This is terrible news, just in from Nancy Nall: Warren Zevon has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. We met Warren at the LA Blogger Bash at Brain Linse’s house in July. Both Dawn and I thought he was pretty surly and uncommunicative. I guess he had more important things on his mind than entertaining us with sparkling repartee. I wrote this right after the party:
- Legendary rocker Warren Zevon and equally legendary video producer Nigel Dick were there as well, dislocating my brain to other times and other parties and the dissonance was too much for me to handle. After I mumbled something about “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” being my theme song and modus operandi for about 15 years, I wandered off to resume my bloggy socializing. Warren was like a ghost from a scary past of tinselly debauchery, a past of style before substance, of coolness over sincerity, surface over depth. I am a huge fan of Warren’s but the records mean much more to me now than the person behind them: it’s the records I have the personal relationship with, not the person who happened to have recorded them.
That was quite self-absorbed of me.
Here is a portion of the press release:
- Celebrated recording artist composer Warren Zevon, one of rock music’s wittiest and most original songwriters, has been diagnosed with lung cancer which has advanced to an untreatable stage. Zevon received the news last month and is spending time with his children and has begun writing and recording as many songs as possible in the weeks that lie ahead. He’s in the recording studio next week. Zevon is handling the news with his characteristic dark aplomb. “I’m okay with it, but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it till the next James Bond movie comes out,” said Zevon.
According to Launch, he didn’t know about his condition in July when we met him, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t feeling its effects:
- Warren Zevon has been diagnosed with a terminal case of lung cancer. A former smoker, Zevon didn’t know he had cancer, but a visit to a doctor in August revealed the disease, as well as the news that it had already metastasized to his liver.
….His two most recent albums–2000’s Life’ll Kill Ya and this year’s My Ride’s Here, both on Artemis Records–have earned Zevon some of the best reviews of his career, which is ironic since in a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly he said, “If you’re lucky, people like something you do early and something you do just before you drop dead. That’s as many pats on the back as you should expect.”
There’s no word on when or how Zevon’s new recordings will be released, but a new greatest-hits collection is coming October 15 from Rhino Records. Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon collects 22 songs from Zevon’s career, including the hits “Werewolves Of London,” “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” and “Raspberry Beret,” his take on the Prince song with the Hindu Love Gods, the 1990 side project that also featured R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry. The liner notes for Genius were written by British author Will Self.
The tracklisting for Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon includes: “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “The French Inhaler,” “Carmelita,” “Hasten Down The Wind,” “Werewolves Of London,” “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers, Guns And Money,” “Interlude No. 1/Play It All Night Long,” “A Certain Girl,” “Looking For The Next Best Thing,” “Detox Mansion,” “Reconsider Me,” “Boom Boom Mancini,” “Splendid Isolation,” “Raspberry Beret” (the Hindu Love Gods), “Searching For A Heart,” “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead,” “Mr. Bad Example,” “Mutineer,” “I Was In The House When The House Burned Down,” and “Genius.”
John Schuch points us to these lyrics:
“I’m very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins
I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in
I’m proud to be a glutton and I don’t have time for sloth
I’m greedy and I’m angry and I don’t care who I cross”
–“Mr. Bad Example”
- Oh, man, this is terrible news Maybe not on the eternal scale of Big Things, but somehow it’s always worse when it involves somebody you’ve met, somebody you relate to as an actual human being.
Bill was at the LA blogger party in July.
- One of the most acute and savagely satiric songwriters of his era, Warren Zevon was born in Chicago on January 24, 1947. His formative years were as colorful as the scenarios played out in his music: his father was a professional gambler, a lifestyle which forced the family to move frequently, and Zevon spent most of his formative years in California and Arizona. He learned to play piano, focusing primarily on classical material before a disintegrating home life led him into pop music, as well as a few run-ins with the law; after his parents divorced when he was 16 years old, Zevon hopped into the Corvette his father won in a card game and headed for New York to become a folksinger. His music found little response, however, and he returned to California, eventually releasing his first recordings as part of the duo Lyme and Cybelle. Session work followed before Zevon issued his solo debut Wanted – Dead or Alive in 1969; the LP received a poor reception, and so he returned to session work and composing advertising jingles, and also served as the Everly Brothers’ pianist before the duo’s break-up. Following a 1974 sabbatical to Spain, Zevon returned to Los Angeles, where his longtime friend Jackson Browne had secured him a recording deal; with Browne in the producer’s seat, Zevon cut a self-titled offering which was met with lavish critical praise upon its 1976 release. His 1978 follow-up Excitable Boy established him as a wholly unique talent, and earned a sizable hit with its wry single “Werewolves of London.”
However, Zevon had fallen prey to alcoholism, and his personal demons sidelined him for the next two years; 1980’s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School and 1981’s live set Stand in the Fire marked his gradual return to form, and the promise of his early work was restored on 1982’s brilliant release The Envoy. The album fared miserably on the charts, however, and Zevon again fell off the wagon. A long period of therapy and counseling followed before, newly sober and revitalized, he issued Sentimental Hygiene in 1987, recorded with backing assistance from members of R.E.M. (In 1990, another collection of material from the sessions featuring Zevon and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry was released under the name Hindu Love Gods.) He continued his comeback in 1989 with Transverse City, a concept record inspired by science fiction’s cyberpunk movement, and 1991’s Mr. Bad Example. In 1993, Zevon issued his second live album, Learning to Flinch, followed in 1995 by Mutineer. His next studio effort, Life’ll Kill Ya, did not appear until early 2000. It was a moderate success, enough to inspire him to step back into the studio after touring the US. My Ride’s Here, which featured a guest appearance from David Letterman of all people, was released in the spring of 2002.
The LA Times talks to Warren, Jackson Browne:
- His longtime friend Jackson Browne said Thursday that Zevon’s music is defined by its bravery and candor.
“He is a standard-bearer; he’s very adventurous and there’s a confidence and power that translates to effectiveness,” said Browne, producer of two Zevon albums in the ’70s. “There’s a literacy, not just of words but also an emotional literacy. The coin of that realm is honesty and vulnerability. But then, you know, there’s a berserk quality to the whole thing when it’s done.”
“Berserk” is a word that was often used to describe Zevon in his younger years. Like gonzo writer Thompson, the Chicago-born musician’s view of an artist’s life was something along the lines of parachuting while drunk and blindfolded.
“He is among the wildest people I’ve ever met,” Browne said. “I always remember him just tearing off into the night in Morocco one time, drunk, by himself. For him, it was all about trials by fire.”
Zevon left that life behind two decades ago, and the singer describes himself now as a better performer, a far superior father and a much-improved driver.
In a grim twist that could fit into one of his songs, in the past year Zevon has been a gym rat (“I was working out more than Vin Diesel,” he says) and assumed that his shortness of breath and the tightness in his chest were side effects of his regimen.
“But then I knew it was bad when the doctor came in with the CAT scan in his hand, closed the door and gave me a glass of water and said, ‘I need to tell you something.’ ”
When Zevon turned to a sober life, he made a public announcement that he did not want to die by drink, which he described as a coward’s death. That was a time before the celebrity mea culpa was fashionable, but Zevon’s proclamation then is similar to his new announcement, via press release on Thursday, about his health. Zevon explained during Wednesday’s interview that he took that approach to define as much as possible the terms of his own life and death.
And what are the terms of the moment? Family and music, he says, as well as watching lots of Steve McQueen movies and shoveling down eggs and bacon. “That’s what I eat. Every meal. It’s fantastic.”
Zevon was married twice but is now single. His adult children, Jordan and Ariel, are in Southern California now, and the singer said he hopes to pack his days with them and maybe even make it out for a fishing trip, one of his beloved pursuits. Next week, though, Zevon plans to be in the recording studio. Long known as a methodical, less-than-prolific artist, Zevon is now in a different gear.
“I’ve been working frantically,” he said. “But you know, imminent doom lowers the bar a bit.”
If the trips to the studio are too taxing, Zevon has at his disposal an elaborate nest of recording gear set up within feet of his bed. “That’s thanks to Danny Goldberg,” he said, a nod to the chief of Zevon’s label, Artemis Records. “He is the absolute best.”
Zevon declined to offer any hints about the new songs, but he said fans should not anticipate material of moist eyes or long, distant stares. “You needn’t look for a great deal more of piety. I have a little mischief in mind.”
Imagine Celine Dion reacting this way.
- A famous Zevon profile in a c. 1980 Rolling Stone issue led me to read the Lew Archer novels of Ross MacDonald. Lucky the young man at loose ends who stumbles upon these books, in so many of which a young man at loose ends tries to figure out how to live like a decent human being. MacDonald was my gateway to the wondrous world of the American mystery. Zevon also led me to the better sort of spy novel – I remember showing up for a concert at the Bayou in Georgetown with a copy of Ross Thomas’ classic, Chinaman’s Chance – hoping, of course, that Zevon would notice and make me his pal – didn’t happen. Hey, the Bayou never started concerts on time! You had to entertain yourself before the show somehow. (At that one, a fan yelled out a request for “Carmelita,” the Mexicali-flavored lament of a junkie novelist. Zevon’s response: “I would rather stick things in my eye.”)
The two Artemis reconds from 2000 (Life’ll Kill Ya) and this year (My Ride’s Here) are damn good. A couple of Life’ll Kill Ya tracks suffer from the producers’ apparent insistence that he sing them well out of his range. But on other Life tracks Zevon does some of his best singing.