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A Wry Song of Love and Death

Legacy: Warren Zevon 1947-2003

When Warren Zevon disclosed a year ago that he was dying of lung cancer, the title track on his latest album -- ''My Ride's Here,'' in which he awaits the arrival of a hearse -- seemed like a spooky coincidence. Or it would have, anyway, were it not for the fact that Zevon had spent his whole career writing about death and dying. His preceding album, after all, had been called Life'll Kill Ya; his first solo one was Wanted Dead or Alive. In between had come jaunty ditties with titles like ''I'll Sleep When I'm Dead'' and ''Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead.''

Zevon had a dark streak, but not a mean one, and it was matched by a barely concealed sentimental streak. ''He had this dark view of the world, but what drew people close to him was that all of this darkness and morbidity came from an intense vulnerability,'' says Merle Ginsberg, Zevon's girlfriend in the mid-'80s. Indeed, the other topic that obsessed him -- the only one that he wrote about as often as death -- was heartbreak, his approach to which is best summarized by the song title ''If You Won't Leave Me I'll Find Somebody Who Will.''

These preoccupations didn't exactly endear Zevon to a mass audience. His sales peaked early in his career, with 1978's Excitable Boy, featuring the Top 40 single ''Werewolves of London.'' But he did attract a loyal cadre of influential fans that included everyone from Linda Ronstadt (who had a hit with his ''Poor Poor Pitiful Me'') to Martin Scorsese (who put ''Werewolves'' to memorable use in The Color of Money) to David Letterman (who often had Zevon sit in with the band and devoted a full hour to him last October).

Alcoholism nearly derailed his career in the late 1970s, and despite regaining his sobriety and releasing some of his best work in the '80s and '90s, Zevon saw his sales narrowed to a core of devotees; after his 1995 release, Mutineer, underperformed, he spent five years without a record label. He called the album's title song ''a gesture of appreciation and affection to my fans, none of whom bought the record.''

In his final year, he recorded a valedictory album, The Wind, which was released three weeks ago to rave reviews and Zevon's best sales in decades. The songs on The Wind showcase Zevon's dry wit, but they also vibrate with affection for the friends and family to whom he's bidding goodbye. The songs he wrote may have been about death and heartbreak, but to stop there would be misleading. His true subjects were life and love, and if he tended to focus on the end of each, it was only because he knew that both are fleeting, and precious.

-- Tim Carvell

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1980 Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School Best is ''Play It All Night Long,'' a blistering parody of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern-fried anthem ''Sweet Home Alabama.''

1987 Sentimental Hygiene A sober Zevon reflects on the damage he's done and begs forgiveness, with assistance from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and R.E.M.

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