Warren Zevon was born in Chicago, the son of a Russian-Jewish boxer turned professional gambler. He spent most of his childhood in Arizona and California, before eventually leaving high school to become a folk singer in Greenwich Village, New York.
He recorded a debut album, Wanted Dead or Alive – which even he admitted was best forgotten – and spent the first half of the 1970s as musical director for The Everly Brothers.
An incredibly talented man with a sardonic wit and imagination, Zevon would gleefully mix the bleakest sides of life with the most tender love songs.
He was always out of kilter with the Californian soft rockers and confessional singer/songwriters who surrounded him.
His invented world was one of LA noir, all guns, whores and heroin, sleazy bars and failed marriages. The tone was literary and harsh – yet the sound was welcoming, melodic and frequently gorgeous.
His self-titled major-label (Asylum) debut album was released in the summer of 1976. The LP had been mostly conceived in Spain where he had moved with his new wife.
It set the scene for a unique body of work with melodies that reflected his classical training, and stories that would do justice to the very best contemporary fiction writers.
His second Asylum album, Excitable Boy (1978), was his most consistent record and the only one to go gold.
This LP contained stories of a betrayed mercenary whose ghost stalked the African continent looking for revenge (Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner), a rapist and murderer (Excitable Boy) and his solitary hit, the darkly comic Werewolves of London.
Troubled by alcoholism all the time, Zevon and his characters became even more desperate and strange on the 1980 follow-up, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. Although it scraped into the US Top 20 it also marked the end of his brief flirtation with commercial success.
He continued to produce a string of fine albums – including 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene and the incendiary live LP Learning To Flinch in 1993 – but low budgets made later albums lack the studio finesse of his earlier work.
Looking back at Zevon’s work, it seems like a macabre rehearsal for his exit.
He faced his approaching death from cancer with all the mordant, biting wit of earlier songs like I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – a stand-out from his 1976 self-titled album.
Warren Zevon succumbed to his cancer on 7 September 2003, aged just 56.