Crystal Zevon's "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is un-putdownable for Warren Zevon fans like me. And I imagine even those unfamiliar with his work will be mightily entertained. I don't think I've read such a revealing rock book since Stephen Davis' Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga, about Led Zeppelin. I remember when Zevon's album "The Envoy" came out in 1982 it seemed to me to be a little thin compared with his previous epic, brilliant records. I had no idea, of course. It turns out Zevon was drinking and drugging himself into near oblivion during the 1970's and much of the '80's. When he emerged from this ordeal for the '90's he had lost commercial momentum and he watched his career dwindle to almost nothing. It's a sad story much of the time, but it's enlivened by Zevon's brilliantly perverse personality. He was called the Dorothy Parker of rock because of his wit, but he was something much tougher: some sort of mutant combination of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Randy Newman, and Igor Stravinsky.
Crystal Zevon, his former wife and mother of his daughter, has interviewed many of the closest people to the late musician and has constructed an oral history of his life. Within her narrative framework each person takes turns telling stories in their own words, supplemented by Zevon's surprisingly detailed and hair-raising, candid diaries, and dozens of terrific personal and family photos. It's a similar format to George Plimpton's Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintences and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career and Peter Manso's Mailer: His Life and Times. (I think that is company in which Zevon would be glad to be included, given his literary bent.) Crystal has been able to put together an amazingly life-like, three-dimensional portrait of a complex person for whom the good and bad parts were inextricably linked.
Much of the rock-star behavior detailed here can only be described as despicable. As Crystal walked out the door for the last time Zevon hurled at her, "You're trying to turn Dylan Thomas into Robert Young" and more poignantly, "I'll never be your father." Zevon hit his wife when he was loaded; was a financial deadbeat with some of his closest musical collaborators; was a shamefully neglectful father; emotionally manhandled a series of smart, pretty girlfriends; wasted fortunes on OCD-compelled shopping sprees; had many sordid misadventures with groupies and self-produced porn; and could be a spiteful, sorry jerk to be around. Much of this can be laid at the feet of his alcohol and drug addictions (which continued even after the famous "Rolling Stone" cover story which celebrated his supposed new sobriety.) What makes us care about his tale is his palpable humanity which comes through clearly in these pages. He was fiercely intelligent (if something of an intellectual star-chaser, to use a less obscene term). He was touchingly humble about himself, even as he was aware of his commanding strengths as a songwriter. When he wanted to he could be an awesome companion and father. He counted among his pals some very famous folks like David Letterman (who was "the best friend my music ever had"), Stephen King, Dave Barry (who alone among the interviewees cried while talking about Zevon) and Carl Hiaasen (who wrote the classy and moving introduction to this book.) In fact it seems that Zevon had met most of American show-business at one time or another, which gives his biography an extra dimension (Hunter Thompson called Zevon a "Mormon Jew" because of Zevon's moralistic streak and the background of his mother and father.)
The book begins and ends with a painfully honest account of Zevon's final illness and death. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he fell off the wagon in a heap, after 16 sober years. It got pretty gruesome, but he pulled himself together long enough to record his farewell album "The Wind", make a legendary hour-long appearance on the Letterman show, and witness the birth of his twin grandsons. Zevon's music will continue to live because of its sheer melodic beauty, hard-rocking power, and devastatingly funny depictions of certain dark sides of American male experience. This book is an invaluable resource for understanding this great artist; and it's one of the most readable books of this year.
An unusually witty, intelligent, insightful and downright poetic songwriter, Warren Zevon embraced stardom even when it didn't embrace him back--he struggled with various addictions OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), watching his contemporaries achieve fame and hold on to it longer. Zevon watched his early fame with the novelty hit single "Werewolves of London" (the title was supplied by Phil Everly--Zevon was musical director for the brothers during their last tour before their estrangement)gradually dissolve despite releasing a series of terrific albums in its wake. Warren avoided doctors for 20 years (he would see his dentist whenever he had a problem)finally giving in when he found himself short of breath and exhausted after a tour of Canada--but by then it was too late for him.
Written by Zevon's former wife Crystal, the book is a mix of narrative written by Crystal along with quotes from friends, family and fellow musicians that played with and admired Zevon that Crystal interviewed for this book. Zevon could be petty, was a nasty drunk but could also be a good friend to those he loved when he was sober. She has also includes excerpts from Warren's diary as well as illustrations by Mr. Bad Example and personal photos. When Warren found out he was going to die he embraced the potential publicity by asking his agent to exploit it knowing that this would truly be his last paycheck and that his family could benefit from it. He appeared on David Letterman's show (Letterman was a long time fan and Warren appeared with his band during at one point on the show), did multiple interviews and rushed to finish one final masterpiece before succumbing to "the big C". He beat doctors predictions and expectations surviving long enough to greet his twin grandsons.
The book is filled with a number of heartbreaking, amusing, infuriating stories. Among them Warren instructing his assistant to go to a Beverly Hills store to buy him cigerettes--his stipulation beyond the type was that the packaging couldn't say anything about cancer--it could say that smoking caused heart disease, pulmonary disease, etc. but NOT cancer. We also find out that the line about the "Excitable Boy" rubbing the pot roast all over his chest is based on something Warren did.
Many of Warren's albums are essential and his brilliance is as undeniable as his inability to conquer many of his demons. Even after reading the profiles of him in Rolling Stone, the obits and other comments from friends, lovers, family and collegues, I had no idea as to the extent of Warren's problems. He was a mass of fascinating contradictions. He was a serial womanizer who longed for committment but couldn't be faithful for too long. Before he died, he asked Crystal to document his life and dirty times in a book. He didn't ask her to sanitize his life recognizing that his shortcomings were every bit a part of him as his unique gifts. Interestingly, I found that I appreciated the albums he made even more after learning about all the disorder in his house.
Coinciding with the release of Crystal Zevon's book is "Preludes" a collection of rare, previously unreleased songs and demos all pre-1976 (except for a couple of album tracks and a single live track on the second disc). It's a two disc set with an interview on the second.
Also recommended some of his essential recordings: Warren Zevon,Excitable Boy,Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School,The Envoy,The Wind
on July 9, 2007
Crystal Zevon's 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon' (2007) is a harrowing, sad, and eye-opening examination of the life of the late musician whose brilliant songwriting found critical and commercial fame just as the Seventies and the era of the 'California Sound' were winding to a close. Championed early by influential luminaries Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Don Henley and Linda Ronstadt (who covered a quartet of his songs at the height of her fame), Zevon was something of a transitional figure as popular music moved towards the rawer edges of punk and new wave.
Ironically, Zevon, whose typically sharp, cynical, and biting songs helped bring an end to the Mellow Seventies, didn't really survive that decade himself, at least not commercially. As 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' underscores, Zevon drifted through the next thirty years of his personal and creative life with difficulty, watching the popular audience for his work slowly evaporate while he became overwhelmed with substance, financial, and behavioral problems of astounding scope and variety. Always something of an 'artist's artist,' the acclaim of his industry peers never diminished.
Zevon apparently suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and some type of agoraphobia as well as various kinds of addiction, but few readers may feel these problems excuse his physical, emotional, and verbal abuse towards one woman after another, his expectation that the women in his life were largely present only to respond to his needs, his failure to support his children for extended periods, and the infantile fits of rage he indulged himself in one year after another.
Often haughty and imperious during his youth and heyday, 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' suggests that Zevon could neither cope with nor accept the relative failure of his post-Seventies career, when he had to struggle to obtain recording contracts, was reduced to opening for Richard Marx, and playing restaurants and sterile corporate 'parties.'
However, Zevon was hardly alone in facing this 'big chill.' The post-Seventies period was equally hard on most musicians who cut their teeth during the Me Decade, from Browne, Souther, and Joni Mitchell to America and Bob Seger. The Eagles wisely disbanded, while Ronstadt coolly and confidently moved on to other genres. As new multi-media acts like Madonna rose to prominence, even punk bands faltered: Patti Smith retired; Blondie broke up.
Those interviewed, who include Browne, Souther, Waddy Watchel, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, novelists Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, as well as family members, intimate personal friends and ex-lovers, occasionally appear to fall into two broad camps to explain Zevon's bizarrely self-destructive behavior.
The more tolerant point of view is that Zevon was an artist and a musician, and "this is simply how artists and musicians behave." The other, more worrying but probably far more accurate view, is that Zevon was something of a sociopath, and one who caused infinite amounts of needless pain and suffering to himself and almost anyone who came into his personal orbit. Since many people, especially women, entered into relationships with Zevon and largely tolerated his abuse due to his fame and reputation, they ultimately have to accept responsibility for their experiences.
Much of 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' portrays its subject as willful, manipulative, and emotionally immature at best, and as something of a "morale imbecile" at worst. Though only psychiatrists can make such assessments, readers have only to compare Zevon's behavior over the course of his life with Hervey Cleckley's "psychopathology checklist" from The 'Mask of Sanit'y' (1941) to understand further what 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' frequently suggests.
Authored by his ex-wife and the mother of Zevon's daughter, Ariel, 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' is a work of integrity, and one initiated with Zevon's encouragement before his tragic death from cancer at 56. Raw but unexploitive, the book is a powerfully dramatic testament to both its subject's musical genius and troubled existence.
on June 20, 2007
I've listened to and loved Zevon's music over the years, including (and especially) his later overlooked albums. I'd heard tales of his debauchery and alcoholism, but also appreciated the high intelligence and insight that shone through in his music. From the subject matter and point-of-view of many of his songs, I'd figured he was a rather disturbed and cynical man. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" did not disabuse me of those notions. It splits into two parts: in the first, he's a drunken a******, and in the second, a sober a******. Surely his childhood had something to do with how he turned out, and I suspect there were some glitches in his hard-wiring as well. The Zevon in these pages is a user, of substances and of people. With very few exceptions, he eventually alienated everyone who reached out to him, some of whom supported and loved him through unthinkable behavior. The only bright spots are the growing relationships with his children, Ariel and Jordan, in the middle and end of his life; but even those have to be viewed through the lens of his utter callousness and neglect for them when they were growing up.
Early on, the stories of his rock-and-roll life are interesting in a train-wreck sort of way, and for the insight they provide into the cutthroat reality of the seemingly laid-back '70s California singer-songwriter scene. But by mid-book the recounting of his unsavory and despicable behavior becomes repetitive and numbing. When he kicks the sauce in 1986, you expect to read that he reforms at least some of his selfish and anti-social ways, but the river runs far deeper.
In the end, like Sinatra, it's a case of "trust the art, not the artist." Zevon left a catalog of finely-etched songs that illuminate many of the dark corners of the human condition, and those will stand despite the failings of the man and the misery he both suffered and wrought.
More than 80 people -- friends, lovers, family, children, employees, and other musicians -- contribute to a book assembled by Zevon's ex-wife (at Warren's request) in the form of a traditional oral history. Arranged chronologically, it's a biography consisting almost entirely of reminiscences, selected and edited through the filter of a woman who was married to him for a few years long ago, who mothered one of his children, and who never severed ties despite a history of abuse and erratic behavior.
Very little narrative or exposition is offered to clarify or create context for the interview exerpts, except for an occasional paragraph by the author and, mostly later in the narrative, snips from Zevon's personal diaries.
What emerges is, to this reader, a picture of an unlovable man who was nevertheless charismatic; a talented mussician, composer, and arranger who was nevertheless only moderately successful; a selfish and neurotic egotist who was nevertheless able to keep friends and attract women until he was done with them.
What's missing is insight. What attracted people to him despite his cruelty? What characteristics of his musicianship kept him mostly out of the limelight despite the respect and admiration of his peers? What formed the personality that craved constant female companionship but was compelled to destroy relationships? How did his self-destructiveness and profoundly addictive personality shape his work?
We'll have to wait for another author of another book to attempt to answer these questions. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" isn't about analysis, but about the memories of dozens of people who knew him, whether intimately or casually, and the effect he had on them. As such, it succeeds very well and, I'm sure, exorcises a few demons for his family.
on April 30, 2010
Anecdotes about and observations of the late musician Warren Zevon from family, friends, and colleagues comprise the biography I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD: THE DIRTY LIFE AND TIMES OF WARREN ZEVON. As 73 reviews of this book came before mine, I limit my words to thoughts I did not see as I skimmed through them:
- I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD does not include remarks from Linda Ronstadt, who covered a number of Warren Zevon songs and sang a duet with him on his 1980 album BAD LUCK STREAK IN DANCING SCHOOL. Her absence from the book's interviews is a glaring omission, as Ronstadt's versions of "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me" helped Warren Zevon's career take off. With the arguable exception of Jackson Browne, no one who noticed Warren Zevon's talent was more responsible for promoting him than Linda Ronstadt.
- Why is the name of the Philadelphia disc jockey who had a relationship with Warren Zevon not disclosed? I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD refers to the woman only as "The D.J.."
- Warren Zevon addresses someone named "Jim" in no fewer than three songs, "Werewolves of London," "Piano Fighter," and "My Ride's Here." I noticed because that's my name but if the late Zevon was referring to some Jim in particular, it does not come up in this book.
- Phil Everly was a hell of a good friend to Warren Zevon, inviting Zevon and his wife Crystal to move in with him when they were down on their luck.
- Between a troubled childhood and the disease of alcoholism, Warren Zevon hurt himself and others throughout his life, regardless of how much they loved him. While I'M SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD does not spell it out, the record of Zevon's adult behavior mirrored his unstable upbringing, the lack of childhood attention his parents gave him resulting in his poor of consideration for others. What would have become of Warren Zevon were his talent ordinary?
Those unfamiliar with but curious about Warren Zevon's music should hear his albums WARREN ZEVON; EXCITABLE BOY; and LIFE'LL KILL YA. Those three along with STAND IN THE FIRE; SENTIMENTAL HYGIENE; TRANSVERSE CITY; and THE WIND comprise my Warren Zevon short list, but outside of WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and any post-mortem collections, I like every Warren Zevon album.
on June 5, 2008
Very sad tale about a guy who's talent ne'er waned, even when he was drinking, drugging or sexing himself to death. Took a lot of people with him, most of whom are quoted here, and you really find out what it was like to be close to him.
Reason I gave it 4 stars: The one thing missing that the writer could never have known was what Zevon's rising and falling star looked like from the outside, and how it affected the rockin' culture as a whole. A lot of that perspective gets covered as a matter of course, but some of it is missing simply because almost everyone interviewed was very close to ground zero.
That's also what makes this book so riveting, and I think it had to be written this way. Best stories: When Waddy Wachtel first meets Zevon when trying out for the Everly Brothers band, and when Zevon wants to play a Spice Girls tune when subbing for Paul Schaefer on Letterman.
Lastly, one previous reviewer notes, very accurately, that it's repetitive and grim. Well, that's exactly what active addiction ultimately becomes, and that's what we're being let in on here.
on June 21, 2007
My introduction to Warren Zevon came in the early 1980's when I was in a record store in Gainesville, FL looking for a new album that had just came out (I don't remember what the album was). While in the store I was caught up with the album they were playing over the PA system..a singer was singing about being in Hawaii and abandoned by his girl to the "Hula, Hula" boys with a refrain in Hawain. It piqued my interest. I listened on to the next song which was about going to Memphis, Graceland to be exact and digging up the king and begging him to sing about those heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned and imagining him (Elvis) walking on the water with his diet pills. I was hooked.
Who was the artist? I asked the guy at the counter.
Warren Zevon. The album? The Envoy. The EnvoyWhich only recently has been made availble on CD. Thus I was introduced to Warren Zevon.
I became a big fan, there is something about a certian class of artists, usually more know for their songwriting than their singing that has always categorized my favorite singers. People as diverse as Tom T. Hall, David Alan Coe, John Prine, Matraca Berg, Neil Young, Neil Diamond and Warren Zevon have long been my favorites. In some ways Zevon was the most diverse of all of them. One minute you were apt to hear a classical string piece introducing some twangy anthem to "playing that dead band's song...all night long" (the dead band referring to another of my long time favorites Lynyrd Skynrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" the next some hard rocking tune. Zevon in many ways defies definition.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon in some ways is just as quirky a biography as the singer was in life. When my copy first arrived I was disappointed, because it didn't seem like a biography at all, but rather a collection of interviews, journal entries, reminicences. But like the genius that the book is about, I soon found their was a genius to what Crystal Zevon (Warren's second ex-wife) had put together. Here is the gripping and moving tale of the real Warren Zevon told from every angle, by people who both loved and hated hiim. The details read like a life long confession--mostly of failures, but with glimmers of grace here and there. The stories behind many of the songs co-written by Warren Zevon are here and as this became my lunch time reading over the past month, I found myself going back and listening to the music from the different periods of his life.
One of the most intriquing elements of the bio, that is very minor in the book but is there throughout his life is Zevon's fascination with the Catholic Church. In Spain he tries to convince then wife Crystal that they convert--she's reluctant, so nothing happens. Later when asked by someone what his religion he says, "Catholic." He attends Mass with a woman whom he sleeps with in the same apartment building, another time when troubled in Ireland he finds a Catholic Church and enters during Mass emerging afterwards and writing in his journal of the experience "Peace be with you" which seems to be something that eluded him throughout his life--hence the song title and book title "I"ll sleep when I'm dead." Perhaps the worst part of this flirtation with Catholicism happens when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only three months to live and visits a Catholic priest with a friend only to be told that he does not have time enough to convert (for non-Catholics and Cathoilcs out there--this must be some reference to the RCIA process which normally takes about nine months to complete, but the priest was wrong to say this--but may not have understood the situation).
As a Warren Zevon fan I loved this book. As a Catholic I wished that Warren might have fell into the hands of a saintly priest or Catholic who might have given him the tools to redeem all of the demons that tormented his soul and kept him from committing to anything but death in his life. To paraphrase another author, we all are either living to sleep or sleeping to rise--unfortunately Warren was haunted by death (see the skulls that dominate his album art--complete with dangling cigarette), but somewhere in the midst of it all I think the grace that haunted him might have won out in the end.
on August 16, 2007
I discovered Warren in the 1980s when I first heard "Run Straight Down" cut through the radio airwaves and demand my attention. Until then I had only known of Warren as the guy who sung "that Werewolf song"--a crash course in his music later and I was hooked for life on that truly unique voice and wonderful, witty, one-of-a-kind songwriter.
Even so, I never felt compelled to look beyond the music to know more about the man himself, not even after enjoying seeing him perform live many times and going through the shock and devastation many of his fans felt upon learning of his illness, and then his passing a year later. Reading this book, then, was quite a revelation--at times perhaps more than I really wanted or needed to know about the troubled genuis whose music had meant so much to me through the years. Nothing is left out, it seems, except the names of a few girlfriends who for whatever reason are only referred to by description ("the dj", for instance--curious when said dj has made no bones about promoting her relationship with Warren in the press herself).
The alcohol and drug abuse, the obsessive-compulsive disorder, his sexual proclivities including videotaping himself with his partners...at times I felt like putting the book down and walking away from the entire affair, but apparently this was the story he wanted to be told after his passing, so I felt I owed it to Warren to see it through to the end.
I'm left uncertain with how reading this book will affect my appreciation of Warren's music in the future. We're certainly all human and it's clear Warren faced many demons throughout his life, some that are easy to sympathize with, others not so much. I'd say this is a book for fans to approach with some caution, but then again, maybe it's the only story about Warren that could be told.
on September 2, 2007
I read this book again, as soon as I finished it the first time. To read it is like watching a head on collision between two SUVs. You don't want to watch, but something compels you to. We have all read of the life of rock and roll excess before, but for my money- nothing tops this. I've never read of someone with so much talent, genius even, who was so tortured. I thought I knew the guy from his music, which I've always enjoyed, but boy was I wrong. There's something appalling on every page.
And yet, despite it all, people really loved this guy. That is the miracle of this book. You feel it too. Whats fascinating is Warren's sobriety did not end his problems. He was a huge jerk at times, he hurt people close to him... It is amazing to me that he wanted it all told. He didn't want to go the " authorized biography" route. I read the book again because I felt Zevon might have benefited with a biography more analytical in approach. I'm sure that is coming.I wanted to try and remember everything. His life is that important.
Crystal Zevon is the real her of this book. I was so happy to see her get out of the marriage. That she conquered her own self destructiveness via alcohol is even more of a triumph. This book is unputdownable. Even though it is gruesome to read, it is unabashedly life affirming. A triumph.