Singer Warren Zevon dies of mesothelioma at age 56

September 3rd, 2003

Zevon also completed a final album, The Wind, produced mainly from his Los Angeles home. It was released on August 26, two weeks before he died. Best-known for his song “Werewolves of London,” Zevon was highly regarded in music circles; Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were two of his fans, as was late-night talk show host David Letterman. When Letterman’s band leader Paul Schaffer was absent, Zevon often filled in.

Adept at both piano and guitar, Zevon performed with the Everly Brothers and wrote songs that were performed by Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and the Turtles. He collaborated with Jackson Browne, REM, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder and Dwight Yoakum among others.

Born in Chicago and raised in Arizona and Los Angeles, Zevon was a student of classical piano as a child. He went on to make 10 albums that were noted as much for their witty lyrics as their musicianship.

In August 2002, he began feeling pain in his chest. One visit to the doctor, however, and he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Rather than undergo treatment that is often futile, Zevon chose to work on the album and be with his family.

Some of Zevon’s obituaries noted that he was a lifetime smoker, creating the mistaken impression that he died of lung cancer. But it is not so simple. He died of mesothelioma—a cancer whose only cause is asbestos exposure, although smoking can exacerbate the symptoms of pleural mesothelioma. Zevon himself described the cause of mesothelioma in his 1987 song “The Factory,” which had references to asbestos exposure.

Twenty years ago, when actor Steve McQueen died of mesothelioma, news reports also erroneously blamed “lung cancer,” missing an opportunity to inform the public about this asbestos-caused cancer. Critics say we still have the same lack of awareness, concern and funding. Compared with many other forms of cancer, little progress has been made in mesothelioma treatment over the past 20 years, and Zevon’s prognosis was as bleak as that of McQueen two decades ago.

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