Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


ZEVON, Warren

(b 24 January 1947, Chicago; d 7 September 2003, Los Angeles) Singer-songwriter with a view on the dark side; one of the generation (Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther) that brought some depth to California pop in the 1970s. Of Russian ancestry, he grew up in the western USA; The Turtles recorded one of his songs: 'Like The Seasons' was the flip side of their huge hit 'Happy Together', reaping generous royalties. He wrote 'She Quit Me Man', heard in soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy '69, but his debut LP Wanted--Dead Or Alive on Imperial was a flop the same year. He wrote jingles, played piano for the Everly Brothers; Linda Ronstadt covered 'Hasten Down The Wind', the title track of her 1976 hit album, and two more on her Simple Dreams ('Poor Poor Pitiful Me' was a top 40 single). Jackson Browne produced Warren Zevon '76, including members of Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, a critical hit just making Billboard album chart; and Excitable Boy '78, helped to no. 8 by no. 21 single 'Werewolves Of London', also including 'Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner'. He took time off to deal with alcoholism; then Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School '80 was a concept album about his drinking problem (Bruce Springsteen collaborating on 'Jeannie Needs A Shooter'), followed by Stand In The Fire '81 and The Envoy '82 (its title track about diplomat Philip Habib in Middle East) were all successful, though the last was regarded as uneven: he admitted that he tinkered with it too long: '...the songs that come well in the early takes usually work better in the long run'.

He was married and divorced twice and indulged in a fair amount of wild behaviour. He suffered a writing block and concentrated on touring; he predicted that new works will be 'more realistic songs with ''Gee, I'm lonely, gee I'm working hard'' kind of themes', but maintaining the sardonic edge. A Quiet Normal Life: The Best Of Warren Zevon '86 was a useful compilation, Sentimental Hygiene '87 on Virgin his first new work in five years, backed by members of R.E.M., with a 'Springsteenian beat, the bass line pushing home the message that somewhere down in the male rock psyche lies something very grim' (Simon Frith). Other tracks they recorded together were released as by the Hindu Love Gods '90. TV work in the early '90s included themes and scores from programs such as Tales From The Crypt and appearances as guest bandleader on David Letterman. Further albums were Transverse City on Virgin (with top 30 single 'Run Straight Down'), Mutineer, Learning To Flinch (live from a '92 tour) and Mr Bad Example, all on Giant CDs. Life’ll Kill Ya came out in 2000; then in August 2002, suffering from chest pain, he went to a doctor for the first time in 20 years and discovered terminal lung cancer (mesothelioma). He was philosophical about it, admitting that he had long since appointed himself a 'travel agent for death' (a song called 'My Ride’s Here' was about a hearse). He allowed a camera crew to make a documentary of the recording sessions for his last album, The Wind on Artemis, which came out the month before he died. A great many friends and admirers from Jackson Browne to Dwight Yoakam participated, and the set included a cover of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', as well as preserving Zevons' trademark sardonic humour in 'Disorder In The House'.

Joseph Rago wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 12 February 2009 that the website had released nearly every extant recording of Zevon in concert, 89 shows 1976-2001. The downloads are said to be free and sanctioned by the estate, but this cyber-challenged writer confesses that he could not find them on the site.