I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
By Crystal Zevon
Available at Amazon.com
This review came about for a rather peculiar reason. I was essentially dared into it. Let me explain…
One Friday evening, I was headed home from the day job with barely enough time to shower, change and head to the night job when I stopped into Barnes and Noble. While perusing the stacks, my phone rings. It’s Flea. Just to clarify things, this is the Flea from Pulse Wrestling, not the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (I do have to remember what section I’m writing in, so that clarification is necessary). I’m not that well-connected, folks. So, our conversation eventually turns to the fact that I’m shopping in Barnes and Noble, and he’s asking me whether there’s anything good out literature-wise. Well, I’m in the biography section, and I notice I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. I pick it up, quickly page through it, and tell Flea, “Well, there’s a new oral-history biography of Warren Zevon done by his ex-wife. Looks interesting.”
I didn’t really expect Flea’s reaction. “Oh, not f*ckin’ Warren Zevon. Goddamn, I hate him. Fuckin’ ‘Werewolves of London’…” It took me back a little. If anyone would be a Zevon fan, I thought, it’d be Flea. He likes iconoclastic artists like Zevon. Besides, Zevon was a drunk, Flea’s a drunk, and you can connect the dots. Then I thought about it for a second. I could see where Fleabag was coming from regarding “Werewolves of London”. It’s one of those truly great songs that you end up hating because it’s played at saturation level on rock radio; I’ve heard it three times this week alone on two different stations. It’s in good company though, sitting right next to “Freebird”, “Roundabout”, “Light My Fire”, “Comfortably Numb” and pretty much everything from the Led Zeppelin catalog (seriously, when a Zep song comes on the radio, I switch the station unless the song in question is “Kashmir” or “Immigrant Song”). So, I knew I needed to counter this a bit, and I decided to… well, draw blood, as the man said in that song. “Dude, ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’.” “Well, I’ll give you that one,” was Flea’s response. At this point, I knew I needed to purchase this book, and I needed to review it.
This book came about in a way almost as unusual as this review. When Warren was diagnosed with the mesothelioma that would kill him at 56, he wanted his story told. The only person he trusted to do this was, of all people, his ex-wife Crystal. His rationale was very Zevon-like: Crystal had seen the absolute worst of him, and he knew that she wouldn’t sugar-coat him and turn him into some sort of plaster saint. She took on the obligation to do so, with full credit to her. Reliving those days must have been painful for her.
However, she decided on the perfect format to ensure that personal bias wouldn’t creep in on her part. She chose to do the book in the oral-history fashion that was given legitimacy in rock writing by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain in their magnificent history of New York Punk, Please Kill Me. Crystal used quotes from published interviews, personal interviews, magazine articles, and various and sundry reminiscences to assemble her ex-husband’s history in a highly readable, understandable format, never dwelling too much on any one segment of his life, even the end of it.
The format helps here, because a prose telling of Zevon’s life would bring one to the conclusion that even the oral-history version makes hard to avoid: he was, to put it nicely, a complete and utter asshole. An extremely talented asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. He was miserable to deal with, drunk or sober, and extremely demanding on everyone who entered his life. Yet, somehow, everyone ended up loving him, even the people he used, treating his personality as just something to deal with in order to get to the talent that burst from him.
Zevon was born in Chicago to a Jewish mid-level gangster and a Mormon waitress twenty years younger than him. The family eventually made it to California, and through those trips, Warren’s talent for music appeared at an early age. It was so evident that his youth was disregarded; when he met Stravinsky at the age of 13, the great composer treated him with fully adult respect and encouraged his talent. He got out of Fresno at an early age and wandered to San Francisco just before the hippie boom hit, forming a proto-psychedelic folk duo and calling himself stephen lyme (lower-case spelling courtesy of e e cummings). He had a full understanding of the importance of image at that age, making sure that “lyme” had an affection for anything colored green. He started to make friends on the West Coast rock scene, becoming close to Howard Kaylan of The Turtles, among others. Kaylan convinced The Turtles to put a Zevon composition on the flip-side of “Happy Together”, and Warren had his first success in the business.
But his career didn’t progress rapidly. He had a failed solo album come out in 1970, which was enough to get him the attention of the Everly Brothers, who hired him as keyboardist and musical director. Zevon ended up hiring Waddy Wachtel long before he became one of the leading guitarists-for-hire in rock for the Everlys, starting a fruitful creative relationship. While working for the Everlys, whether together or solo, he got to meet and make friends with Jackson Browne and Lindsey Buckingham (pre-Fleetwood Mac), and through them, the cream of the West Coast scene. It was Browne that would end up pressuring David Geffen for years to sign Zevon to Asylum Records. After all, Asylum artists like Linda Rondstadt were recording Zevon songs, so it was a natural. Geffen resisted, but finally gave in. His first solo release for Asylum wasn’t a real financial success, but critics fell over each other giving it praise. It would be his second Asylum album, Excitable Boy, that would prove to be the breakthrough.
Fortunately for Flea and people like him, the reminiscences regarding “Werewolves of London” are not too plentiful, only appropriate for a song that everyone agrees took fifteen minutes to write. Unfortunately, the format doesn’t apply itself well to reminiscences of any song in particular. One does wish for a little more detail, but Zevon was such a phenomenal lyricist that one can imagine that everything came so easy to him that he or anyone else didn’t really dwell on where the inspiration came from. As a lyricist, though, he was definitely ahead of his time, and Excitable Boy proves it. “Werewolves of London” is post-modern kitsch long before that concept became cool. “Laywers, Guns and Money”, in one line, perfectly anticipates the ’80s: “Bring lawyers, guns and money; the shit has hit the fan”. It took his friend Jackson Browne five more years to come up with something nearly as good and incisive with “Lawyers in Love”, and even then, people missed the point of that song. With Zevon, you always knew.
It was during this period, though, that Zevon’s worst tendencies were starting to come out. He had broken up with the mother of his son Jordan to marry Crystal, and they ended up having a daughter, Ariel. Zevon, though, plowed himself into two separate directions that took him away from his family: into his work, and into the bottle. SoCal Rock was front-loaded with Cocaine Cowboys at the time, and Zevon was regarded as the rowdiest of the breed, behavior that later commended him to Hunter Thompson as part of the musical contingent of Gonzo (Zevon’s gun fetish alone will give you chills reading about it). The alcohol abuse broke up his marriage, and then Zevon established his track record as a serial monogamist, getting together and then breaking up with women when they started to bore him. He became alienated from his children. The booze also took a toll on his musical career. Geffen ended up dropping him from Asylum, then signed him when he created Geffen Records, then ended up dropping him again. Zevon became more and more dependent on help from friends and fans, like the members of R.E.M., in order to sustain a career that was only kept going through a repetitive tour sequence that guaranteed him an audience. It took him until the mid-’80s to start drying up, and the process took repeated trips to rehab and a nearly-unhealthy dependence on Alcoholics Anonymous. He ended up stopping his AA meetings when he discovered his sponsor was addicted to heroin, but he stayed off the booze, a testament to his willpower.
But the talent didn’t dry up. His lyrics were always of high caliber, and he kept attracting famous fans who’d help him, like David Letterman, who relied on Zevon when Paul Shaffer needed a vacation. When he was diagnosed with the disease that would kill him, his fans came out in droves, and he did have a habit of making fans and friends in unusual ways. For instance, he developed symptoms of OCD. Instead of it being a drawback, it became a way to bond with a neighbor of his who also had OCD. The neighbor in question was a then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton, who stayed friends with Zevon until the end of his life. Reading this book, you get the impression that Warren Zevon was the luckiest man in showbiz. Every time he’d fall, and he’d keep falling and falling, someone would be there to pick him up, allowing his ability and talent to be shown to anyone who’d listen. That tendency was kept alive until the end. He’d fallen back into alcoholism when he received his death sentence, but the news that he’d try to get in one more album before the end brought his coterie out to help him, including Bruce Springsteen. The Wind might have been Zevon’s greatest statement, an album that told everyone, “You might not have listened when I was alive, but listen now, and you’re gonna miss me after this.”
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a fast-paced trip through the life of an enigmatic rock star, one who was truly upset that most of his peer group achieved greater success than he did but rarely showed it. As Crystal promised, there’s no sugar-coating here. Zevon is shown in his most despicable light. In fact, he may be portrayed as too despicable at times. That sense is aggravated a bit by a lack of explanation for any of his activities. Zevon went through life in a No Apologies mode, and his friends and the contributors to this book understand that and accept it, and don’t try to attempt to explain him.
That may be this book’s greatest failing. When you’re confronted with a protagonist such as this, some explanations would be welcome. There’s no real justification for anything he did that’s apparaent on the surface. Joe Strummer, for instance, ended up rejecting life because he felt that life had rejected him, a conclusion he developed at the age of nine that stayed with him for the remaining forty-one years of his life. Zevon came from a broken home with parents that didn’t really give him the attention he deserved, and ended up growing up in a soul-crushing place like Fresno, but that doesn’t explain everything. He was someone who used and abused people until they gave up on him, but he’d end up attracting those people back. He definitely had the knack of making friends and keeping them for extended periods of time. And he knew how to use those connections. It was his relationship with Lindsey Buckingham, combined with his reputation, that explains the fact that the rhythm section on “Werewolves of London” is Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. He was even able to use people after he was dead, like he did with Crystal and this book.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, though, encapsulates the experience of what it was like to know Warren Zevon. It shows why people were attracted to him, some of them knowing going into the relationship that it would turn out to be a disaster. People were willing to put up with all of the nonsense because they knew that there was a talent in there that needed to be expressed, and they were willing to do anything to help it come out. No, he definitely isn’t displayed here as a plaster saint. But to those of us who follow in his behavioral footsteps, Warren Zevon is certainly a patron saint. If you can’t bring lawyers, guns, and money to this show, just give yourself a little sentimental hygeine and cry out an “aah-ooh” as you read this. It’s definitely worth your time. You can sleep when you’re dead.