Updated October 28, 2002 12:00 PM

“Come on!” Warren Zevon snaps in feigned exasperation as a studio engineer struggles with a tape machine. “We’re not looking for the cure for cancer!”

It’s a throwaway line—except that right now, coming from Zevon, it carries a jolting dose of the dark wit for which he’s famous: At 55, he’ll freely tell you, he is dying of cancer. Sometime soon, although he’s not sure exactly how soon. “It’s not something the doctors are eager to tell you, and it’s not something I’m eager to hear,” says the cult rocker behind such ’70s favorites as “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” “Psychologically, they don’t like you fixated on the absence of a Thanksgiving dinner. And I see no reason to seta date.”

In August Zevon was diagnosed with advanced malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive, inoperable form of cancer that has spread from his lungs to his liver. His response to the diagnosis has been unusual. At first, of course, he felt shocked and somewhat lost. Since then, however, he has come to terms, and is dealing with his situation with a frankness, and even humor, that many people would find surprising, but which his friends say is typical of Zevon.

“Whatever the opposite of denial is, that’s what Warren is in,” says author Carl Hiaasen (Strip Tease), one of a large circle of literary and music industry pals that includes Stephen King, Dave Barry and Jackson Browne. “I’ve never encountered anyone with his outlook and the strength, the humor and the wisdom that goes with it. At one point he said to me, ‘I’ve been writing this part for myself for 35 years. Maybe this is just the way it has to go.’ ”

In fact Zevon, who festoons his album jackets with grinning skulls, titled one of his CDs Life’ll Kill Ya and warbles tunes like “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” in concert, has made a career of laughing at death. Even now he refers to himself as Cancer Boy and uses laughter to slay his fears. Ever since “I asked how long I have and the doctor winced,” Zevon says, he has been buying books in pocketbook editions. “They say you can’t take it with you, but no one ever talks about what’s in your pockets. Maybe you can work something out, you know?”

“He’s always been funny about death,” says Browne, “and very courageous in terms of grappling with it now. When he told me, he said, ‘Look, Jackson, I don’t have anything to complain about.’ ”

Zevon has also used his humor to help his friends cope. “I know you aren’t going to believe this,” he told Hiaasen, “but it’s harder for you than it is for me.” And when “Jackson recommended getting the complete collection of [philosopher] Alan Watts lectures from NPR,” Zevon recalls with a chuckle, “I said, ‘Do you think the length is a little ambitious?’ ”

Still, Zevon admits he was unprepared for the verdict he heard in August after he returned from a gig in Canada, complaining of shortness of breath. Fearing heart problems, he consulted a cardiologist, who referred him to a lung specialist. “It just got worse and worse,” says Zevon, who quit smoking in 1994 after a 31-year habit. “Whenever they close the door and give you a glass of water, you ain’t going to be celebrating.”

The shock of the diagnosis was quickly followed by a brief depression, during which he holed up in his modest Hollywood apartment watching old movies starring famous cancer victims. Recalls Hiaasen: “He said, ‘I’m a man dying of cancer. I’m going to get my stack of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner movies and sit in my apartment as long as I can.’ ”

“Eventually, though,” says Zevon, “you have to go back to remembering what it is that makes you happy and alive.” For him, that meant “playing, writing and recording” music. Immersing himself in his home studio, Zevon told his friend and bassist Jorge Calderon, “I don’t want to waste time. I just want to write.” “It makes him happy,” Calderon says. “It’s a spiritual thing.”

Rebounding, Zevon has already recorded six new songs for an album—his 16th—that he hopes to finish before he is too weak to continue. “If I don’t make it, I guess the record company will put out an EP,” he says.

Like many cancer patients, Zevon had to make difficult choices about treatment. Doctors told him that chemotherapy and other more radical treatments might allow him to live for a few more months, but perhaps with a significantly diminished quality of life. Zevon chose to skip treatment and enjoy a shorter life but a richer one—or, as he puts it, “to maintain a quality of living that’s sensible in relation to my chance of recovery, which they tell me is nil.”

Instead he keeps up his strength by heeding his oncologist’s advice to eat “anything and everything you can,” gorging on cookies, ice cream, french fries and raspberry rugelah, says Calderon. “He was excited—’No more Atkins bars!’ ”

Medications to ease his pain and help him sleep were a trickier prescription. Zevon, who was born in Chicago and raised in California and Arizona, spent much of the ’70s drinking, drugging and earning a reputation, he says, as “the dangerous Dean Martin of my generation.” By the end of the decade his two four-year marriages—to photographer Tule Dillow and to writer Crystal Brelsford—were history. He credits a 1978 stint in rehab with helping turn his life around and even now is reluctant to break his 18 years of sobriety. “I enjoyed [alcohol and drugs] for a long time, but then of course it gets ugly and miserable and threatens everybody around you,” he says. “I was lucky. I got to get out of that life and start another one.”

Eventually Zevon relented on the painkillers. “Sobriety is a nonissue now, okay?” his doctor told him. Now when he’s not working, he spends as much time as possible with his two grown children, Jordan, 33 and an office manager, from his first marriage, and Ariel, 26 and a graphic designer, from his second. “When he was dealing with his problems, he wasn’t too close to anybody,” Jordan says of his father’s struggles with substance abuse. “But once he got control of his life, he became a phenomenal father.”

As he returns to the recording at hand, Zevon says he has no great wisdom to impart. “I’ve always said the same thing,” he says. “The only message of art is to enjoy life, to notice you’re alive, to see that there’s a world here. That’s very clear to the dying. That there really is a life here.”

Steve Dougherty

Todd Gold in Los Angeles