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Warren Zevon Biography

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Birth Name: Warren William Zevon
Born: 1947/01/24
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died: 2003/09/07
Years Active: 1965–2003
Genres: Rock

Warren William Zevon (January 24, 1947 - September 7, 2003) was an American rock singer-songwriter and musician noted for including his unique and sometimes sardonic opinions of life in his musical lyrics, composing songs that were sometimes humorous and often had political or historical themes.

Zevon's first attempt at a solo album, 1969’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” was produced by 1960s cult figure Kim Fowley but did not sell well. Flashes of Zevon's later writing preoccupations of romantic loss and noir-ish violence are present in songs like "Tule's Blues" and "A Bullet for Ramona."

By September 1975, Zevon had moved to Los Angeles, where he roomed with then-unknown Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. There, he collaborated with Jackson Browne, who during 1976 would produce and promote Zevon's self-titled major-label debut. Contributors to this album included Nicks, Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt.

Though only a modest commercial success, the 1976 Browne-produced “Warren Zevon” would later be termed a masterpiece. Representative tracks include the junkie's lament "Carmelita," the Copland-esque outlaw ballad "Frank and Jesse James," "The French Inhaler," a scathing insider's look at life and lust in the L.A. music business and "Desperados Under the Eaves," a chronicle of Zevon's increasing alcoholism.

During 1978, Zevon released “Excitable Boy” (produced by Browne and guitarist Waddy Wachtel) to critical acclaim and popular success. The title tune name-checked "Little Susie," the heroine of former employers the Everly Brothers' tune "Wake Up Little Susie," while songs such as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" used deadpan humor to wed geopolitical subtexts to hard-boiled narratives. Tracks from this album received heavy FM airplay and the single release "Werewolves of London," which featured Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, was a relatively lighthearted version of Zevon's signature macabre outlook and a Top 30 success.

Zevon followed Excitable Boy with 1980's “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.” It featured a modest novelty success with the single "A Certain Girl" which peaked at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It contained a collaboration with Bruce Springsteen called "Jeannie Needs a Shooter", and the ballad "Empty-Handed Heart" featuring Linda Ronstadt. Later during 1980, he released the live album “Stand in the Fire” (dedicated to Martin Scorsese), recorded over five nights at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles.

Zevon's 1982 release “The Envoy” returned to the high standard of “Excitable Boy” but was not a commercial success. It was an eclectic but characteristic set that included such compositions as "Ain't That Pretty at All," "Charlie's Medicine" and "Jesus Mentioned," the first of Zevon's two musical reactions to the death of Elvis Presley.

Zevon retreated from the music business for several years, during which he finally overcame severe alcohol and drug addictions.

Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills (of R.E.M.) served as the core of Zevon's next studio band when he re-emerged in 1987 by signing with Virgin Records and recording the album “Sentimental Hygiene.” The release, hailed as his best since “Excitable Boy,” featured a thicker rock sound and taut, often humorous songs like "Detox Mansion," "Bad Karma" (which featured R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe on backup vocals), and "Reconsider Me." Included were contributions from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Flea, Brian Setzer, George Clinton, as well as Berry, Buck, and Mills. Also on hand were longtime collaborators Jorge Calderón and Waddy Wachtel.

The immediate follow-up to “Sentimental Hygiene” was 1989's “Transverse City,” a futuristic concept album inspired by Zevon's interest in the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson. It featured guests including Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, keyboard player Chick Corea and guitarists Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and Neil Young. Key tracks include the title song, "Splendid Isolation," "Run Straight Down" (which had a promotional video that featured Zevon singing in a factory while Gilmour played his guitar solos) and "They Moved the Moon," the latter among Zevon's eerier ballads.

During 1991, Zevon, released “Mr. Bad Example.” This album featured the modest popular music success "Searching for a Heart" and the rock music song "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," later utilized for the title of the neo-noir film of the same name directed by Gary Fleder.

Occasionally, between 1982 and 2001, Zevon filled in for Paul Shaffer as bandleader on Late Night with David Letterman and later Late Show with David Letterman. During 1995, Zevon released the self-produced “Mutineer.” The title track was frequently covered by Bob Dylan on his U.S. Fall Tour in 2002.

After another five-year layoff, Zevon again rebounded with the mortality-themed 2000 release “Life'll Kill Ya,” containing the hymn-like "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and an austere version of Steve Winwood's 1980s success "Back in the High Life Again." He followed with 2002's “My Ride's Here,” which included "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" and the ballad "Genius.”

In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable mesothelioma cancer. Refusing treatments he believed might incapacitate him, Zevon instead began recording his final album. The album, “The Wind,’ includes guest appearances by close friends including Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, David Lindley, Billy Bob Thornton, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, Dwight Yoakam, and others. The album reached #16 of the U.S. chart, Zevon's highest since “Excitable Boy.”

Warren Zevon died on September 7, 2003, aged 56, at his home in Los Angeles, California. “The Wind” was certified gold by the RIAA during 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 more than 30-year career.