Warren Zevon died in 2003, within a week of Johnny Cash. While he was nowhere near the cultural icon that Cash was, Zevon was one of the most important voices in popular music in the second half of the 20th century. That much was clear to me before, but it was brought home to me by this biography compiled by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon.
I say compiled rather than written, and that’s perhaps unfair. It’s done as an “oral history” bio, drawing on interviews she conducted with more than 80 people, plus Warren’s own diaries. At first I was skeptical about the format, and wondered why Ms. Zevon didn’t synthesize all those interviews into a more coherent, traditional biography format. And indeed, in some places it has its drawbacks. It tends to chop up the narrative flow. And instead of getting one writer’s consistent viewpoint, we get a multiplicity of them, sometimes contradictory, and some of the voices are more cogent than others. And there were times, especially in Zevon’s diary excerpts, that names or incidents were mentioned with no antecedents or explanatory notes.
But by about midway through the book, I got into the rhythm that Ms. Zevon established, and most of the voices became familiar. And the story is so bizarre, so much like Zevon in all his contradictions, that it makes for compulsive reading.
The Warren Zevon who emerges from these pages is even more of an enigma than he would appear to be just from listening to his songs. And that’s saying a lot for a man who wrote songs that included “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” about a ghostly mercenary who takes revenge on those who double-crossed him; “Excitable Boy,” about a demented young serial killer; “Mohammed’s Radio,” about low-lifes in L.A.; and “My Shit’s Fucked Up” and “Life’ll Kill Ya” about the perils of facing one’s own mortality.
It should come as no surprise that Warren Zevon was one fucked-up dude. But the extent of his weirdness is, at times, staggering. It’s nearly impossible to even draw up a rough outline of his life, so multi-faceted and bizarre it was. The son of a reticent Mormon and an even more shadowy Jewish mobster, Zevon grew up in California in the ’50s and ’60s. He showed musical talent from the start, considered a career in classical piano, and spent some time in the California home of Igor Stravinsky. He was also a serious reader and writer, and seemed to know from an early age that he’d live or die as an artist.
He was on the fringes of the California folk-rock scene that included The Turtles, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne. He toured and played with The Everly Brothers. He early on discovered alcohol and drugs, and always used them to excess. There were many hard years in the early 1970s, when he and Crystal lived hand to mouth, in other people’s homes, and for a time in a Spanish resort town. But he continued to believe in himself and to work on his songcraft, and eventually had his first album produced by Jackson Browne. It was his second album, which included his most popular hit “Werewolves of London,” that made him the most money and brought him briefly to the public’s attention. It also increased his intake of intoxicants and began a long slide, or series of slides, that lasted until he finally got sober in the early 1980s. His career never recovered, though, his albums selling progressively fewer, until his final, The Wind, recorded as he was under a death sentence from lung cancer, which won several Grammys.
In addition to his substance abuse, Zevon was a sex addict and a self-diagnosed victim of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He was constitutionally unable to be monogamous. He was for most of his life barely a presence in the lives of his two children (by different mothers). He was bizarrely superstitious. He abused those closest to him, personally and professionally. But he was also highly regarded by nearly everybody who knew him, most of whom seemed to have felt it was worth putting up with his flaws.
When writers like Stephen King, Carl Hiaasen and Gore Vidal, and musicians like David Crosby, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan all refer to the man as a genius, you have to take him seriously. He could be darkly hilarious and deeply sentimental, sometimes within the same breath. He saw through society’s facades and wrote songs about the dirty underbelly that were by turns wry, poignant and irreverent. He laughed in the face of death, and cried on the shoulders of former lovers.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead isn’t a perfect book. But it’s a compelling portrait of a difficult, multi-faceted, contradictory and deeply creative human being. Highly recommended.