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Biography, at a glance

“You get in front of people and say ‘here’s this deal we all dread.  But here’s some laughs.’  I don’t see what harm it could do,” said Warren in fall of 2002, shortly after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.  He was given three months to live – a death sentence in anyone’s mind.  But Warren’s last album, The Wind, wasn’t a document of death.  It was the final portrayal of a creative, literate mind.

Born in 1947 to a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Scottish/Welsh Mormon, Warren William Zevon's early years were marked by genius.  He  was mentored by Robert Craft while studying the piano, and spent some time as a teenager in the parlor of Igor Stravinsky.  As a child, he corresponded with Felix Klee, the brother of Paul Klee, who was also the curator of Paul’s work.  He was said to have scored the highest IQ ever in the city of Fresno, California.  But he moved around often, and dropped out of high school when he was 16.  Before dropping out, however, he formed the psychedelic folk duo lyme and cybelle, which charted at #60 with “Follow Me” in 1965.  At the same time, he was also a songwriter for his label, White Whale, and the Turtles recorded his songs “Like the Seasons” and “Outside Chance”. 

Warren was dismissed from White Whale in 1967.  In the meantime, he was picked up by Imperial Records, and his debut album Wanted Dead or Alive was released in 1969.  His son Jordan was born that year as well.  Wanted, however, did poorly, and a second album, Emblem for the Devil (sometimes titled A Leaf in the Wind), was never released.  It would take another six years before he had an opportunity to record again.  While he waited, he toured with the Everly Brothers, recorded jingles for Boone’s Farm Wines and Camaro and lived in Spain with his wife, Crystal. 

Jackson Browne was negotiating with Asylum Records, which was owned by David Geffen at the time.  In 1976, Jackson's work paid off when Warren signed a deal with Asylum and released a self-titled album.  While the album itself did not chart highly, peaking at #189, Linda Ronstadt covered four of its songs over a three year period: “Hasten Down the Wind”, “Carmelita”, “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”.  The latter song charted at #26 in 1978.  Warren embarked on a tour in support of the album.  When he returned home, it was in time for the birth of his daughter, Ariel. 

On January 24, 1978, the album Excitable Boy was released.  Shortly after, a novelty song written as a collaboration in 1975 spun its way up the charts, and Warren was suddenly a very famous man.  “Werewolves of London” charted at #21. Excitable Boy peaked at #8.  Critics lauded his sound and he was selling out arenas with his confrontational style. 

Yet his success only exacerbated a problem he’d had since he was a teenager.  He sought treatment for alcoholism in 1979 at the insistence of his wife and friends.  But it wasn’t enough: his marriage to Crystal ended in 1980, and he was dropped from his label two years later after releasing three albums  - Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Stand in the Fire and The Envoy - to dwindling public notice.  It wasn’t until 1986 that Warren was able to permanently set aside his drinking and drug use.

The second half of Warren’s career began in 1986, when “Werewolves” was used in the Martin Scorcese film The Color of Money.  In 1987, he was the first artist signed to Virgin Records.  Sentimental Hygiene didn’t chart, yet it represented a new surge of creative output from Warren.  Guest musicians included REM, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Don Henley, among many others.  In the next four years he would release Transverse City on Virgin Records, and Mr. Bad Example and  Hindu Love Gods, a collaboration with REM, on Giant.  His music was heard in movies such as Love at Large and Grand Canyon.

1992 marked Warren’s first television work, when he scored the music for an episode of Tales from the Crypt.  His first acting work was in 1994 with an appearance on The Larry Sanders Show.  In addition, he wrote and performed theme music for TekWar, Route 66 and ActionQueens Supreme used his song “Lawyers, Guns and Money” as its theme.  Other acting work included a guest appearance on NBC’s Suddenly Susan and a silent role in the film South of Heaven, West of Hell, directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

Warren returned to music in 1993 with the live album Learning to Flinch and 1995’s Mutineer.  His label, Giant, dropped him in 1996.  For the next few years, Warren toured frequently, released a two-disc retrospective on Rhino Records and began periodically filling in for Paul Shaffer on The Late Show with David Letterman

Artemis Records signed Warren in late 1999 and released Life’ll Kill Ya in early 2000.  For many fans, it was a strong return to form.  Although it didn’t enjoy the success of Excitable Boy, the writing was clearly the best since the late 1970’s.  A follow-up album, My Ride’s Here, came out in 2002.  My Ride's Here features songs co-written with Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom and Hunter S. Thompson.

But that summer, just before performing at the Edmonton Folk Festival, Warren started feeling weak and dizzy and developed a chronic, persistent cough.  The symptoms didn’t go away when he returned home, and they began to interfere with his daily workouts.  He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August and made a statement to the public on September 12, 2002. 

No one is entirely sure how Warren developed mesothelioma.  While Warren had been smoking for almost thirty years before quitting in 1996, the cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos.  After Warren died, his son Jordan discussed his theory as to how Warren contracted it.  Warren’s father owned a carpet store in Arizona, and when Warren was quite young, he used to play in the attic, which was loaded with asbestos. It is unclear whether or not his apartment building contained asbestos.

Almost immediately after his diagnosis, Warren began work on his final album, The Wind.  David Letterman set aside an entire show dedicated to Warren and his music on October 30, 2002.  It was Warren’s last public performance.  Over the course of six months, Warren wrote songs and recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bob Thornton and Ry Cooder, along with a host of others.  VH1 filmed the making of The Wind for a documentary, VH1 InsideOut: Keep Me In Your Heart.

On June 11, 2003, his grandsons, Augustus Warren and Maximus Patrick Zevon-Powell, were born to his daughter, Ariel and her husband, Ben Powell.  Warren was in attendance at the hospital for their arrival. He rarely left his apartment at this point, but made every effort to be there for their birth.

On August 24, 2003, The Wind was released to rave reviews and public adulation.  It immediately charted at #16, going gold in five weeks.  Warren passed away two weeks later, on September 7, 2003.  He had lived a year with his diagnosis, months longer than his doctors’ original estimate. 

The 46th Grammy Awards were held shortly after Warren's death, in February 2004.  He was nominated for five Grammys and won two - Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal ("Disorder in the House", with Bruce Springsteen) and Best Contemporary Folk Album (The Wind, with Noah Scot Snyder and Jorge Calderon).