Warren Zevon was born in Chicago, IL in 1947. His mother was from a Mormon family. His father, taking a completely different turn, was a bookie who handled dice games and bets for notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. (Who, against all odds, managed to die a natural death.) Warren’s father, “Stumpy” Zevon was Cohen’s best man. Maybe all this background provides some idea of Warren’s oddball lyricism.
Zevon studied classical music as a teenager and when his parents split up, he dropped out of school and made his way to Greenwich Village in the early ’60’s to try his hand at being a folk singer. It’s hard to find any evidence from his playing around this time. But suffice it to say that like so many, this dream did not work out. He returned to LA on, as one article I read said, “the fringes of the LA pop scene.
One of his early efforts was part of a duo called lyme and cybelle with a woman who had the terrific name of Violet Santangelo. They managed to get signed to a label and released a song which sank like a stone. His labelmates, the Turtles, recorded a couple of his compositions (“Outside Chance” and “Like the Seasons.”) One of his songs, “She Quit Me” wound up on the 1969 Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. Sung by a woman named Leslie Miller, it was retitled “He Quit Me.” (Good taste – Zevon and Nilsson on the same album.)
In 1969, Zevon released his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive. (Zero relation to the later Bon Jovi tune.) This album was both a critical and commercial failure. However, I listened to it and you know, there’s some decent stuff on there. You can hear the beginnings of the singular Zevon sound.
I like this tune, “Calcutta.” There’s some cracking guitar and piano on here by Mr. Zevon. (The recurring lick sounds like Cream’s version of “Crossroads.”)
Somehow Zevon came to the attention of the Everly Brothers and in 1971, he became their bandleader and “the road, booze and I became an inseparable team.” (Ace guitarist Albert Lee spent many years with one or both of the Everlys but I can’t find any evidence that Zevon and Lee were in the band at the same time.)
From an article in Uncut magazine: In 1974 he dropped acid with his girlfriend Crystal and, guzzling vodka all the way, drove through the night to marry in Reno. The next year, they moved to Franco’s Spain – “Looking for trouble,” he said, “where they still point machine-guns in your face.” (Unclear to me why this would be attractive to anyone.)
Now, I haven’t exactly figured out how they all knew each other, but on his return to the States in 1975, Warren (and I assume his wife) moved in with Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham who were by now members of Fleetwood Mac. He got to know Jackson Browne who produced his second album, Warren Zevon.
This 1976 album was the real start to Zevon’s road to fame and featured some of the cream of rock musicians of the day: Browne, Buckingham, Nicks, Phil Everly, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bobby Keys, David Lindley, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Waddy Wachtel, Carl Wilson.
Here’s a great rocker from the album, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” Linda Ronstadt had a hit cover of this and later also covered the song “Hasten Down the Wind” for which she named the album.
On this tune, Lindsey Buckingham sings harmony vocals and plays guitar. Hey, does Mac ever cover this tune? They should, no? Wikipedia says it’s a song whose verses deal with a failed suicide, domestic abuse, and a brush with sadomasochism. Fun for the whole family!
While Zevon was a modest success, Warren’s next album, Excitable Boy – released in 1978 – was his breakthrough. So many good songs on here it’s hard to pick just one. So I’ll pick two.
First up, “Lawyers, Guns, and Money,” quite possibly Zevon’s ode to a life of danger. He starts out in Havana and winds up in Honduras:
I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians too
Now there’s no way I’m going to do a Zevon post without posting possibly the greatest song in the history of mankind, “Werewolves of London.” (I read somewhere this was his tribute to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. True? Does it matter? A-hooooo!) The band here is co-writer Waddy Wachtel, Zevon, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.
He put out an album called Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. It featured a song called “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” which is a song Springsteen hadn’t been able to finish. So it’s credited to both here. I don’t believe Springsteen ever officially released his version but the outtake I heard is called “Janey Needs a Shooter.”*
While Zevon continued to record and perform live, arguably these albums were the peak of his career. His slide into alcoholism didn’t help either. For a few years in the Eighties, he was part of a side project with most of the guys from R.E.M called Hindu Love Gods.
Zevon became a mainstay of David Letterman’s late night show when he would sit in for bandleader Paul Shaffer periodically. He became a friend of Letterman and all the guys and would appear fairly frequently on the show.
Warren had a lifelong phobia of doctors and refused to see one, even when he started having a persistent cough. Finally convinced to go, in 2002 he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, cancer typically caused by exposure to asbestos.
In October 2002, Zevon was the only guest on Letterman’s one-hour program. (By now it was well-known that his cancer was terminal.) With his typical mordant sense of humor, he told Letterman, “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years.” When asked by Letterman what insights his mortality brought he said, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
The song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is a song Zevon co-wrote with a bar owner during his stint in Spain. Wikipedia: The fictional character Roland is a Norwegian who becomes embroiled in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War and Congo Crisis of the 1960s – the lyrics mention the years 1966 and 1967, which correspond to the mercenary-led Kisangani Mutiniesafter the Congo Crisis. (Beats the hell out of I love you. baby, baby, baby).
That was the last song Zevon ever performed before a live audience. He died on September 7, 2003, aged 56, at his home in Los Angeles. His final album, The Wind, won two posthumous Grammys including one for another duet with The Boss.
A tribute album titled Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon was released October 19, 2004. A partial list of contributors includes Don Henley, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Springsteen, Wallflowers, and Pixies.
Sources: Wikipedia, Zevon website
*Zevon had heard of this Bruce Springsteen song title from his manager, Jon Landau. Warren once said he asked Springsteen about it “many times” until Springsteen said, “You like it so much, why don’t you write it?” Zevon wrote a few lines and cut a track and then showed up to Springsteen’s house in the middle of the night. Springsteen was asleep on the sofa. Warren played what he had. Springsteen then said, “It’s nice, but where are all the other verses?” Warren explained he just looked and smiled at that point.