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Happy Birthday, Warren Zevon

Getty Images / Hiroyuki Ito

“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walkin’ through the streets of Soho in the rain…”

When Warren Zevon died in 2003 at the premature age of 57, it was arguably the pinnacle of a 30-year music career that had been almost entirely based on crafting wry odes to death.

That the manic depressive songwriter whose personal emblem had always been a skull smoking a cigarette would die too young from lung cancer — but the sort you get from asbestos, not from smoking — pretty much captured the fatalistic essence of Zevon’s art. Naturally, the world responded by bestowing upon him the fame and devotion that had eluded him for decades, posthumously granting his final album a Grammy now that the only acceptance speech he could deliver would be an eyeroll from the grave.

Zevon would have turned 71 this week. In honor of his birthday, here are 10 facts about the life and career of the remarkable lyricist who deadpanned his way through “Werewolves of London,” "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Mr. Bad Example," and other classic songs about life, love and death.

1. Zevon wasn’t born into a musical family. His dad was a bookie, and one of his most notorious customers was mobster Mickey Cohen.

2. Zevon himself, though, was musical from a young age. By 13, his junior high school band teacher had introduced him to Igor Stravinsky, who encouraged his interest in classical music. At 16, Zevon quit school and ran away to become a folk singer.

3. Before his solo career took off, Zevon wrote songs for The Turtles and toured as keyboard player for the Everly Brothers.

4. Zevon once roomed with future Fleetwood Mac members Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham – before any of the three were famous.

5. BBC Radio 2 listeners rated the opening line of “Werewolves of London” the best opening song lyric of all time: “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walkin’ through the streets of Soho in the rain…”

6. Zevon only cracked the Top 40 once, with “Werewolves of London.” Linda Ronstadt reached No. 31 with her cover of Zevon’s song “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.”

7. Not one but two of Zevon’s songs are about the death of Elvis Presley: “Jesus Mentioned” and “Porcelain Monkey.”

8. In the 1980s, Zevon joined members of R.E.M. to form the supergroup Hindu Love Gods, which had a couple of minor hits on the modern rock charts. R.E.M.’s Bill Berry, Peter Buck and Mike Mills served as Zevon’s backup band for his 1987 album "Sentimental Hygiene."

9. For two decades, Zevon was a frequent guest and substitute bandleader on David Letterman’s late night shows. He called Letterman “the best friend my music’s ever had.” The day after Zevon’s death Sept. 7, 2003, the "Late Show with David Letterman" band played his songs throughout the show.

10. After Zevon’s diagnosis with cancer, his friend Letterman asked if he had any wisdom to share about living and dying. Zevon’s response was his oft-quoted mantra: “Enjoy every sandwich.”