Warren Zevon - Biography



            Jackson Browne called his friend Warren Zevon “the first and foremost practitioner of song noir.” When Zevon made his Asylum Records debut with his self-titled album in 1976, he arrived with music that was at great variance with the often self-satisfied and navel-gazing songs of his Los Angeles contemporaries (including Browne, who produced Warren Zevon).


            At that point, Zevon had been active in the LA music scene for more than a decade, and he had experienced the sleazy darkness of the entertainment industry first-hand. His contemporaries – including the Eagles, then the biggest act in the country, and J.D. Souther -- celebrated themselves and their scene. Zevon instead focused on the seamy, disturbing aspect of the City of Angels and its moneyed, dissolute denizens. He went on to populate his songs with mercenaries, inbred hillbillies, psycho killers, con artists, and, most famously, werewolves. Song noir – black song – perfectly describes Zevon’s hard-boiled style. Small wonder that Ross Macdonald, the lyric poet of LA detective novelists, was one of his great muses.


            Zevon’s smart, caustic, oft-cynical material won him a devoted following, and, in the early stages of his budding stardom, he logged a fluke hit. But his self-destructive rampage through Hollywood ran virtually unchecked for years. He suffered from chronic alcoholism; it was not unusual for him to topple off his piano bench during a concert. When he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, it was for a story about an (unsuccessful) intervention that was performed on him. He didn’t sober up until 1986. He told his novelist friend Carl Hiassen, “I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did.”


            After Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2002, he responded by recording a last-ditch album, The Wind, which sealed his reputation with its cool-eyed consideration of his own imminent mortality. Ironically, it broke him free from the cult confines of his latter-day career.


            Zevon was born in Chicago on January 24, 1947. His father was Willie “Stumpy” Zevon, a gambler and hoodlum – he was an associate of such notorious mobsters as Sam Giancana and Mickey Cohen -- who guiltily spoiled his only son; his mother was Beverly Simmons, who was 21 years her husband’s junior. The marriage got rocky early, and Warren grew up running wild in Fresno, California, and then in San Pedro. He began playing piano at an early age; at 13, his junior high music teacher took him to meet the great composer Igor Stravinsky, who had taken up residence in Hollywood. (Zevon would also become a fine guitarist, and a gifted arranger.)


            When his father opened a carpeting business – his legitimate “front” – in LA, Zevon relocated once again. In 1964 he enrolled in Fairfax High School, where he met 16-year-old Violet Santangelo. Calling himself “stephen lyme,” he formed the lower-case folk duo lyme & cybele with her. The act scored a singles deal with White Whale Records, the local label whose roster included the hitmaking group The Turtles. While lyme & cybele didn’t manage any hits, some of Zevon’s songs wound up on the B-sides of The Turtles’ singles; he also wrote “She Quit Me” for the soundtrack of the hit film Midnight Cowboy. After the breakup of lyme & cybele, Zevon hooked up with Hollywood music hustler par excellence Kim Fowley; he co-produced the album Wanted Dead or Alive, which was issued by Imperial in 1970, in Zevon’s words, “to the sound of one hand clapping.”


            By his early 20s, Zevon had fathered a son, Jordan, with his girlfriend Marilyn “Tule” Livingston, but he swiftly moved away from the relationship. Soon after the release of the Imperial album, he got a job as musical director of The Everly Brothers. During this period he wrote “Frank and Jesse James” for the rock ‘n’ roll duo. Among the musicians he hired for the band was guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who would become a key collaborator as producer and sideman. He also soon acquired Wachtel’s girlfriend Crystal Brelsford, whom he married in 1974.


            The Everlys split up in 1973, but Zevon remained friendly with both of them. At Phil Everly’s instigation, he, Wachtel, and Roy Marinell wrote a “dance song” called “Werewolves of London.” He also toured with Don Everly. While Linda Ronstadt grew interested in covering one of Zevon’s songs, “Hasten Down the Wind” (inspired by his relationship with ex-girlfriend Tule Livingston), work was sporadic, and Zevon’s problems with alcohol deepened. Not long after a drunk driving arrest in the spring of 1975, the Zevons moved to Sitges, Spain, where Warren began performing in an Irish pub called the Dubliner run by an émigré Irish soldier of fortune named David Lindell. “Lindy” would co-author “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”


            In the late summer of 1975, Zevon received a postcard from Jackson Browne: “Too soon to give up. Come home. I’ll get you a recording contract. Love, Jackson.” At the time, Browne was a rising star on David Geffen’s singer/songwriter-oriented label Asylum Records. Browne convinced Geffen to sign Zevon, and produced his friend’s label debut. The cream of LA’s musical community turned out for the sessions: The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt, David Lindley.


            Released in May 1976, Warren Zevon was not a commercial hit – it peaked at No. 189 during a brief two-week stay on Billboard’s album chart – but it was lavished with praise by the critics. Smartly written and elegantly arranged, the album had its share of refined ballads like “Hasten Down the Wind” (which Ronstadt in fact soon covered). But it was in bitingly observed, sometimes raucous songs like “Join Me in LA,” “The French Inhaler,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “Desperados Under the Eaves,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” and the unforgettable junkie lament “Carmelita” that Zevon came into his own as a brilliant against-the-grain talent.


            Zevon’s alcoholism continued to escalate, and his marriage – which produced a daughter, Ariel, in 1976 – was growing increasingly torturous. He labored hard on the songs for his second Asylum album, Excitable Boy (1978). Co-produced by Browne and Wachtel and filled with ebullient musical mayhem, it became his greatest success. Though Wachtel later said that cutting “Werewolves of London” was “like Coppola making Apocalypse Now,” the labor paid off: The infectious, howl-along song in fact became the hit Phil Everly had envisioned, rising to No. 21 on the pop singles chart. The bold inner sleeve for the LP – depicting a Colt .44 Magnum on a plate – also housed such violent Zevon classics as “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Excitable Boy,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” The collection peaked at No. 8.


            Zevon was never able to capitalize on the momentum of Excitable Boy, in large measure because of his deepening substance abuse problems. He issued three more albums on Asylum: Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980), the fiery live set Stand in the Fire (1981), and The Envoy (1982).


           His life began to resemble one of his darker songs. He lived in a house filled with loaded guns and empty vodka bottles. His friend Paul Nelson famously chronicled his failed intervention in a 1981 Rolling Stone cover story. His marriage, marked by bouts of blackout spousal abuse, ended soon thereafter. For a time, he lived in Philadelphia with a girlfriend, a local DJ. His alcoholism grew so severe that he began to suffer seizures. Finally, in March 1986, he got clean and sober.


            In 1987, five years after his last studio album, Zevon reappeared on a new label, Virgin Records, with Sentimental Hygiene. The set included some strong songs – the ballad “Reconsider Me” (written for his ex-wife), the self-explanatory “Detox Mansion,” and “Boom Boom Mancini” – and tracks featuring the members of R.E.M. (An album’s worth of covers recorded at the same time was issued three years later under the group name Hindu Love Gods.) An oddball “cyberpunk” concept album, Transverse City (1989), followed; it failed to chart at all.


            A sojourn at Irving Azoff’s Giant Records followed. It produced the studio albums Mr. Bad Example (1991), which reunited Zevon and Waddy Wachtel, and Mutineer (1995). He also released Learning to Flinch (1993), a bristling document of his scaled-down but nonetheless effective solo live shows. His career hit another trough; nonetheless, he became a semi-regular performer on mega-fan David Letterman’s show, and he sat in with The Rock Bottom Remainders, an ad hoc band that included such big-name writers as Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, and Carl Hiassen – all of whom became good friends – among its members. (Zevon, one of the most literate musicians of his generation, was also a close friend to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.)


            The last chapter in Zevon’s career began at the turn of the millennium, when he signed with Artemis Records, the independent label run by Danny Goldberg, who had previously managed Nirvana and run Warner Bros. Records and Mercury Records. Two albums followed, both of which sported titles that eerily foreshadowed events to come: the spare, sometimes folkish Life’ll Kill Ya (2000) and My Ride’s Here (2001), which included songs co-authored by Zevon’s writer friends Thompson, Hiassen, Albom, and poet Paul Muldoon. Many of the songs on these records were death-obsessed.


            In August 2002, Zevon, who had scrupulously avoided doctors for two decades, began to suffer from fatigue and shortness of breath. His dentist Stan Golden – whom Zevon would visit if he wasn’t feeling well – sent him to a pulmonary specialist. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lethal asbestos-related lung cancer. He was given three to six months to live.


            He went public with his illness in a round of blackly good-humored interviews – he told this writer, alluding to a noted film star’s death from the same strain of cancer, “What I really said was, I wanted Steve McQueen’s haircut.” Zevon, who drolly viewed his illness as a marketing opportunity, quickly set to work on a new album with his friend and longtime collaborator Jorge Calderon. Progress on the record was hampered after Zevon took up drinking again after 17 years of sobriety – he began to mix scotch with the heavy-duty painkillers that were prescribed to him. Nonetheless, he composed a strong set of songs, and many of his big-name musical friends – Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris – pitched in on the project.


            The Wind (2003) was released about a year after Zevon received his cancer diagnosis, and shortly after the debut VH1 telecast of Nick Read’s documentary about his illness and the making of the album. It entered the charts at No. 12 – the first of his albums to enter the national top 20 since 1980.


           After he finished the album, he told his ex-wife, “I better die quick so they’ll give me a Grammy nomination. It’s a damned hard way to make a living, having to die to get ‘em to know you’re alive.” Zevon died at his home in LA on Sept. 7, 2003, at the age of 56. That December, The Wind garnered five nominations, including one for song of the year (for the moving “Keep Me in Your Heart”). In February 2004 it received two awards, for best rock performance (for “Disorder in the House,” the collaboration with Springsteen) and best contemporary folk album.


          Mordant to the end, Zevon – who wrote more, and wrote better, about death than any of his contemporaries – would have no doubt been satisfied by the fact that his demise proved to be a pretty good career move. A year after his death, Artemis released Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon, a set of new interpretations. In 2007, Excitable Boy, Stand in the Fire, and The Envoy were reissued with bonus tracks by Rhino Records, which also re-released Warren Zevon in a deluxe two-disc 2008 edition. Also in 2007, New West Records/Ammal Records issued Preludes, a two-CD collection of unreleased demos (discovered by Zevon’s son in storage, next to a box of live ammunition), interviews, and live performances. Crystal Zevon’s oral biography I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Life and Dirty Times of Warren Zevon was published the same year.

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead?” Not quite.

Shop Amoeba Merch Paypal Free Shipping On Amoeba.com We Buy Large Collections


New customers, create your Amoeba.com account here. Its quick and easy!


Don't want to register? Feel free to make a purchase as a guest!

Checkout as Guest

Currently, we do not allow digital purchases without registration



Become a member of Amoeba.com. It's easy and quick!

All fields required.

An error has occured - see below:

Minimum: 8 characters, 1 uppercase, 1 special character

Already have an account? Log in.


Forgot Password

To reset your password, enter your registration e-mail address.


Forgot Username

Enter your registration e-mail address and we'll send you your username.


Amoeba Newsletter Sign Up