More than a year after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, singer/songwriter Warren Zevon, age 56, died in his sleep on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, according to his label, Artemis Records.
The acerbic singer with the raw voice and an often cynical view on modern life released his final album, The Wind, two weeks ago. Recorded with an all-star cast of friends following his diagnosis last August, the album, which entered the charts at #16, was his highest charting effort in more than 25 years, according to Billboard magazine. Among the high-profile guests on the album are Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, the Eagles’ Don Henley, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit.
Much has been made of the fact that Zevon was the rare popular musician who had the chance to write his own musical epitaph. The singer, a longtime smoker whose logo was a skull with a cigarette dangling from its jaws, was often weak during the sessions, but was determined to finish the album.
But rather than record a maudlin goodbye, Zevon penned a touching tribute to past loves and the fading of the light, accepting his fate gracefully and with his typical wit, spirit and eloquence. In the opening lines to the album’s first song, “Dirty Life and Times,” he sings, “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me/ Some days the sun don’t shine/ Sometimes I wonder what tomorrow’s gonna bring/ When I think about my dirty life and times.”
Born on January 24, 1947 in Chicago to a father who was a professional gambler, Zevon lived a peripatetic life as a kid, moving across the country from California to Arizona and, along the way, picking up the classical piano as a diversion from his parents’ divorce. Zevon moved to New York at 16 with hopes of becoming a folk singer, but met with little success and returned to California, where he recorded as part of a duo named Lyme & Cybelle. He released his solo debut, Wanted — Dead or Alive, in 1969, which was met with little fanfare, forcing him to return to writing advertising jingles and working as a session musician.
He played piano with the Everly Brothers for a time and took an extended sabbatical in Spain before returning to Los Angeles in 1975 to record his 1976 self-titled album, produced by friend and fellow singer/songwriter, Jackson Browne. Excitable Boy, released in 1978, got Zevon on the mainstream map with his most popular song, “Werewolves of London.” Like so many of Zevon’s most beloved tunes (“Excitable Boy,” “Play It All Night Long,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”), “Werewolves” showcased the singer’s mix of cynicism, literary knowledge and dark, satirical humor.
After a period of inactivity due to treatment for alcoholism, Zevon returned sober and full of his signature skepticism to record a 1987 album with the members of R.E.M., Sentimental Hygiene. Another set from those same sessions was released three years later under the name Hindu Love Gods.
After 1995’s poorly received Mutineer, the singer took nearly five years off before releasing 2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya and last year’s My Ride’s Here, which featured a guest appearance from talk show host and longtime friend David Letterman.
In August 2002, several months after the album’s release, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an inoperable form of lung cancer (see “Singer Warren Zevon Terminally Ill” ).
At the time, he said in a typically dark official statement, “I’m okay with it, but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it till the next James Bond movie comes out.”
In a clear allusion to his state of health and a nod to his gallows sense of humor, Zevon covered Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” on The Wind. Imbuing the often recorded rock classic with a new sense of desperation mixed with a cocky acceptance, Zevon ad libbed the lines “open up, open up, open up.”
He closed the album with the heartfelt “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a sedate acoustic ballad in which the singer, known for his jaundiced view of the world, bid a loving, emotional farewell. “Shadows are falling and I’m running out of breath/ Keep me in your heart for a while/ If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less/Keep me in your heart for a while.”