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Zevon, 56, is dead after a long illness

Warren Zevon, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter whose music often combined dark, mordant, absurdist wit with some of the more memorable melodies of the modern rock era, died Sunday in his Los Angeles-area home, his manager said Monday
/ Source: msnbc.com

Warren Zevon, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter whose music often combined dark, mordant, absurdist wit with some of the more memorable melodies of the modern rock era, died Sunday in his Los Angeles-area home, his manager said Monday. Zevon, a mainstay of the Los Angeles music scene of the 1980s and of the national scene since then, announced in late August 2002 that he had mesothelioma, a rare, inoperable cancer that had ravaged his lungs and spread to his liver. He was 56.

In a career that began in the mid-1960s, Zevon parlayed the experiences of an antic, peripatetic life into music and words that explored — in songs by turns poignant and hilarious — the volatile brinkmanship of human behavior, the wars within the human heart, and the same often-acerbic emotional candor that informed his way of life and of death.

Excess and dissolution were frequent topics in his lyrics; songs from “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” a rousing anthem to the party life (from his breakthrough 1976 album) to “Werewolves of London,” a tongue-in-cheek horror story set to a jaunty melody (on “Excitable Boy,” 1978) revealed a fascination with the macabre. Like many other successful rock acts, Zevon eventually adopted a logo: a skull adorned in sunglasses with a cigarette dangling from its mouth — a hipster update of an 1885 painting by Vincent van Gogh.

'A different kind of song'
“Hemingway said all good stories ended in death, and I write songs about death and violence for some reason,” he told VH1 in an interview this year. “Some of them are based on my upbringing and some are based on my reading habits. We live in a culture where violence is all around us and I found myself writing more songs about violence than romantic subjects. I like to think I have some goodhearted romantic impulses now and then, but for the most part I write a different kind of song.”

Zevon also betrayed a footloose imagination, his songs painted pictures of characters — characters in every sense of the word. They could be real-life cartoons like Bill Lee, the self-styled former Boston Red Sox pitcher. Or they could be imaginary creations: a headless mercenary loose in Africa; an excitable soul so enamored of pot roast he rubs it all over his chest; or “a werewolf drinking a piòa colada at Trader Vic’s ... his hair was perfect.”

But the pain of loss and the longing for human connection were evident in other songs that revealed a depth and complexity that contrasted with more offbeat compositions.

Hardly a quiet normal life
Warren William Zevon was born Jan. 24, 1947 in Chicago, son of a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Scots-Welsh Mormon. He moved to Arizona and Los Angeles as a child with his family. He received formal training in classical piano, and in junior high school struck up acquaintances with Robert Craft, the veteran conductor and biographer, and the legendary Russian pianist Igor Stravinsky, who lived near Hollywood. High school was uneventful, so much so that Zevon dropped out.

He started his musical career in 1966, as half of lyme and cybelle, a folk duo he formed with Violet Santangelo. The group made its album debut on the White Whale label, which was also home to Nino Tempo and April Stevens, and The Turtles, who recorded a Zevon song, “Like the Seasons,” in 1967. The folk duo, and the marriage, later broke up.

His debut album, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1969) was poorly received, but one song, “She Quit Me,” was featured in the Oscar-winning 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy.”

He wrote songs for other groups, and also worked in the advertising world, writing jingles for Chevrolet and Boone’s Farm wines.

An itinerant phase followed. Zevon spent two years working with the Everly Brothers, touring with the duo as pianist and bandleader. When the Everly Brothers quit touring, he traveled in the West, singing in clubs in northern California and elsewhere. He reportedly visited Aspen, Colo., staying long enough and making enough of an impression to be named the honorary coroner of Pitkin County — an honor bestowed in the bar of the Hotel Jerome, haunt of Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson.

He left the United States about 1974, living the vagabond life in Spain with his second wife, and singing songs in bars.

Lives in the fast lane
The singer Jackson Browne, a friend of Zevon since 1968, was busy in America getting Zevon’s songs noticed and heard by recording industry executives. Their relationship led to Zevon’s return from Europe and, ultimately, in 1976, the release of “Warren Zevon,” a driven, confessional collection of songs that perfectly captured the hedonistic spirit of life in the late 1970’s. Time Magazine heralded the album, which Browne produced, as one of the best records of the 1970’s.

Like his contemporaries the Eagles, Zevon would come to borrow from the storied fast-lane experiences of Southern California life. In songs like “The French Inhaler,” “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” Zevon’s lyrics conveyed a knife-sharp taste for ridicule that spared no one — not even their composer.

In later songs, such as “Detox Mansion” and “Splendid Isolation,” Zevon adroitly skewers pop-culture icons and their proclivities, but his observations also conveyed a hard-won honesty. “Detox Mansion,” for example, was written after Zevon — whose legendary taste for vodka gained him the nickname “F. Scott Fitzevon” — admitted himself to an alcohol rehabilitation program.

Songs for others
The emotional and stylistic breadth of his music has made it attractive for other artists, who have frequently mined the Zevon repertoire. Linda Ronstadt covered “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” in 1977. More recently, on the “I-10 Chronicles” album, Zevon’s poignant “Carmelita” is performed by Adam Duritz, lead singer of rock’s Counting Crows; country legend Hank Williams, Jr. did a version of “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” and former Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks covered “Reconsider Me,” from Zevon’s 1987 album “Sentimental Hygiene.”

The breadth of his musical interests led to collaborations with younger stars. Zevon teamed up with R.E.M. stalwarts Mike Mills, Bill Berry and Peter Buck to form Hindu Love Gods, an ad hoc band created as an opportunity to record some of their favorite blues standards. The group’s album, released in 1990, included songs by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as a spirited cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”

Other talents entered Zevon’s restless creative orbit, from Neil Young to Chick Corea, from Jefferson Airplane veterans Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen to funkmeister George Clinton; from Flea, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to pianist-composer Bruce Hornsby. Rolling Stone.com reported last year that Bob Dylan was performing Zevon songs on his tour, as a tribute to the ailing singer-songwriter.

A maturing Zevon never abandoned a preoccupation with age and death’s finality. On “Mutineer” (1995) and “Life’ll Kill Ya” (2000), he again explores mortality and loss with a comic, absurdist edge. The latter album’s artwork includes a detail from Pieter Brueghel’s 16th-century painting “Triumph of Death,” in which an army of skeletons overwhelm the living.

Work in movies, TV
Zevon took on projects that stretched the boundaries of his creative comfort zone. He made a brief appearance in John Hughes’ 1988 comedy “She’s Having a Baby.”

In 1993, he was commissioned to write the score for an updated version of the ’60’s TV series “Route 66.” He also contributed music to “TekWar,” a television version of a sci-fi novel by William Shatner; and to the 1996 film “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” (the title of a Zevon song).

In May 2001 he joined Thompson, historian Douglas Brinkley and others in protesting the prison term of Lisl Ellen Auman, sentenced to life for her role in the 1997 killing of a Colorado police officer.

“Personally, I’m known to be a kind of law-and-order guy,” he told the Denver Rocky Mountain News. “I believe in our system. . . . But every now and then, our system throws people away.”

An appellate court upheld her sentence in September 2002.

Hastening down ‘The Wind’
Zevon expressed a characteristically wry resignation to the diagnosis announced last year. “I’m OK with it,” he said in a statement announcing his illness, “but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it till the next James Bond movie comes out.” He need not have worried; he survived to see the film — titled “Die Another Day” — after it opened in theaters in November.

Zevon otherwise refused to go gentle after his cancer diagnosis, continuing to live large: making an October appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman”; collaborating on a musical with Irish poet-librettist Paul Muldoon; and recording new songs, sometimes from a console near his bed.

Those recording sessions, and others, led to “The Wind,” a farewell album recorded with friends including Ry Cooder, John Waite, Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton and others. Zevon told Rolling Stone magazine the album was for “people I want to say goodbye to.”

“We’d write a song and record it the next day and before we could sit around and say, ‘this is great,’ we were writing the next one,” said Jorge Calderon, a friend of Zevon ever since their first meeting in 1972, when a mutual friend asked Calderon for a ride to bail Zevon out of the drunk tank. “We didn’t have much time to think and analyze and change things around, which gives this album a real honesty and immediacy.”

The album was released in August 2003 to wide acclaim. Eric Olsen, previewing the album for MSNBC.com, called the album “at once a summation of Zevon’s career and a life-affirming celebration of the joys of music-making.”

Previously, “Genius,” a collection of many of Zevon’s hits over 25 years, was released in October 2002 on the Rhino label.

‘He'll live on forever’
Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who told The Associated Press he had spoken with Zevon since the diagnosis, said in a December interview that he told the musician “he’ll live on forever with me and my friends.”

Ventura, an MSNBC analyst, said he’s been a fan of Zevon for 25 years; Zevon performed at Ventura’s inaugural party in 1999. “We’ll toast him every spring,” Ventura told The AP.

Zevon is survived by a son, Jordan, by Tule Livingston, whom Zevon married in 1968; a daughter, Ariel, by his second wife, Crystal; and by two grandchildren, Augustus Warren Zevon-Powell and Maximus Patrick Zevon-Powell, born in June 2003. Both Jordan and Ariel performed on some of Zevon’s later albums.

Critics, fans and his record label have started the process of remembering. Three of his earlier out-of-print albums, including “Wanted Dead or Alive,” will soon be reissued by Virgin. On Aug. 24, VH1 premiered its “Inside Out” documentary series with “Inside Out: Warren Zevon,” chronicling his life since the diagnosis, as well as surveying development of “The Wind.” In recent months, a petition has been circulating online to have Zevon admitted posthumously to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But the singer-songwriter had long since put tributes and the pursuit of praise in an appropriately fatalistic perspective in a 1993 Entertainment Weekly interview. “If you’re lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you drop dead,” he said. “That’s as many pats on the back as you should expect.”

Michael E. Ross is an MSNBC.com editor and writer; he interviewed Warren Zevon in 1978. The Associated Press contributed to this report.