Iconoclastic rocker Warren Zevon dies of lung cancer. Weeks after releasing what he knew would be his last album, he succumbs to the disease at 56

By Gary Susman
Updated September 08, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Warren Zevon: Tom Craig/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Warren Zevon, who joked about death in songs from ”Werewolves of London” to ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” only to learn last year he had terminal lung cancer, managed to get the last laugh anyway. Given just three months to live, he poured his energy into recording a final album. He managed to live another year, just long enough to see the release last month of ”The Wind” and the birth of twin grandchildren. He died in his sleep Sunday at age 56, manager Irving Azoff told the Los Angeles Times.

Zevon was the most acerbic member of the singer-songwriter scene that emerged in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and included Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt. Zevon first gained fame with Ronstadt’s cover versions of tunes like ”Hasten Down the Wind” and ”Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” He found success on his own with the 1978 single ”Werewolves,” a novelty take on Zevon’s usual themes and characters — mercenaries, ghosts, serial killers, date rapists, sadomasochists, and other showbiz scenesters.

Though Zevon was always a critical favorite, he never matched the success of ”Werewolves.” He nearly derailed his career with alcohol, though he cleaned up and sang mockingly about the experience in ”Detox Mansion.” He was a favorite of David Letterman, who had him sitting in frequently with the band and who devoted an entire show to him last fall after Zevon announced he was dying. ”I feel the opposite of regret,” he told the Times last year. ”I was the hardest-living rocker on my block for a while. I was a malfunctioning rummy for a while and running away for a while. Then for 18 years I was a sober dad of some amazing kids. Hey, I feel like I’ve lived a couple of lives — and now when people listen to the music, they’ll say, ‘Hey, maybe the guy wasn’t being so morbid after all.”’ Released two weeks ago, ”The Wind” earned some of the best reviews of Zevon’s career and scored his highest Billboard chart debut in years (No. 16). He was ”very upbeat” about the album’s reception, Azoff told the Times. ”He was in a good place.”