It Ain’t That Pretty, That Life of Zevon’s
I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD
The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.
By Crystal Zevon.
Illustrated. 452 pp. Ecco. $26.95.
One self-imposed epitaph Warren Zevon delivered after learning he had terminal cancer was this: “It’s a damned hard way to make a living, having to die to get ’em to know you’re alive.” Like so much of what he said, wrote and sang, it was quotable, savagely funny and true.
Near the end of his life (he died at 56 on Sept. 7, 2003), doing some of his best work in the face of adversity, Mr. Zevon remained stuck in a commercial vacuum. The great promise of his sensational early albums had never brought him the wide following he deserved. So he decided to make the most of a terrible situation, advising his manager to exploit his illness in any way that might advance a soon-to-be-over career. (The manager refused. Still, there were posthumous Grammys.) And he called upon his estranged wife, Crystal Zevon, to take care of him. He also wanted her to take notes.
Ms. Zevon fulfills his wishes with “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” a no-holds-barred oral history that captures a lovable but wildly aberrant personality, draws upon a fascinatingly diverse cast of characters and peers into the heart of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter community in its prime. The widow’s role is awkward, given her ex-husband’s gun-toting rages, heavy substance abuse, iffy parenting and unflagging ability to chase new women. She also uses an awkward format that has her writing in both the first person (as speaker) and third (as editor). And she takes for granted readers’ familiarity with the music of her lifelong companion. (This book has no index or discography.)
But her affection, candor and dogged pursuit of information make this book an unforgettable journey into the depths of Mr. Zevon’s mad genius. There is much for Ms. Zevon to balk at, but she has the temerity for this tough job. The rare thing for which she apologizes is not having tried to interview Bob Dylan, one of many stellar musicians who had a way of turning up at Zevon recording sessions, given the high regard in which fellow artists held him. “I guess I was just scared,” she says.
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” uses Zevon song titles like “Werewolves of London,” “Detox Mansion,” “Mr. Bad Example” and “My Dirty Life and Times” as chapter headings. It doesn’t use the one that best sums up this story: “Ain’t That Pretty at All.” The Mr. Zevon on these pages is surprisingly image-conscious, abusive, petty, jealous, sordid, vain, shopaholic and even banal; among his obsessive-compulsive tics was buying the same kind of gray T-shirt over and over again. His diary entries often focus on such things, so they are less scintillating than the literary lyrics for which he is known. Among the livelier entries is this one: “Went over to Ryan’s. Later in the evening I got stuck in the elevator — Fire Dept. had to come. Not as much fun as it sounds.”
But this lack of show-business artifice is precisely what makes the Zevon story so telling. What was even more unusual than his dark thoughts — like resenting the fact that Jackson Browne and Neil Young had lost people close to them and written beautiful, much-admired songs about those deaths — was his willingness to admit to those thoughts. On his deathbed, discussing the merits of having a funeral, he said, “I just don’t want to have to spend my last days wondering whether Henley” — Don Henley of the Eagles, who did not attend — “will show up.”
Mr. Browne is one of many mentors who tried to help Mr. Zevon, knowing that their wild-man compatriot was his own worst enemy. “My role as benefactor took its toll on our friendship,” Mr. Browne says astutely, but it was a friendship that endured to the end of Mr. Zevon’s days. Mr. Browne also points out that when he introduced Mr. Zevon to an audience as “the Ernest Hemingway of the twelve-string guitar,” Mr. Zevon said he was more like Charles Bronson. “Warren didn’t have literary pretensions,” Mr. Browne says. “He had literary muscle.”
He also had literary tastes (he was the rare rock musician who went looking for bookstores while on the road) and literary antecedents (he is aptly compared here to Dorothy Parker and, by Bruce Springsteen, to Nathanael West). And he had literary cronies, some of whom he met by showing up at their book signings. “He was more self-deprecating about his talent than we were about ours, and we genuinely stink,” Dave Barry says about the Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-author band with which Mr. Zevon sometimes played.
“I don’t think his fires were out, but I think he’d banked his fires,” says another band member, Stephen King, who knew Mr. Zevon during the singer’s middle and later years.
Most of his friends from this period had no idea of the wreckage caused by Mr. Zevon’s early alcoholism. After years of hair-raising benders (many of them described in the book), he became sober for 17 years, only to be thrown off the wagon by a diagnosis of certain death. These last megabinges shamed Mr. Zevon and angered some of his new friends. “I said the one thing this guy should not do is die a cliché,” says the writer Carl Hiaasen, who worried that Mr. Zevon’s two children would have to read about their father’s fatal drug overdose in a newspaper. But they didn’t. And he had three months to get acquainted with twin grandsons.
The Zevon legacy, which will be greatly bolstered by this intimate portrait despite the warts it reveals, also carries on in other ways. In his diary, Mr. Zevon reported meeting a yuppie family who called their dog Zevon. With classic Zevon acerbity, he told them, “I don’t think this is what grandfather had in mind.”