A lifelong smoker until quitting several years ago, Zevon announced in September 2002 that he had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and had only months to live. He spent much of that time visiting with his two grown children and working on a final album.
Zevon died Sunday of lung cancer at his home, his manager Irving Azoff told the Los Angeles Times.
Zevon faced death with the same dark sense of humor found in much of his music, including songs like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” “Life’ll Kill Ya” and “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.”
Zevon said he “chose a certain path and lived like Jim Morrison and lived 30 more years. You make choices and you have to live with the consequences.”
He released his first album, Wanted – Dead or Alive, to little notice in 1969, but gained attention in the ’70s by writing a string of popular songs for Linda Ronstadt, including “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Carmelita” and “Hasten Down the Wind.”
His next two albums, 1976’s Warren Zevon and 1978’s Excitable Boy, followed those songs with darkly humorous tales of prom-date rapists; headless, gun-toting soldiers of fortune; and werewolves who drank pina coladas at singles bars and were particular about their hair.
They cemented Zevon’s reputation as one of rock music’s most politically incorrect lyricists, giving him a lifelong cult following that included gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and Late Show host David Letterman, who provided backing vocals on “Hit Somebody,” Zevon’s 2001 elegy to a professional hockey goon who longs to be a goal-scoring hero.
“I always like to have violent lyrics and violent music,” Zevon told The Associated Press in 1990. “The knowledge of death and fear of death informs my existence. It’s a safe, kind of cheerful way of dealing with that issue.”
Other admirers included Bob Dylan, whom Zevon cited as one of his principal songwriting influences and who performed on his 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene. Still another was Bruce Springsteen, who co-wrote “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” Zevon’s tale of a lover shot to death by a woman’s jealous father.
Not that all of his music was dark and violent. His oveure contained some straight-out comedy as well, including “Mr. Bad Example,” “The Hula Hula Boys” and “Gorilla You’re a Desperado.” The latter told the tale of a Los Angeles Zoo ape who escapes by locking a yuppie in his place and going off to live in the man’s apartment, only to end up depressed and divorced.
His compositional style reflected a number of genres, from hard-driving rock to folk, as well as classical, polka and other influences. In his final months, he summoned the energy to complete a last album, The Wind, released in August. It includes the poignant “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a cranky “Disorder in the House” and a remake of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Zevon, born in Chicago to Russian immigrant parents, moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, making a living writing jingles for television commercials. He also composed the song “She Quit Me Man” for the movie Midnight Cowboy. He was just out of his teens when he went to work for The Everly Brothers, first as a pianist and later as their band leader.