Warren Zevon was a complicated man to love and champion. Before dying of cancer in 2003, he urged his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon, to write the definitive biography of his tumultuous life, and he asked her to leave out nothing.
She obliged, perhaps too well. Reading the addictive diary-styled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead tests a fan’s devotion. You want to like Zevon, but as you read reports of domestic violence, drunken rages and nasty comments, you have to wonder whether karma just played a natural role in his life and death.
The prickly, brilliant, witty, charming and insufferable artist was one of the few contemporary musicians to actually earn the tag “genius.” Yet when he died he left behind an underappreciated body of work. He drew admirers from the literary world; The Miami Herald‘s Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry were close friends. “He was always a magnet for unforgettable characters, but few could keep up with him,” Hiaasen writes in the book’s foreword.
Hiaasen, Thomas McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson and Mitch Albom collaborated with Zevon on several songs. On the music side, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen touted his songwriting. Jackson Browne produced Zevon’s finest album (1976’s Warren Zevon) and remained loyal even when Zevon’s behavior tested his patience. As for the masses, only one of Zevon’s albums made the Top 10, 1978’s pop/rock classic Excitable Boy.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead isn’t as slavishly detailed as one of the late Timothy White’s windy, pretentious and exhausting rock bios, but one of Crystal Zevon’s accomplishments is a conversational style rather than a lengthy narrative approach. She gathered comments from those who were most intimate with the rocker and weaves in tidbits from her ex-husband’s diaries, editing out only a few of the more salacious items.
One amusing revelation: Excitable Boy‘s hit single, “Werewolves of London,” the infectious song Zevon is best known for, gave him little pleasure.
“When Elektra picked `Werewolves’ as the single, Warren and I just about threw up,” recalls guitarist/producer Waddy Wachtel in the book. “We were insulted, depressed. ... They took that piece of s—-—after we gave them “Tenderness on the Block” and “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”? Meanwhile, it’s the only hit we ever had.”
While members of the musical SoCal cognoscenti he associated with would go on to fortune and fame, Zevon’s next 25 years would offer a series of struggles, affairs, estrangements, addictions and heartache. “That his own work was underappreciated has always been a mystery to Warren’s fans, and was a source of bitter frustration for him,” Hiaasen writes. And still Zevon crafted exceptional music late into his career on Life’ll Kill Ya and The Wind.
Zevon was so thorough a musician, the book reveals, that before a stint on his pal David Letterman’s show in 1997, Zevon painstakingly notated every scrap of music he thought he might cover on the program, including the Spice Girls’ entire debut CD.
Perhaps his longest musical collaborator and friend Jorge Calderone sums up Zevon’s life best: “Warren Zevon traveled down his own road, and it’s unpaved.” The path may have been rocky, but what a great musical ride.