Got a .38 Special up on the shelf,
I'll sleep when I'm dead...
If I start acting stupid I'll shoot myself,
I'll sleep when I'm dead...

b.1947 d.2003
Chicago born, but California/Arizona raised, Warren Zevon added a mature but cynical edge to the era of New-Wave music. His bestselling album was 1978's Excitable Boy - which reached Billboard's Top Ten and spawned the hit single Werewolves of London.

Zevon learned to play guitar by listening to and trying to mimic folk music. He claims his unorthodox style is because it was mainly the banjo parts he was trying to play on his guitar. Regardless, there is a strong folk/country influence in his music. He was friends with many of California's milder rockers; among them Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. But Zevon's mind generated lyrics with a much darker obsession. Of the songs he's recorded, nearly two-dozen have references to guns.

His 1969 debut album tanked, and Warren spent a few years working as a pianist for the Everly Brothers. After spending 1974 in Spain, he returned to California and recorded his self-titled second album, Warren Zevon. This received lavish critical praise and Linda Rondstadt recorded four of the songs on her own albums - having a solid hit with Poor, Poor Pitiful Me. On Warren Zevon, Warren also penned I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a phrase that has gained popularity through the years though the song is still relatively unknown.

The success of 1978's Excitable Boy wasn't everything Warren might have wished for. The constant touring and his penchance for vodka led to a divorce and, at the urging of friends, a stay in an alcohol rehab center. Still, Warren followed up in 1980 with another superlative album, Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School. 1982's The Envoy was also critically acclaimed, but had dismal sales. And Zevon relapsed into alcohol.

It would be five years before Warren worked through his personal problems and put out another record. And while there are some highlights along the way, it was only in 2000, with the release of Life'll Kill Ya that he regained top form.

Warren married actress Kim Lankford in 1979. They had two children. He died of lung cancer on September 7, 2003 - just two weeks after the release of his final album, The Wind.

Discography

Wanted Dead or Alive 1969
Warren Zevon 1976
Excitable Boy 1978
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School 1980
Stand in the Fire 1981 (live)
The Envoy 1982
A Quiet Normal Life: The Best of Warren Zevon 1986
Sentimental Hygiene 1987
Transverse City 1989
Mr. Bad Example 1991
Learning to Flinch 1993
Mutineer 1995
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead 1996 (Anthology)
Life'll Kill Ya 2000
My Ride's Here 2002
The First Sessions 2003
The Wind 2003
Allegedly a member of William Gibson's mutual admiration club, he is a better songwriter than a singer.

Back in the 70s he helped make Linda Rondstadt a household word by writing several songs that she covered into Top 40 hits. The most famous was probably

Poor, poor, pitiful me.

** The version that LR covered did NOT include these original lyrics:

" I met a girl at the Hyatt house, she asked me if I'd beat her, I took her back to my hotel room,........ I don't want to talk about it."

The often repeated phrase "I'll sleep when I'm dead" is the name of one of his songs on his first album (Warren Zevon). The album with the coolest cover art? Bad luck streak in Dancing school album. Warren and a room of ballet dancers.

One of my favorite lyrics is his: "send lawyers, guns and money/Dad, get me out of this." Shades of Midnight Express. Zevon's icon, at least for a bit, was a skull wearing sunglasses with a cigarette. At the time, when I saw him live, I was struck by how much he resembled it. An absolutely incredible (IMHO) songwriter/musician, and even decent singer in the way Dylan is not. When people ask me who he is and why they should listen, rather than mention Werewolves of London I pull out the album Sentimental Hygiene and have them look through the list of guest musicians on the album, which includes some pretty heavy hitters.

More random Zevon lyrics:

Zevon was also part of the Hindu Love Gods, along with REM.

Update: Warren Zevon passed away at his home on Sunday, September 7th, 2003, of lung cancer, at the age of 56. May there be cigarettes available where he goes (he had quit).

His most recent albums Life'll Kill Ya and My Ride's Here, are tours de force of what he does best, and now (see below) a sweetly ironic revival of a great career.

I got to see him in March of 2000, at what he called "the fabulous Club Bene"--a bar/nightclub here in New Jersey (and let me tell you, the backstage is a dump--particle board walls, the dressing room is mustard yellow, with bare bulbs, ratty shag carpet and what looks like Frasier's dad's recliner in the corner,) and at one point, he said, "Where do you think Sting is right now?" in reference to the spectacular digs surrounding him, and under his breath he then said, "Probably not spending the last 25 years drunk." The thing is he's a really nice guy nowadays and just a hard-working musician. It pisses me off that he's playing dumps while someone like Britney Spears fills arenas with her bubblegum pop.

It's that sense of humor, though, that makes his songs brilliant and touching--and he's a good singer and keyboard player and an excellent guitarist and harmonica player.

You should buy all of his albums.


September 13th, 2002: A press release reports that Warren Zevon has been diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. He is spending time with his children and will be going into the studio to write and record one last time. He is accepting his fate in the way that you'd expect the writer of My Shit's Fucked Up to--with a sense of irony, humor, and dignity. To quote: "It would be a drag if I don't make it till the next James Bond movie comes out."

Warren died in his sleep (in a VH-1 special, he commented that every time he wakes up from a nap, he looked around to see where he was. This time, he was no longer with us) at his apartment in West Hollywood on September 7th, 2003. He lived to see the birth of his twin grandsons, Maximus Patrick and Augustus Warren Zevon-Powell.

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