Warren Zevon : Forgotten Rock Star (JMcQ) Updated : 26.07.2003

Warren Zevon : Forgotten Rock Star (JMcQ)

Many might remember Warren Zevon as the writer behind “Werewolves of London”, that infectious tune from 1978’s Excitable Boy. Sure, it may be a catchy song, but for those younger listeners, it only provides one small fragment in a puzzle detailing one of the most underrated individuals in popular music of the last century. Zevon came from a Russian-Jewish immigrant father and a Scots-Welsh Mormon, and while there lived a relatively comfortable life, moving out to California and meeting Igor Stravinsky. Always deemed a “gifted” student, he eventually dropped out of Fairfax High School (before his Junior year) and moved to San Francisco to find his fortunes. Creating lyme and cybelle with his friend Violet Santangelo, Zevon got on meagerly with the proceeds created by the band and the later Turtles covers of two of lyme and cybelle’s hits : “Outside Chance” and “Like the Seasons”.

After getting his feet wet with lyme and cybelle, Zevon dove headlong into his work, releasing his first album, Wanted Dead or Alive in 1969. In retrospect, an odd album for Zevon, Wanted Dead or Alive had two very different directions molding its release. Originally being produced by Kim Fowley, creative control was eventually wrested by Zevon, who was not a big fan of the “black leather and chains” look that Fowley had felt for Zevon. Zevon would join onto the Everly Brothers as a keyboardist immediately after it became clear that Wanted Dead or Alive was a failure, staying out of the limelight as a solo artist for a number of years after that.

In the interim however, Zevon would find his second wife Crystal (in 1971) and get married to her in 1974. Arrested for driving drunk one night outside of Los Angeles’ Troubadour Club in early 1975, Zevon and Crystal decided to exile themselves in Spain, with Warren playing bars and small clubs to support the young couple. During this period, however, a friend of Zevon’s (in fellow musician Jackson Browne) was pandering Zevon’s music to a number of interested bidders (Zevon’s contract to David Geffen lapsed in 1973). Deciding to take a chance on Zevon, Jackson got him a contract on Asylum records and convinced him to come back to the states. For Zevon, it was a relatively simple choice, as the idyllic life imagined in Spain failed to materialize.

1976 saw the release of Zevon’s second album, Warren Zevon, as well as the tour that would follow. Warren Zevon, itself having such memorable tracks as “Frank and Jesse James”, “Hasten Down the Wind”, “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Desperados Under The Eves”, was a favorite of numerous critics. Things began to fall apart at the height of success, as Zevon would begin to gain the nickname Fitzzevon due to his prestigious amounts of drinking both on tour and at home. Eventually, things began to sour between him and Crystal, eventually causing a period of separation, only ending during the winter holidays of 1977, in which Zevon was able to write the songs for Excitable Boy.

Excitable Boy, Zevon’s second mainstream album, hit #8 on the Billboard charts and went gold later in 1978, due to the strong success of “Werewolves of London”, which would just nearly break the Billboard Top 20 (#21). Other tracks, such as “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, and the title track, would ensure the enshrinement of this album among the most memorable of the day. A tour, large in scope, which included Zevon himself appearing on stage in fatigues during “Jungle Work” acting in a role of soldier was cut short by the alcoholism that caused Zevon to break a leg and relegated him to a wheelchair. Soon after the tour ended, Zevon would be checked into detox for the first of a number of times at Pinecrest, a treatment facility in Santa Barbara.

Dealing very heavily with the divorce proceedings taking place during the writing of the album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School came out in 1980. Another strong album, but one that is much more darker in tone than its predecessors, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School had the major hit “A Certain Girl” (#45 on Billboard charts), and the chest-beating “Play It All Night Long”, the emotion-filled “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”, and the immensely introspective “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado”. Staying relatively sober during this period, Zevon would meet Kim Lankford (star of then TV hit “Knots Landing”), and have her become his fiancee. On the heels of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Asylum released Stand in the Fire, a live album that collected his greatest hits; “Excitable Boy”, Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”, with a number of new and unreleased songs, “Stand in the Fire”, “Sin”, “Bo Diddley”. Not performing as well as Zevon’s studio albums, Stand in the Fire would be later dropped from publication by Asylum, remaining out of print to this very day.

1982’s The Envoy would be the flipside of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, dealing with the continual process of being sober and the changes that Zevon had made in his life since his detoxification. Again, another strong bunch of tracks greeted listeners, with the title track placing Zevon in the titular role, with Zevon fighting personal policy issues in the guise of warring countries and “The Hula Hula Boys” showing a greater acceptance of his failed marriage to Crystal. Disappearing into the mists of obscurity after the touring ceased for The Envoy, Zevon would keep a low profile in the eyes of the media until 1986. However, during January 1984, Zevon was busy at work with 3/4ths of R.E.M., creating what would later (1990) be released as Hindu Love Gods. Since what the Hindu Love Gods created was pretty much just reworking other bands’ songs, the act did not wish the tapes to be released. 1986 rolled around, and a greatest hits collection, A Quiet Normal Life would begin to raise interest about him. Before discussion could die down about what happened to Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene was released along with videos and a special on mTV. However, none of these efforts nor any track like “Boom Boom Mancini” or “The Factory” could stop it from becoming another Zevon album out of print.

Again back in the swing of things, 1989 saw the release of Tranverse City, a William Gibson-inspired view of what a future world might look like. Tracks such as “The Long Arm of the Law” and “Gridlock” forecasted a pretty bleak vision of what was to come, and much like the album before it, Transverse City would also go out of print for a period. As the 1980’s came to a close, Warren Zevon was left with two tanking albums and an uncertain future. Would Warren Zevon become a relic of the past or would things turn around?

Part II : 1990 to Present.

As has been mentioned before, the Hindu Love Gods album was released against the wishes of all members of the act in 1990. However, the popularity of R.E.M. during this time might have had a positive effect to the notoriety of Warren himself, as Mr. Bad Example, his 1991 release, would spawn a Billboard Top 100 hit in “Searching For A Heart” and inspire a movie in “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”. It even includes a track accompanied by Country star Dwight Yoakam in “Heartache Spoken Here”. The two-year tour that supported this album would be the meat and potatoes for his next album, 1993’s live album Learning to Flinch. Learning to Flinch, aside from having some of his larger hits, also had an unreleased (but performed live) track in “Worrier King”, and two tracks off an upcoming album in “The Indifference of Heaven” and “Piano Fighter”.

Mutineer, the album in which Warren Zevon threw off all other song-writers (save for novelist Carl Hiaasen) and backing bands, is released in 1995. The studio versions of the two then-unreleased tracks off of Learning to Flinch were located on this disc, as well as fan favorite “Seminole Bingo”. During the writing of Mutineer, Zevon sought to extend his reaches, signing on to sing the theme songs for NBC’s Route 66 and Sci-Fi’s Tekwar. After this period of high activity, the 48-year old singer took a minor break from the music industry, with the only work coming out from 1995 to 2000 being the double-disc buffet of Zevon’s work, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.

The ending (or beginning) of the millennium saw a great point with Warren’s 10th studio album Life’ll Kill Ya on January 25th, 2000. Another single, albeit one that did not reach the upper echelons of the Billboard charts, was released in “I Was in the House When The House Burned Down”. Most reviews of the disc were favorable, and minor efforts were done to try to promote the disc, including appearing on Suddenly Susan as a guest star, on Mancow’s morning radio show, and NPR, along with the ever-present David Letterman appearances.

May 7th 2002 was the day that the latest Zevon offering, My Ride’s Here, was released. My Ride’s Here has the most radio-friendly song by Zevon in years with the single “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song) and some of the most difficult but rewarding tracks for fans (Laissez-Moi Tranquille). A seemingly omniscient album, the album shouts out to the listener about Zevon’s mortality in both “I Have to Leave” and the titular track, with "I Have to Leave" proclaiming that “I have to leave/Let me go now/I dont want to be here anymore.” September 12th, 2002 will always seem to be a dark day for both Zevon himself and his fans, as it was the day on which he announced to the world that he had terminal acute mesothelioma of the lungs which had metastasized to the liver.

But before he leaves this earth, Warren Zevon will ensure that one more album, possibly his greatest, will be unleashed to the world. This upcoming album, originally called Dirty Life and Times, after one of the stronger tracks, will be released under the name The Wind. Pretty much having a cross-section of stars from all across music and acting, The Wind promises to be an excellent album. The star list includes Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Ry Cooder, Don Henley (just on “Dirty Life and Times”), Emmylou Harris (“Please Stay”), Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, John Waite (“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”) and Tom Petty (“The Rest of the Night”). The album is planned to drop in August of 2003, and a VH1 special on Zevon’s life will more or less be released concurrently.

The internet is a most valuable source for information surrounding Zevon. Among this information, there are numerous sites with addresses in which to send letters directly to Zevon, some of which are very touching. The community of fans which have built their lives around Zevon himself are truly amazing, and will ensure that there will never be ignorance of a truly great legend in rock and roll history. Thanks go out to the Rolling Stone online archives, as well as the invaluable biographies at The Zevon Fan Web Page and The Warren Zevon Other Page.