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, his early years were marked by genius.
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, 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,
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
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
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 Action.
Queens 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.
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,
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
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).