Print this page

Music Memories: Warren Zevon

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Warren Zevon, singer-songwriter

Warren Zevon was born on January 24, 1947. Zevon was among the most respected singer-songwriters of his generation, though he only occasionally broke through to a mainstream audience with a few minor hits.

Zevon was born in Chicago. His father was a bookie who worked for many years in the crime family of Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen. The Zevon family moved to Fresno when Warren was young, and shortly after that, to Los Angeles. In the early 1960s, Zevon studied music with Robert Craft, a conductor who had a long professional association with (and lived in the home of) Igor Stravinsky.

After his parents’ divorce in 1963, Zevon dropped out of school and moved to New York. He formed the duo lyme and cybelle—yes, they spelled it in all lower case—with a friend from high school; they recorded a few singles, and had a modest hit in 1966 with “Follow Me.”

Zevon supported himself in New York by writing jingles and working as a session musician. He also wrote songs for other artists; “He Quit Me” made it into the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy, and The Turtles recorded “Like the Seasons.”

Zevon released his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive, in 1969. It was a commercial flop; as Zevon put it, the album was received “with the sound of one hand clapping.” He spent much of the early 1970s on tour with the Everly Brothers as their band leader and keyboard player.

warren zevon album cover

In 1975, Zevon returned to Los Angeles and began working on a new album, Warren Zevon. He had a lot of friends in the Los Angeles music scene, and the lineup of musicians who played some part in recording the album was formidable: Carl Wilson, J. D. Souther, Phil Everly, Bonnie Raitt, Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt. (Ronstadt would go on to be one of Zevon’s strongest advocates, including his songs on several of her albums.)

The album didn’t sell terribly well, but it was enough of a critical success to keep Zevon’s recording career going. In 1978, he released Excitable Boy, which included two of his best-known songs—“Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money”—as well as his only top 40 pop hit, “Werewolves of London.”

That song, a semi-novelty featuring Zevon’s memorable “ah-OOOOO” howl, started as a joke. Phil Everly had seen an old movie called Werewolf of London, and suggested it to Zevon as a song title. Zevon and a couple of his band members wrote the song in about fifteen minutes but didn’t take it very seriously. It was only after Jackson Browne began performing the song in concert that Zevon decided to include it on Excitable Boy, and even then, he fought against the label’s decision to release it as a single.

The 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School included Zevon’s cover of an early 60s R&B song, “A Certain Girl,” which got some radio airplay. And the single from 1982’s The Envoy, “Let Nothing Come Between You,” did fairly well on rock radio. The title song of The Envoy was inspired by the shuttle diplomacy of Philip Habib during a conflict between Israel and Lebanon; Habib sent “a very nice letter of appreciation on State Department stationery.” The album also included “The Overdraft,” a collaboration with novelist Thomas McGuane.

After the disappointing sales of The Envoy, Zevon’s record label canceled his contract, which Zevon only learned when he read the news in Rolling Stone. The news sent him on a drinking binge that nearly killed him before he went into rehab and sobered up for good.

At the core of Zevon’s band for the 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene were Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills, all members of R.E.M. That quartet had played a few concerts together in 1984 under the name Hindu Love Gods, and even released a single in 1986. While recording Sentimental Hygiene, they spent one late night in an informal jam session, recording some of their favorite songs, mostly blues standards. They initially had no plans to release those recordings, but in 1990, the album Hindu Love Gods came out; their cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” was a modest success at rock radio.

In the early 1990s, Zevon took on a new job as the musical coordinator and sometime guitarist for the Rock Bottom Remainders. The Remainders were an occasional band made up of popular authors (Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and Cynthia Heimel were among the core members) who played mostly at literary benefits and didn’t take themselves too seriously; “we play music, as well as Metallica, writes novels,” Barry said.

Those literary connections continued to show up on Zevon’s album. Comic novelist Carl Hiaasen co-wrote songs on 1995’s Mutineer (“Seminole Bingo” and “Rottweiler Blues”) and 2002’s My Ride’s Here (“Basket Case”); the latter album also included collaborations with Mitch Albom (“Hit Somebody!”) and Hunter S. Thompson (“You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”).

In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer usually caused by exposure to asbestos. On October 30, he was the sole guest on David Letterman’s talk show, where he talked about his impending death. In response to a question about his philosophy of life, he offered the advice “Enjoy every sandwich.” It was his last public performance.

Zevon’s final album, The Wind, was released two weeks before Zevon’s death on September 7, 2003. He won two posthumous Grammy Awards for the album, the only Grammys he ever received.

In 2004, an all-star tribute album was released. Enjoy Every Sandwich featured performances of Zevon’s songs by Jackson Browne, Jill Sobule, Bruce Springsteen, and others; Zevon’s biggest hit, “Werewolves of London,” was sung by Adam Sandler.

Zevon’s ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, assembled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (e-book | print), an oral history of Zevon’s life and career, made up of interviews with his friends and associates. C. M. Kushins’s Nothing’s Bad Luck (e-book | e-audio | print) is a more straightforward biography. James Campion’s Accidentally Like a Martyr (e-book | print) is a collection of essays on Zevon’s music.

More of Warren Zevon’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla.