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Singer-Songwriter Warren Zevon Dies Of Cancer


(KRT) - Warren Zevon, the singer-songwriter known for his sardonic L.A. noir humor and classic-rock radio staples including "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," and "Excitable Boy," died Sunday at his Los Angeles-area home. He was 56.

Zevon was diagnosed in August 2002 with mesothelioma, an inoperable form of lung cancer. At the time, the formerly hard-living pianist and guitarist joked to an interviewer that he hoped to be alive to see the James Bond movie "Die Another Day" when it opened in November.

Instead, he lived long enough to write and record a final album, "The Wind," with the assistance of friends including Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris and Ry Cooder. The collection, which includes a version of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," was released Aug. 26 on Artemis Records.

Zevon was born on Jan. 24, 1947, in Chicago, the son of a Mormon mother and a Russian-Jewish immigrant father who earned a living as a prizefighter, gambler and, according to his son, a mobster. The family settled in Los Angeles, where Zevon was trained as a classical pianist and studied briefly under Igor Stravinsky.

He turned to pop music as a teenager, writing "Like the Seasons" and "Outside Chance" for the Turtles and playing guitar on Phil Ochs' "Pleasures of the Harbor" album in 1967. His first solo album, "Wanted: Dead or Alive, was released in 1969 "to the sound of one hand clapping," Zevon later said.

Zevon spent the early 1970s leading Don and Phil Everly's touring band. "Frank and Jesse James," the first song on 1976's "Warren Zevon," which Browne produced, was a tribute to the Everlys, and established his penchant for outlaw narratives that examined America's culture of violence.

Songs such as "Desperados Under the Eaves," "Carmelita" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" - a hit for Linda Ronstadt in 1977, and for country singer Terri Clark in 1996 - also forged "my richly deserved, if long-forgotten, reputation as the foremost chronicler of Hollywood life in the 1970s," Zevon wrote with tongue-in-cheek bravado in the notes to his 1996 retrospective CD, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Frequently working with the same musicians who shaped the laid-back sounds of Southern California cronies Ronstadt and Browne, Zevon - like fellow L.A. musical satirist Randy Newman - wrote mordant, cliche-busting songs shot through with unease.

His 1978 album, "Excitable Boy," produced hits in the droll title cut, the rambunctious "Lawyers, Guns and Money," and "Werewolves of London," a piano-pumped celebration of transgression that became Zevon's signature song.

The hell-raising in Zevon's songs was partly inspired by (and won the appreciation of) scribes such as Hunter S. Thompson and crime writer Ross Macdonald, but it also mirrored the alcohol- and drug-fueled chaos of his life.

"The road, booze and I became an inseparable team," said Zevon, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s was in and out of rehab facilities. "Down on my knees in pain. Swear to God I'll change," he bellowed in a chesty baritone on the 1980 song "Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School."

A 1981 Rolling Stone cover story described Mr. Zevon using a .44 Magnum and a cardboard cutout of himself to take target practice inside his Los Angeles home. He mocked the celebrity-rehab culture in 1987's "Detox Mansion," but bluntly admitted in the song that it was "tough to be somebody, and it's hard to keep from falling apart."

In his mid-30s, Zevon, who was twice divorced, settled into sobriety and cult status.

His 1987 album, "Sentimental Hygiene," was recorded with the members of R.E.M. (minus Michael Stipe) as his backup band. Their association also led to the 1990 side project "Hindu Love Gods, in which Zevon roared though Prince's "Raspberry Beret."

He toured frequently in the 1990s and composed music for the TV shows "Tales From the Crypt" and "Route 66," in addition to appearing regularly on "Late Show" with his friend David Letterman. While touring in 1995 behind "Mutineer," an album that featured two collaborations with novelist Carl Hiaasen, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his taste for hardboiled narrators and geopolitical subjects was "the impact of Graham Greene on one's youthful and not-so-youthful reading. ... I've never been much for the vague, planetary, philosophic school of songwriting. I'm from the start-with-the-detail school."

The last albums Zevon released in his lifetime, "Life'll Kill Ya" (2000) and "My Ride's Here" (2002), were preoccupied with mortality. The latter's title song referred to a hearse, and ended with the line: "Man, I'd like to stay, but I'm bound for glory. I'm on my way."

Zevon - who quit smoking in 1994 but, until his illness, hadn't seen a doctor in two decades - could not explain his diagnosis of mesothelioma, a form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. In his last year, he was thrust into the role of "travel agent for death," he told an interviewer this year. He spent his time with his son Jordan, a musician, and daughter Ariel, who gave birth to Zevon's first grandchildren, twins Augustus Warren and Maximus Patrick Zevon-Powell, in June. And he was paid tribute by admirers including Dylan, who performed several of Zevon's songs on his fall 2002 tour.

He also worked steadily on "The Wind." The album, Zevon's strongest in years, confronts death and sorrow in alternately somber and raucous songs with titles such as "Numb as a Statue" and "Dirty Life and Times."

In October, he was the sole guest on Letterman's program. When the host asked what Zevon's diagnosis had taught him, the famously caustic songwriter spoke from the heart: "How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

*** POSTED SEPTEMBER 10, 2003 ***