Sad fate for an excitable boy
Fri Sep 13, 7:52 AM ET

Edna Gundersen USA TODAY

Shortly after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, Warren Zevon handed his pulmonologist copies of recent albums Life'll Kill Ya and My Ride's Here and said, ''Doc, just look at the titles and ask yourself why I have this eerie acceptance.''

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The savage wit and black humor that permeate Zevon's music are also easing the burden of terminal illness as the singer/songwriter comes to grips with a fleeting future. He learned only a few weeks ago that persistent breathing difficulties, which he had naively blamed on exercise or, at worst, treatable congestive heart failure, were in fact death knells.

''I've been phobically avoiding physicals for many, many years,'' he says. ''I used to joke that if my dentist couldn't fix it, I was screwed. I was having shortness of breath, which I assumed was from launching into this geriatric Vin Diesel workout program. When my dentist found out I'd been having shortness of breath for several weeks, he dragged me to a cardiologist.''

An intensive series of tests revealed grim results: lung cancer that had spread to the liver.

''It's a situation where the doctor comes in, closes the door and hands you a drink of water,'' Zevon said by phone Wednesday, a day before his publicist released news of his health. ''I didn't have the gravest of trepidations going in, but I certainly got the picture by the time I left.''

A lifelong optimist, Zevon isn't counting on miracles. ''It has been made abundantly clear to me: The recovery statistic for what I have is zero. I'd rather they told me I had the flu. I've got plenty of information I didn't want. I don't want more. They can tell me when to turn in my driver's license, but I don't want them to start guessing which organ is going which day.''

He quit smoking five years ago, ending a 30-year habit. It wasn't his only demon. After early success with 1978's Excitable Boy, which contained his only pop hit, Werewolves of London, Zevon battled alcoholism until the mid-'80s. He has continued to record albums and garnered new attention as holiday fill-in for Late Show With David Letterman ( news - Y! TV) bandleader Paul Shaffer. Bitterness and regret have no roles in his current thinking.

''Regrets are so far from reality,'' he says. ''Would I like to tell someone, 'Look, if you don't want to die at 55, you might not want to smoke for 30 years'? Sure. I'm a living example of that. But this is my life, these were my choices. I lucked out big time because I got to be the most (expletive)-up rock star on the block, at least on my block, and then I got to be a sober dad for 18 years. I've had two very full lives.''

Zevon has been heartened by the care and support of daughter Ariel, 26, and son Jordan, 33. ''There's nothing more you can ask for,'' he says. ''Comfort, a sense of continuity and serenity, and people who are going to do the job of living better than you did.''

Zevon, just beginning pain medication but still mobile enough to care for himself and work long days, says symptoms will dictate the extent of his activities. He's looking forward to his daughter's engagement party and hopes to enjoy a fishing trip or two with his son and writer pal Carl Hiaasen.

He's also immersed in writing and recording a new album. Artemis chairman Danny Goldberg has given Zevon carte blanche to record whenever and wherever he pleases. He'll visit a studio next week with guest musicians.

''I have a few mischievous plans,'' he says, too superstitious to reveal details. Any unfinished tracks will be completed by his son and engineer. ''They'll know what I would have done.''

The irony of Zevon's darkly comic musical legacy is not lost on him. He has penned tunes about headless ghosts and stylish werewolves. He puffs a cigarette on the cover of 1991's Mr. Bad Example. He titled his 1996 box set I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.

''I've often infuriated sincere interviewers who asked why I write all these death songs,'' he says. ''I'd tell them, 'I don't know.' I guess I have the answer now. Maybe as writers, we carry some kind of physical knowledge of our fates, and work through them.

''To me, the message of my songs, of all songs, is 'enjoy life.' My message as a person who evidently doesn't have much more planned is the same. It's the only message I ever thought art had any business having.''

Though Zevon would have chosen a sunnier destiny, he's grateful his diagnosis reawakened a personal philosophy to ''notice you're alive.''

''You make the most of every word, every poem, every flower,'' he says. ''I sure notice that I'm alive now. I did before, but not as much as I should have. All I can say is what I've always said: If you break your leg, stop thinking about dancing and start decorating the cast.''