Artist Spotlight: Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon was born in Chicago, IL in 1947. He was an esteemed singer-songwriter, often known for his cutting and hilarious lyrics and interesting ballads, first writing songs for vocalist Linda Ronstadt and the band The Turtles. He didn’t really get noticed on his own, however, until his third album, 1978’s Excitable Boy. It makes sense, when you think about it. That album plays like a greatest hits album. Songs like “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Werewolves of London”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and the title track are some of his most well-known songs.

Still, the first two albums had some real gems on them as well. 1969’s Wanted Dead or Alive featured “Tule’s Blues”, and his 1976 self-titled album featured a wonderful array of songs like “Carmelita”, “Frank and Jesse James”, and “Hasten Down the Wind”.

1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School was recorded after Zevon started getting help for some of his serious addiction issues. While debuting at 57 on the Billboard charts, it began to flounder commercially. It was uneven in spots, not nearly as strong as his Excitable Boy or even his self-titled album, even though he had the help of Jackson Browne in songwriting duties and Linda Ronstadt on vocals.

The next album, 1982’s Envoy, was considered to be a return to the standard of Excitable Boy but was not commercially successful. It featured “Jesus Mentioned” and “The Hula Hula Boys”. Soon after, he was dropped from his label, and he relapsed into his addictions. He got clean in 1984, but retreated from the music business for awhile, just playing solo shows.

1987’s Sentimental Hygiene was after he signed with Virgin Records, and he collaborated with folks like Neil Young, George Clinton and Bob Dylan. It had a heavier sound, and featured great work like “Reconsider Me” and “Detox Mansion”, and was again considered his best work since Excitable Boy.

1989’s Transverse City was another commercial disappointment, and was an interesting concept album that featured guitar work from Jerry Garcia, David Gilmour and Neil Young. It was after this that Virgin ended their relationship with him. He scored a deal with Giant and released Mr. Bad Example in 1991, an album whose song “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” became the title of a film a few years later.

Zevon went on to tour, and in the next few years released Mutineer, Life’ll Kill Ya and My Ride’s Here. All of them wonderful albums, none of them real commercial successes, as you can likely gather a theme here. However, Zevon did have his fans. He was, for example, a frequent guest on David Letterman, and sometimes filled in for Paul Schaeffer, his bandleader. The song “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” featured both Letterman and Schaeffer.

Unfortunately, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2002. He was paranoid of doctors and rarely went, until he got dizzy during a show. His father, who owned a carpet store, also died of this disease, and Zevon’s son Jordan has wondered if the death is related to him playing in his father’s carpet store when he was young. He began recording The Wind with friends Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakum and multiple others after his diagnosis, which was released in August of 2003. It had the song “Keep Me in Your Heart”, which is one of the most moving songs about impending death ever written. His final public performance was on his good friend David Letterman’s show in October of 2002, and he was on the show, playing with the band and as the only guest, for the entire episode. The final song he played was, at Letterman’s request, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”