Singer-Songwriter Warren Zevon Dead at 56

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Warren Zevon, who wrote and sang the rock hit "Werewolves of London" and was among the wittiest and most original of a broad circle of singer-songwriters to emerge from Los Angeles in the 1970s, died at his home after a 12-month battle with cancer. He was 56.

A lifelong smoker until quitting several years ago, Zevon announced in September 2002 that he had been diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer, and had been given only three months to live.

He died Sunday afternoon at his Los Angeles area home, his manager, Irving Azoff (search), told the Los Angeles Times. Azoff and Zevon's publicist did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press.

During his last months, Zevon had 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."

"Really, the thing I want is to last through the winter so I don't miss the new James Bond movie," he said when his illness was diagnosed last year.

He also resumed smoking, jovially asking an interviewer for a recent VH1 documentary what he would do if he only had a month to live.

After his diagnosis, he spent much of his time visiting with his two grown children and working on a final album, "The Wind," which was released to critical acclaim just last month.

His son said recently that he thought the support from family and friends, which included an all-star cast of musicians who worked on that final album, helped prolong his father's life.

Zevon 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 (search), including "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," "Carmelita" and "Hasten Down the Wind."

The songs, a lyrically lighthearted, upbeat rocker about a spurned lover driven to the brink of suicide; a romantic ballad about a destitute heroin addict; and a ballad about rejection and hypocrisy, quickly fueled his reputation as one of rock music's most cynical voices.

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 would cement the musician'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 (search), former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (who had Zevon perform at his inauguration) 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."

A classically trained musician and accomplished guitarist and pianist, Zevon also substituted from time to time for Letterman's "Late Night" band leader, Paul Shaffer.

"I'm no linguist, but I believe Warren Zevon is the only man in the history of human communication to use the word 'brucellosis' in a song," the talk show host said in the liner notes to Zevon's 1996 album, "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

The word, describing a bacterial infection that causes spontaneous abortions in cattle, is found on "Play It All Night Long," a raucous country rocker about a down-on-its-luck farm family.

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.

Despite such respect, Zevon's career nearly ended soon after it began when he developed a reputation as one of rock music's rowdiest drinkers, sometimes showing up on stage raving drunk and berating audiences.

It was a period reviewed in music like "The French Inhaler," a song that he once noted gave him a reputation as the "foremost chronicler" of the excesses of the 1970s L.A. music scene.

"He is among the wildest people I've ever met," fellow L.A. singer-songwriter Jackson Browne (search), who produced several of Zevon's early albums, once said. "I always remember him just tearing off into the night in Morocco one time, drunk, by himself. For him, it was all about trials by fire."

When he gave up alcohol in the mid-'80s, Zevon said he did so to avoid drinking himself to death, something he characterized as a coward's way out.

Not that all of his music was dark and violent. His oveure contained 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.

"He plays racquetball and runs in the rain. Still, he's shackled to a platinum chain," Zevon, backed by members of the Eagles, sang in a rich baritone.

His compositional style, meanwhile, 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 "The Wind," which 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" about a dying gunfighter. His friend Springsteen was among those taking part in the recording sessions.

Born in Chicago on Jan. 24, 1947, to a Russian-Jewish immigrant father and a Mormon mother,  Zevon 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, and he has said his song "Frank and Jesse James," honoring the Missouri outlaws, was really inspired by them.

During his last months, he told various interviewers he had no regrets, expressing particular gratitude that he had quit drinking in time to watch his daughter, Ariel, and son, Jordan, grow up. He became a grandfather in June when Ariel gave birth to twins.

He also boasted that he had lived a life as wild as legendary Doors frontman Jim Morrison (search), with one exception: He survived nearly 30 years longer than Morrison, who died at age 27 in 1971.

"I got to be the most (expletive-deleted) rock star on the block, at least on my block," he said. "And then I got to be a sober dad for 18 years. I've had two very full lives."