Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 – September 7, 2003) was an American rock singer-songwriter and musician.
Zevon’s most famous compositions include “Werewolves of London”, “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, all of which are featured on his third album, Excitable Boy (1978), whose title track is also well-known. He also wrote major hits that were recorded by other artists, including “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, “Accidentally Like a Martyr”, “Mohammed’s Radio”, “Carmelita”, and “Hasten Down the Wind”. Along with his own work, he recorded or performed occasional covers, including Allen Toussaint’s “A Certain Girl”, Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”, Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again”, and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”.
Initially successful as a band leader, Zevon struggled to have a solo career until his music was performed by Linda Ronstadt, beginning in 1976 with her album Hasten Down the Wind. This launched a cult following that lasted for 25 years, with Zevon making occasional returns to album and single charts until his death from cancer in 2003. He briefly found a new audience in the 1980s by teaming up with members of R.E.M. in the blues rock outfit Hindu Love Gods.
Known for his dry wit and acerbic lyrics, he was a guest numerous times on Late Night with David Letterman and the Late Show with David Letterman.
In interviews, Zevon described a lifelong phobia of doctors and said he seldom consulted one. He had started working out, and he looked physically fit. Shortly before playing at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 2002, he started feeling dizzy and developed a chronic cough. After a period of suffering with pain and shortness of breath, Zevon was encouraged by his dentist to see a physician; he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer (usually caused by exposure to asbestos) that affects the pleura, a thin membrane around the lungs and chest lining. Zevon was deeply shaken by the news and began drinking again after 17 years of sobriety.
Although Zevon never revealed where he may have been exposed to asbestos, his son, Jordan, suggests that it came from Zevon’s childhood, playing in the attic of his father’s carpet store in Arizona. Refusing treatments he believed might incapacitate him, Zevon instead began recording his final album, The Wind, which includes performances by close friends including Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, David Lindley, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and Dwight Yoakam. At the request of the music television channel VH1, documentarian Nick Read was given access to the sessions and made the television film Inside Out: Warren Zevon.
Zevon stated previously that his illness was expected to be terminal within months after diagnosis in late 2002. However, he lived to see the birth of twin grandsons in June 2003 and the release of The Wind on August 26, 2003. Owing in part to the first VH1 broadcasts of Nick Read’s documentary Warren Zevon: Keep Me in Your Heart, the album reached number 12 on the U.S. charts, Zevon’s highest placement since Excitable Boy. When his diagnosis became public, Zevon wryly told the media that he just hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie (Die Another Day), a goal he accomplished.
Zevon died on September 7, 2003, aged 56, at his home in Los Angeles. The Wind was certified gold by the RIAA in December 2003, and Zevon received five posthumous Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for the ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart”. The Wind won two Grammys, with the album itself receiving the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, while “Disorder in the House”, Zevon’s duet with Bruce Springsteen, was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. These posthumous awards were the first Grammys of Zevon’s thirty-plus year career.