Warren William Zevon on January 24, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois
September 7, 2003 in Los Angeles, California
One of rock music's signature wildman poets, Warren Zevon emerged during the mid '70s among a series of generally mellow California singer-songwriters
. However, Zevon's iconoclastic story songs delivered an utterly unique rock music perspective when mainstream music needed it most. Over the course of an accomplished career almost four decades in length, Zevon established himself as one of rock's greatest artists of all time. Never tied restrictively to any of the decades in which he worked tirelessly for independent, genre-bending artistic freedom, Zevon will forever remain a legend the music world lost far too soon.
Like many future successful professional musicians, Zevon engaged his musical interest while quite young, even studying modern classical music for awhile as a youth in California. However, an academic approach to music didn't quite suit him, and Zevon moved to New York as a teenager to take part in that famous city's folk music
scene. Session gigs and work as a songwriter for hire followed, culminating in a solo debut album in 1969, the unsuccessful and somewhat personally disastrous Wanted Dead or Alive
. Zevon spent the first half of the '70s backing The Everly Brothers
and stewing in his own career dissatisfaction before making the fateful move back to the West Coast.
Late-'70s Critical Success:
Zevon's return to California landed him right in the middle of a fertile rock music scene already dominated by the likes of Jackson Browne
and The Eagles
. And although his musical background didn't perfectly fit into the country rock
or folk rock
mold, Zevon quickly found this was the right place to get his career going in earnest. In fact, Browne championed Zevon specifically by agreeing to produce his solo self-titled debut
, released in 1976 to modest commercial success but steady reverence. 1978's smash Excitable Boy
increased Zevon's following, and by the end of the '70s songs like the stunningly twisted title track
and "Werewolves of London"
had already become quirky, darkly humorous classics.
Stormy Beginning to the '80s:
Zevon had been wrestling with substance abuse problems during his rising years as an uncompromising solo artist, but these demons started to get the best of him as the '80s began. 1980's Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School
represented a slight decline in artistry during this period, although Zevon more than recovered with 1982's The Envoy
, which featured the top-notch, challenging songcraft of "Ain't That Pretty at All"
and "Looking for the Next Best Thing."
In terms of sound, Zevon remained eclectic and pretty much ignored new wave
trends, even if the album did make some use of synthesizer and so-called modern production touches. However, the album was not commercially successful and led to the severance of Zevon's major label contract.
True Sobriety & Late-'80s Return:
Career turmoil and other personal issues caused a major relapse into addiction for Zevon, and he spent much of the mid '80s getting himself back on track in this regard. Nevertheless, he found time to strike up a working relationship with the three backing members of R.E.M.
, with whom he formed the one-off outfit Hindu Love Gods. That trio, in fact, helped him record 1987's Sentimental Hygiene
, which was hailed as a return to form on the strength of the shattering story song "Boom Boom Mancini"
as well as the weathered, personal songwriting of "Reconsider Me"
and "Detox Mansion."
The conceptual Transverse City
followed in 1989, and by this point Zevon had seemed to enter a relatively comfortable phase as a revered cult artist.
The '90s and Millennial Resurgence:
Following 1991's Mr. Bad Example
, Zevon entered another period of sporadic recording activity, although his established legend continued to be celebrated by many respected figures in pop culture, including David Letterman
and a collection of writers Zevon helped coordinate into a band known as The Rock Bottom Remainders
. By the year 2000, it came as a pleasant surprise when Zevon entered a newly fertile period as a songwriter and recording artist. Over the next three years, in fact, Zevon released three acclaimed albums, culminating in 2003's The Wind
, released just before his early death from mesothelioma.
Death & Massive Legacy:
Zevon's artistic and personal life had long been characterized by gallows humor and a sort of prescient dark spirituality, as the titles of 2000's Life'll Kill Ya
and 2002's My Ride's Here
seemed to foreshadow his premature demise. The Wind
was recorded largely while the artist was ill, but it featured direct and unflinching songwriting and received eager support from many admirers and collaborators within the music industry. In the decade or more since his death, Zevon's utterly unique take on life and art has remained a treasure of American pop culture. His songs continue to reflect the courage, humor and abandon with which he lived his life.