Warren Zevon took me for a ride.
Or it seems that way to me now, based on something Jackson Browne says in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, the engrossing new oral history by the sardonic songwriter’s ex, Crystal Zevon.
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
The bio is part of a new posthumous flurry of activity surrounding Zevon, the hard-boiled L.A. songwriter who died in 2003 of mesothelioma, an inoperable form of lung cancer.
Zevon, who’s best known for his 1978 hit “Werewolves of London,” was a terrific interview. I talked with him once, back in 1995 when he was touring in support of “Mutineer, one of the many seriously underrated, all-but-unheard albums he released in the decades following his late-1970s heyday.
Zevon had a droll, dry wit. It was evident whether he was riffing on his reputation as a hell-raiser in “Mr. Bad Example” (“I’m proud to be a glutton, and I don’t have time for sloth / I’m greedy and I’m angry, and I don’t care who I cross”) or cataloging his relationship woes (“She put me through some changes, Lord, sort of like a Waring blender”) in “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.”
The latter song, which was a hit for Linda Ronstadt, is one of several reworked Zevon staples, along with worth-hearing rarities, that appear on the new “Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, on the New West label.
He was as entertaining in conversation as he was in song. He told me about his predilection for writing tales of geopolitical intrigue such as “The Envoy.” (It comes from the excellent 1982 album of the same name, which has just been reissued, along with 1978’s “Excitable Boy and the 1980 live album “Stand in the Fire.) It was born of “the impact of Graham Greene on one’s youthful and not-so-youthful reading. I’ve never been much for the vague, planetary, philosophical school of songwriting. I’m from the start-with-the-detail school.”
That’s top shelf, off-the-cuff copy, and Zevon had more quality quips up his sleeve. Before admitting that he hooked up with the backup band Something Happens because they shared an agent, he told me he met them while “reading Samuel Beckett at a bar in Brisbane.”
He penned “Rottweiler Blues,” about a survivalist and his ferocious pooch, with novelist Carl Hiaasen, a literary pal who wrote the foreword to “Sleep, which includes testimony to Zevon’s brilliance (and failings) from Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bob Thornton, and Dave Barry, among many others. Hiaasen, Zevon said, was familiar with “high-end paramilitary paranoia. I don’t know too much about that. But affordable and free-ranging paranoia? That’s more my style.”
Zevon was paranoid, all right. The portrait that emerges in the page-turner from Crystal Zevon (who was divorced from him in the 1980s) is of a self-mythologizing gangster’s son who could be a real jackass, particularly when gulping vodka, as one close friend recalls, like Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.
The “excitable boy” who proclaimed, “I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all,” beat his wife, got his jollies playing with his .44 Magnum and, despite having an oversize intellect, was seduced by the romantic notion that his art would be more authentic if he indulged his wild-man tendencies to the fullest.
None of that made Zevon pleasant to be around: “When someone who is an alcoholic plays at being a sociopath,” guitarist David Landau says, “it’s hard to know when playtime is over.”
But it makes “Sleep—which includes lots of pithy Zevon diary entries—a satisfyingly sordid read that’s full of bad behavior even after Zevon goes on the wagon in the mid-1980s, where he would remain until he fell off—hard—when he got his death-warrant diagnosis.
Zevon could clearly be a charming fellow. Everybody from Springsteen, who calls him “sweet of heart” and “disquieting” to Browne, who says he was “the writer who said the things I wish I said, the things I wish I could say,” remained loyal to him till the end.
His music had its flaws—along with classical sophistication, his catchy tunes often landed with an ungainly rhythmic thud. He could come off as a bit of a macho doofus. But all of his albums have their share of superb songs, and everybody in “Sleep is pretty certain that he was an underappreciated genius—albeit one who, sober, was driven to distraction by obsessive-compulsive disorder and began accumulating a prodigious library of pornography, starring himself.
Zevon was a control freak of the first order. Which brings me back to Browne. As he tells it, Zevon would write jokes beforehand to loosen up studio session men. And he’d do the same with the press, “which is smart,” Browne says. “If you just yammer on and trust them to pick a quote, they’re likely to miss your funny stuff. So he would simply figure out what he wanted in print, and drop it in conversation, say very little else, then that’s what they’d have.”
Naturally, the gullible rock scribe, thrilled to be talking to a rocker who actually knew who Samuel Beckett and Graham Greene were, would eat it up, and write a flattering profile that would say exactly what the interviewee wished.
Touche, Mr. Zevon. You played me like a fiddle. I don’t feel bad about it, though. Because what Zevon wanted me to say about him was pretty much what I wanted to say about him. Namely, that Warren Zevon was an uncommonly worldly, whip-smart songwriter whose wickedly funny, darkly disturbing songs were worthy of far more attention than they were getting, then as now.
“Sleep tells of how Zevon completed his final album, “The Wind, then told his ex-wife he needed to hurry up and die to make sure that it garnered a Grammy nomination. (It wound up winning two.) “It’s a damned hard way to make a living,” he said, “having to die to get `em to know you’re alive.”
And it’s a helluva way to earn your much-deserved place in posterity, with a bio in which your best friends tell the world how much of a jerk you were, back before you were dead.