Warren Zevon, 56; Singer Had a Sense of Grim Theater

Times Staff Writer

Warren Zevon, a restless, sardonic bard who embodied the dark edge and excess of the famed singer-songwriter scene in 1970s Southern California, died after a battle with lung cancer. He was 56.

Zevon died Sunday afternoon at his home in Los Angeles, according to his manager Irving Azoff, who said that the singer had been “very upbeat” in the past week due to the success of his new album and the recent birth of twin grandchildren. “He was in a good place.”

While casual pop fans might recognize only his 1978 horror-show hit “Werewolves of London,” Zevon for years enjoyed a cult following and the acclaim of his peers for songs that were often about fractured world politics and the disloyal human heart.


In a macabre songbook that includes “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” Zevon presented a world of the undead and the unethical on the rampage in a mercenary world. In “Mr. Bad Example,” an altar boy grows up to be a vagabond con man: “I’m very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins/I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in/I’m proud to be a glutton and I don’t have time for sloth/I’m greedy and I’m angry and I don’t care who I cross.”

Death and dying were among Zevon’s favorite topics (the cover of his 2002 album “My Ride’s Here” showed him in a hearse, while another collection was titled “Life’ll Kill Ya”), and when confronted with his own mortality, he continued the exploration with aplomb. The singer, a longtime smoker, learned in August 2002 that he was suffering from inoperable lung cancer and a month later he went public with his condition in an interview with The Times.

“I feel the opposite of regret,” he said then. “I was the hardest-living rocker on my block for a while. I was a malfunctioning rummy for a while and running away for a while. Then for 18 years I was a sober dad of some amazing kids. Hey, I feel like I’ve lived a couple of lives -- and now when people listen to the music, they’ll say, ‘Hey, maybe the guy wasn’t being so morbid after all.’ ”

Zevon spent much of his time during his illness doting on family and working in a home studio on a new album, “The Wind.” His popularity among his peers was underscored by a parade of contributors to the record, including longtime friends Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley and Jackson Browne. The Artemis Records disc debuted last week in the Top 20 of the nation’s pop charts, an unprecedented showing for the singer.

Jim Keltner, the veteran session drummer who worked on the album, said it was an emotionally charged project for all involved, especially the work on the final song, “Keep Me in Your Heart.” “Warren had a bad day, and he couldn’t make it in, so we laid down the music without the vocals, and I’ll tell you, we were all choked up,” he said. “It’s a beautiful song.”

The tracks also include some wry, unsentimental songs, in Zevon’s familiar mode, and a version of the Bob Dylan classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a selection that speaks to Zevon’s candor and sense of grim theater. Zevon’s candor about his condition also extended to allowing VH1 to film the sessions for “The Wind,” for a poignant documentary that aired near the album’s release date.

Dylan himself has recently paid tribute to Zevon by singing several of his songs, including “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” in his concert sets, one at the Wiltern attended by Zevon in October. That same month, David Letterman devoted an entire episode of his show to his old friend, an unprecedented time commitment by the long-running program.

Warren William Zevon was born Jan. 24, 1947, in Chicago and spent much of his youth shuttling between different cities in California, among them Los Angeles and San Francisco. His father, William, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who was a boxer in his early days in America, then settled into a career as a professional gambler and “a mobster, generally,” as his son described him. The singer’s mother, Beverly, was of Scottish heritage and a Mormon. The singer told Rolling Stone magazine in 1981 that his mother was “extraordinarily withdrawn -- you can barely hear her speaking voice. She did encourage my interest in art, though.”

Zevon was a precocious child with high scores in IQ tests but inconsistent grades in the classroom. His parents divorced when he was 16, and the classically trained young pianist quit school as a junior at Fairfax High School and traveled to New York to become a folk singer. That bohemian dream fizzled, and Zevon bounced around the country, eventually returning to Southern California by the late 1960s. He made a living composing commercial jingles and playing on recording sessions. He also wrote songs for the Turtles (“Like the Seasons” and “Outside Chance”), and by the early 1970s was a keyboard player and music director for the Everly Brothers.

By that point, he would later tell Rolling Stone, “The road, booze and I became an inseparable team.”

In 1969, he had put out his first album, “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” on One Way Records, but it was largely ignored. It was, however, reissued in March on Virgin Records. After some more false starts, Zevon and his then-wife, Crystal Zevon, became embittered about L.A. life and moved to Spain in 1975, but a short time later they returned. Browne, Zevon’s close friend, had championed his cause to music mogul David Geffen and the result would be “Warren Zevon,” a 1976 release from Asylum Records that would make the singer a darling of the critics. Browne produced the album, which included “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” a major hit a year later for Linda Ronstadt.

The album boasted an impressive crowd of contributors, among them Henley, Glenn Frey, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, Carl Wilson, Bonnie Raitt and J.D. Souther. The assembly showed that Zevon was part of the loose circle of Southern California musicians that forged a defining sound in 1970s rock. But while the Eagles and others were minting platinum albums, Zevon was making far more ominous music that failed to click in a big way with the wide public. That would form the pattern of his career, and it both haunted and inspired him -- he longed for the audience but also reveled in the role of intellectual and uncompromising maverick.

He did have one song cut through in a big way -- “Werewolves of London” from 1978 became an ominous novelty with its lyrics about a werewolf who enjoyed socializing but also mutilated little old ladies. “I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s,” the song memorably offered. “His hair was perfect.”

By the early 1980s, Zevon’s notoriously wild ways had wrecked much of his personal life, and he went into a rehab program, which he would later memorably mock in “Detox Mansion.” He went public with his addiction problem and his plan to seek help, an announcement that foreshadowed his similar decision last year to announce that he had a short time to live.

His 1982 album, “The Envoy,” was a product of his cleaner living and was hailed as a return to his early form. “Sentimental Hygiene” from 1987 and the 1991 collection “Mr. Bad Example” again won him effusive reviews. Still, major commercial success eluded him. By last year, after learning of his health issues, he was sanguine about his flirtations with major stardom.

“It was a little more interesting this way, maybe,” he said. “Maybe more aggravating, too. At least I’ve had one foot in a very normal kind of life. Nobody does my chores so I can go upstairs and jam with Branford, you know?”