After moving to the west coast, where he sought work as a songwriter in the mid-60s, Zevon wrote songs for the Turtles and Nino Tempo And April Stevens. He recorded several singles for the Turtles' label White Whale, including a version of Bob Dylan's 'If You Gotta Go', as Lyme And Cybelle. By the late 60s, he was signed to Imperial Records and recorded an inauspicious debut, Zevon: Wanted Dead Or Alive, produced by Kim Fowley. One track from the album, 'She Quit Me', was featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy. When the album failed to sell, Zevon took a job on the road as musical director to the Everly Brothers. He subsequently appeared uncredited on their album Stories We Could Tell and also guested on Phil Everly's three solo albums.
By the early 70s, Zevon was signed as a songwriter by entrepreneur David Geffen, and finally released his long-awaited second album in 1976. Warren Zevon was a highly accomplished work, which revealed its creator's songwriting power to an exceptional degree. Produced by Jackson Browne, the work featured the cream of LA's session musicians and included guest appearances from Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Bonnie Raitt. The material ranged from the piano-accompanied 'Frank And Jesse James' to the self-mocking singalong 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me', the bittersweet 'Carmelita', and the majestic sweep of 'Desperados Under The Eaves' with superb harmonies arranged by Carl Wilson. Linda Ronstadt's cover version of 'Hasten Down The Wind' also brought Zevon to the attention of a wider audience.
The follow-up Excitable Boy was released two years later and revealed another astonishing leap in Zevon's musical development. The production was confident and accomplished and the range of material even more fascinating. Zevon tackled American politics and history on 'Roland The Thompson Gunner' (co-written with former mercenary David Lidell) and 'Veracruz', wrote one of his finest and most devastating love songs in 'Accidentally Like A Martyr', and employed his satiric thrust to the heart on 'Excitable Boy' and the US Top 40 hit 'Werewolves Of London'.
A superb trilogy of Zevon albums was completed with Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School which was most notable for its inventive use of orchestration. Again, it was the sheer diversity of material and mood that impressed. The classical overtones of the title track, 'Interlude No. 2' and 'Wild Age' were complemented by Zevon's biting satire which was by now unmatched by any American artist, bar Randy Newman. 'Gorilla You're A Desperado' was a humorous attack on LA consumerism, while 'Play It All Night Long' was an anti-romantic portrait of rural life that contrasted markedly with the prevailing idyllic country rock mentality. Zevon's vision was permeated with images of incest and disease: 'Daddy's doing sister Sally/Grandma's dying of cancer now/The cattle all have brucellosis/We'll get through somehow'. Zevon's ability to attract the interest and respect of his songwriting contemporaries was once more emphasized by the presence of Bruce Springsteen, with whom he co-wrote 'Jeannie Needs A Shooter'.
Although Zevon seemed likely to establish himself as one of the prominent singer-songwriters of the 80s, personal problems would soon undo his progress. A promising live album was followed by the much neglected The Envoy. This concept album sold poorly and was the last major work from Zevon for five years. During the interim, he underwent counselling and therapy for his long-standing alcoholism. He returned in 1987 with Sentimental Hygiene, a welcome return to top form, which featured a new array of guest stars including Neil Young, Michael Stipe and Peter Buck (from R.E.M.), Bob Dylan, Don Henley (formerly of the Eagles), Jennifer Warnes and Brian Setzer (ex-Stray Cats). Zevon's power was not lost among the star credits and shone through on a powerful set of songs, several of which brutally detailed his fight back from alcoholism. Never self-pitying, Zevon could afford a satiric glimpse at his own situation in 'Detox Mansion': 'Well it's tough to be somebody/And it's hard to fall apart/Up here on Rehab Mountain/We gonna learn these things by heart'.
Zevon promoted Sentimental Hygiene extensively and subsequently built upon his reputation with the finely-produced Transverse City, his last album for Virgin Records, and the well-received Mr Bad Example. Zevon also formed a band with Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry of R.E.M. under the name Hindu Love Gods, who issued a self-titled album in 1990. Zevon's next album, 1995's Mutineer, featured an interesting interpretation of Judee Sill's beautiful 'Jesus Was A Cross Maker', and two songs ('RottWeiler Blues' and 'Seminole Bingo') co-written with the American crime writer, Carl Hiaasen. Released in February 2000, Life'll Kill Ya was an unexpected gem, especially coming after such a long break. It stands as one of Zevon's best collections and features the epochal and autobiographical 'I Was In The House When The House Burned Down'. My Ride's Here continued Zevon's creative renaissance, but a few months after its release in May 2002 it was announced that he was suffering from terminal lung and liver cancer. Zevon treated the diagnosis with characteristic black humour: 'I'm OK with it, but it'll be a drag if I don't make it till the next James Bond movie comes out'. He was able to complete a star-studded new studio album in the time left to him, and was rewarded with his best chart showing since Excitable Boy, with The Wind debuting at number 16 in September 2003. Shortly afterwards, Zevon died in his sleep at his home in Los Angeles. Rather predictably, the album shot up the charts once again. The following February, Zevon was awarded posthumous Grammys for Best Rock Duo or Group with vocal for the track 'Disorder In The House' (with Bruce Springsteen), and Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Wind.
Zevon is another great cult artist waiting to be discovered by a wider audience. Those in any doubt of his pedigree as a writer should seek out the excellent anthology released in 1996 by Rhino Records.
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