Born in January 1947, rock singer Warren Zevon was best known for his sardonic wit and dark humored songs. This famously outlandish star died from mesothelioma, a lung cancer from asbestos exposure. Some of his best known songs include “Werewolves of London”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Johnny Strikes Up the Band.”
Son of a Russian-Jewish gangster and a frail Mormon mother, Zevon’s love of music began with studying classical piano as a child. Although classical music served as a starting point, by the time Zevon was performing in Los Angeles, his music had taken on its characteristically eccentric twist.
His first album, released in 1969, went unnoticed. But, he is now heralded by legends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen. His 1978 album “Excitable Boy” was his first big success and continues to be the best-selling album of his career.
Warren Zevon’s Battle with Mesothelioma
With the influences of Celtic, rock, and country music, Zevon’s career began and ended on David Letterman’s night time talk TV shows. He frequented the shows throughout his life and made one of his last public appearances on the Letterman Show, where he spoke candidly of his then-recent mesothelioma diagnosis.
“I keep asking myself how I suddenly was thrust into the position of travel agent for death,” he said, reflecting on his music, which so often dealt with death. “But then, of course, the whole point of why it’s so strange is that I had already assigned myself that role so many years of writing ago.”
He admitted on the Letterman Show that he had not been to a doctor in 20 years and only choose to go after chest pains that turned out to be symptoms of mesothelioma. At this point, the cancer was too advanced for anything but palliative treatment. Unfortunately, his trial with mesothelioma was often referred to as lung cancer and assumed to be a result of his life-long smoking habit.
Although this misinformation muddled reports of his mesothelioma death at the time, it is now clear that asbestos exposure was the true culprit. There is no consensus on how he was exposed to asbestos, but his song “The Factory” laments a worker’s life in a factory filled with asbestos.
He chose to focus his energy on producing one last album, entitled “The Wind”, which was released two weeks before his death. Despite the tragedy, he expressed that dealing with mesothelioma lent him new creativity. Indeed, his album “The Wind” won him a Grammy award and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Collectively, Zevon received five posthumous Grammy nominations. Having passed away in September 2003 at age 56, he is survived by his two children and two grandchildren. His son Jordan Zevon is both a musician and an advocate for asbestos awareness. Jordan recently performed at the Alton Miles for Meso 5K race, which raised over $27,000 for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, of which Jordan is the national spokesperson.
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