaborated with R.E.M., minus Michael Stipe, on an eponymous album as the Hindu Love Gods. Allegedly comprised of outtakes from a drunken all night jam session, the album included a cover of Prince's "Raspberry Beret" and was released over the objections of both Zevon and R.E.M.
Following his five-year hiatus, Zevon returned in 1987 with 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," and "Reconsider Me." Included were collaborations with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, and members of R.E.M.. Also on hand were long-time collaborators Jorge Calderón and Waddy Wachtel.
The follow-up to Sentimental Hygiene, 1989's Transverse City, was a futuristic concept album inspired by Zevon's interest in the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson. It featured guests including Jerry Garcia, Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and soloists David Gilmour, Chick Corea, and Neil Young. Key tracks include the title song, "Run Straight Down" (which had a video for it with Zevon singing in a factory and David Gilmour playing his guitar solos) and "They Moved the Moon," the latter among Zevon's eerier ballads.
In 1991, Zevon released Mr. Bad Example, which featured the modest pop hit "Searching for a Heart" and the rocker "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," later appropriated for the title of a neo-noir cult movie by director Gary Fleder.
Zevon toured the United States on occasion during this period. Owing to Zevon's reduced circumstances, his performances were often true solo efforts (with minimal accompaniment); 1993's live Learning to Flinch documents such a tour. 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 Hiassen 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, and Amy Tan, among other popular writers.
Occasionally, Zevon filled in for Paul Shaffer as bandleader on The Late Show with David Letterman.
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. Zevon released a best-of compilation that same year, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology).
After another five-year layoff, Zevon 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)" (with 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.
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.
On February 14, 2006, VH1 Classic premiered a video from a new compilation, Reconsider Me: The Love Songs of Warren Zevon. The video, titled "She's Too Good For Me," aired every hour on the hour throughout the day.
On June 20, 2006, Jordan Zevon posted a message on the official Warren Zevon site saying that the box set of rarities, outtakes and live performances that had been three years in production had been put on hiatus indefinitely. A CD re-release of Mr. Bad Example and first-ever CD issues of Stand in the Fire and The Envoy all remain in progress.
- Warren Zevon official site
- Warren Zevon On the Loose in Los Angeles by Dave Marsh, <i>Rolling Stone</i>, March 9, 1978
- Warren Zevon Takes Control by Mikal Gilmore, <i>Rolling Stone</i>, September 16, 1982
- An Excitable Boy, They All Said by Jonathan Valania, <i>Philadelphia Weekly</i>, November 20, 2002
- Interview: Jackson Browne Remembers Warren Zevon by David Fricke, <i>Rolling Stone</i>, September 19, 2003
- Warren Zevon live audio recordings
- Jordan Zevon's Official Site