Edgy, satirical rocker dies after yearlong cancer battle


September 9, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


Chicago native Warren Zevon wrote hundreds of songs in his 56 years, and he counted among his admirers legendary peers such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. But rock fans will always think of him most fondly when recalling the demonic howl in the chorus of his biggest hit.

"I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's," he sang, viciously satirizing the singles scene in the Los Angeles of the late '70s. "His hair was perfect. Wah-oooh! Werewolves of London!"

A lifelong smoker, Mr. Zevon announced in September 2002 that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He spent the final months of his life reconnecting with his two grown children, Jason and Ariel, and working on a farewell album, "The Wind," which was released on Aug. 26.

The singer and songwriter died in his sleep on Sunday in his home in California, his publicist said.

The child of Russian immigrants, Mr. Zevon was born in Chicago on Jan. 24, 1947. His father was a professional gambler, which instilled in the budding musician an abiding interest in colorful and often crooked characters. The family moved frequently throughout his childhood, finally settling in Los Angeles.

Mr. Zevon would become a key purveyor of the highly produced "California sound" of the '70s, collaborating with friends and neighbors including Browne (who produced or co-produced five of his early albums), Linda Ronstadt (for whom he wrote "Poor Poor Pitiful Me"), Glenn Frey and Don Henley of the Eagles and Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac.

He was an accomplished and creative rock piano player. As a teen, Mr. Zevon befriended and learned from another neighbor in the Hollywood Hills, the renowned Russian composer and pianist Igor Stravinsky. His music often incorporated classical touches, in addition to folk, rock and even polka influences.

Mr. Zevon began his professional career in the mid-'60s, when he hopped into the Corvette his father won in a card game and headed for New York to become part of a quickly forgotten folk duo called Lyme and Cybelle.

He eventually returned to California, where he wrote jingles for TV commercials, penned the song "She Quit Me Man" for the soundtrack of "Midnight Cowboy" and worked as the bandleader for the Everly Brothers.

When he made his first album in 1970, he billed himself as a one-man band called Zevon. But he didn't connect with the rock audience until his third disc, 1978's "Excitable Boy," one of the albums produced by Browne.

Propelled by "Werewolves of London," the album reached the Top 10 on Billboard's pop albums chart, and it stands as Mr. Zevon's finest moment. With other dark, disturbing but endlessly hummable songs such as "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and the title track (the twisted tale of a high school rapist and serial killer), "Excitable Boy" conveys the dark undercurrents that ran just below the shiny facade of Southern California's cocaine culture.

After "Excitable Boy," Mr. Zevon fell into the throes of alcoholism. His subsequent albums were never as strong, and he never rocked with quite the same vigor again.

"I chose a certain path and lived like Jim Morrison but lived 30 more years," he told the Associated Press. "You make choices and you have to live with the consequences."

Mr. Zevon rebounded to some extent with "The Envoy" in 1982, but when the album failed commercially, he fell off the wagon. A long period of therapy and counseling followed. In 1987, he returned with an album called "Sentimental Hygiene" that featured a guest appearance by Dylan and backing by the members of R.E.M., who also played on a second collection of material in 1990.

"The Wind" is a mixed effort that sometimes borders on maudlin, as on a cover of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." In other, earlier tunes such as "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," however, Mr. Zevon faced his impending death with his trademark black humor.

"I always like to have violent lyrics and violent music," he said in 1990. "The knowledge of death and fear of death informs my existence. It's a safe, kind of cheerful way of dealing with that issue."