Just about every anecdote from Warren Zevon’s storied rock ’n’ roll career seems steeped in legend. Take the recording of his biggest hit, “Werewolves of London.” Zevon’s longtime collaborator Jorge Calderon recalled finding producer Waddy Wachtel in the back office of the Sound Factory recording studio, “sporting a sad and worried face” because they had tried the sixth or seventh rhythm section and hadn’t gotten a track. “Such a simple song,” Calderon recalled, “and they couldn’t do it right.”
In a moment of inspiration, Calderon recruited Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac to play with Zevon on the song: “I just was hanging with them.” Calderon believes that it was their involvement that propelled the song to “hitdom,” which was one of his “proudest ‘save the day’ moments.”
September 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of Zevon’s death. To commemorate the anniversary, Calderon, Wachtel and others from Zevon’s inner circle, including Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, spoke to the Forward to reconsider the legacy of one of rock music’s most raucous and misunderstood enfants terribles.
Born in Chicago in 1947 and raised primarily in Fresno, Calif., Zevon was the product of an ill-fated marriage between the small-time Jewish mobster William “Stumpy” Zevon and a Mormon woman named Beverly Simmons. Calderon said that Zevon “loved his Jewish heritage from his father and then Mormon mother… he thought that was insanely weird, that combination.”
As a child, Zevon studied with the composer Igor Stravinsky; he began to write songs in the 1960s, and his first two albums on major labels, the self-titled “Warren Zevon” (1976) and “Excitable Boy” (1978) — which include such cult classics as “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Mohammed’s Radio” and “Desperados Under the Eaves” — are now considered seminal works of the ’70s California music scene. Zevon’s music became known for its narratives of youthful impulse and international espionage. But Zevon quickly descended into alcoholism, and he once told David Letterman that at the peak of his habit, he drank “a couple of quarts of vodka a day.” He overcame his substance abuse in the ’80s and ’90s, but struggled to regain his popularity. Wachtel, who co-produced “Excitable Boy,” expressed disappointment that Zevon’s music has not reached more listeners: “People only know him in terms of being a drunken lunatic or as the guy who wrote that funny werewolves song,” Wachtel said, adding that he hopes people let Zevon’s “musical soul meet and touch them, because it was such a deep beautiful place and it was so musically exquisite.”
In the decade since his death, Zevon’s legend has continued to grow, thanks largely to a loyal following and to the publication of a best-selling biography, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon” (Ecco, 2007), by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon.