Asbestos Killed Warren Zevon — Now His Son Is Fighting to Ban It Once and for All

Warren Zevon in 1978
Warren Zevon in 1978
Jimmy Wachtel for Asylum Records via Wikimedia Commons

When we think of rockers from any era who left us before their time, we tend to follow the same well-worn script. Died young-ish? Clearly drugs, drink and Keith Richards–level hard living were to blame. Exactly like your parents warned you about.

In the case of acerbic singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, those kinds of fallacies still follow his legacy. Zevon’s son Jordan, an award-winning musician and spokesman for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), regularly corrects misconceptions about his dad’s 2003 death from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Granted, the elder Zevon had his hard-drinking and heavy smoking days, but his untimely demise at age 56 came long after he’d gone sober and smoke-free. It had nothing to do with the rock & roll lifestyle and everything to do with a misunderstood disease you only hear about on late-night infomercials from ambulance chasers.

We spoke to Jordan in advance of a July 7 fundraiser and concert he’s putting on with the ADAO and some of Zevon’s old colleagues and bandmates, including longtime road manager and right-hand man George Gruel, who will be signing and auctioning photos from his book Lawyers, Guns, & Photos: Photographs and Tales of My Adventures With Warren Zevon.

How did this get started?
There’s just so much misinformation out there about mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases. People see the late-night commercials and they equate it with sailors and factory workers, and Dad basically never worked a nonmusical day in his life. And since then, we’ve found out that the whole thing about asbestos is that when it’s dry, a single asbestos fiber can get in your lungs and sit there, and 20 years later you’ve got mesothelioma. We found out about certain brands of duct tape that have it. It’s not banned; people think it is, but it’s not, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Wait, asbestos isn’t banned?
No, it’s not completely banned. And it’s still out there. I hate to be a scaremonger, but when you’re a musician and you’re playing in some club in Wisconsin and your drummer is banging on the ceiling pipes, you could be getting exposed. So that was the main thing. We’re not trying to scare anybody; we’re just trying to get it banned. It takes so long to gestate and it’s so hard to fight. So George has all of these photos ...

It seems like they're capturing your dad right at his peak.
It’s fascinating just seeing all of these pictures that he had taken and just remembering that period of time. I can’t speak to it being Dad’s happiest time, but I can definitely say it was at least the happiest I’d seen him in a long time, and it was the happiest I would see him for a long time after that. Everything was banging on the right cylinder. He was working out like crazy and at the gym.

Hold up right there: Warren Zevon was a gym nut?
Oh my God, he was ... and that was part of getting sober. He was taking dancing lessons and doing splits, and it was definitely a departure from the previous.

It’s just hard to imagine him going into, like, Gold’s Gym and asking someone to spot him.
No no, he loved that shit. There was totally a part of him that had that meathead workout mentality. A lot of the times it just had to do with the showbiz aspect. Even if he came off as a grump, he still had a lot of respect for his craft. In fact, that’s why he would always call his fans "customers" and not fans, because he felt that was more validating. "Customer is always right," stuff like that. He felt like these were people paying for a service, not people worshipping at your feet. 

It sounds like he was headed in a pretty healthy direction?
Yeah, well there’s this myth that Dad was a lifelong smoker. And it’s so irritating. He had quit years and years before. There’s not much of a connection between smoking and mesothelioma. And I get that all of the time, things like, "Lifelong smoker Warren Zevon ..."

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Which of George's photos is most important to you?
There’s a picture from Hawaii, it’s just George, my father and I ... and we’re wearing our tour T-shirts. And Dad was incredibly thin because his working out had led to injury, which had led to painkillers. It was just another father-son bonding moment where we’d gone to Hawaii and I was this weird chubby rocker kid who didn’t want to leave his room. And here he’s emaciatingly thin and taking pills and stuff. And he says, "Hey, why don’t you get out of this room?" And I said, "Well, there’s this thing called anorexia …" And he always quoted that back to me. And we took time to feel each other out of that. So there’s this picture with George and it’s really sweet, but I see all of the issues that are about to be resolved.

The Warren Zevon tribute night and ADAO fundraiser takes place Thursday, July 7, at Mr. Musichead Gallery in Hollywood. It will include an exhibition of George Gruel's photos, a book signing and talk, an auction of Zevon memorabilia benefiting ADAO, and live performance by Jordan Zevon and members of Warren Zevon's 1982 touring band with special guests. Tickets and more info.

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