- I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
- Ecco, 400 pp.
The Excitable Boy
Almost by definition, biographies about creative people (as opposed to warriors, statesmen, or empire builders) are a losing proposition. Such folks leave an uneven paper trail at best, and even the ones who make considerable tracks (that is, writers) remain opaque to most biographers, because they tend to be folks who are not creative, due to the fact that, well, those are the kind of people who have the time and inclination to do the slogging research and writing of a nonfiction book. Other creative people – who might be more likely to understand the creative mind – have better things to do with their time.
Thus, biographers resort to all sorts of ploys to fill out the pages of their accounts: reading biographical and psychological details straight out of the work (whether it’s novels, paintings, or musical compositions), collecting minutiae about where the subject lived, ate, slept, and rode, and of course getting tales from the friends, family, and colleagues who knew them. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead consists almost entirely of the third.
I’m gonna be real straight with you. I don’t own any Warren Zevon records and I never have. Apart from the handful of songs that regularly air on FM (“Werewolves of London,” “Excitable Boy,” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money”), I don’t know his music – though I know enough about music to recognize there’s a good chance those three are not necessarily his best or even characteristic of his work.
But I’ve always been impressed by the people who were impressed by Zevon – the ones who covered his songs or appeared as guests on his albums – and for some reason I enjoy reading rock bios.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is sort of an extended wake for its subject. There’s very little biographical narrative per se; instead, the book compiles a massive array of anecdotes, memories, and opinions from dozens upon dozens of the people who knew him, from engineers, girlfriends, and backing musicians to a fairly astounding variety of celebrities who spent time with Zevon, including Billy Bob Thornton, Jackson Browne, novelist Carl Hiaasen, and Paul Shaffer (musical director for the Letterman Show). Particularly poignant and pungent contributions come from his kids, Jordan and Ariel Zevon, and his ex-wife Crystal, who gets authorship credit for collecting all the pieces and putting them together.
Cameo comments of the admiring-acquaintance or just distant-admirer variety come from such names as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, J.D. Souther, Peter Asher, Howard Kaylan (of The Turtles), thriller novelists Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Tennessee senator Steve Cohen, comedian Richard Lewis, Tom McGuane, Gore Vidal(!), Robert Craft (conductor and Stravinsky scholar)(!!), Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, and Stephen King (the last three being members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, the garage band of book authors whom Zevon supported as a real musician).
Still other folks who knew or worked with Zevon but did not make direct contributions to this book include the Everly Brothers, Hunter Thompson, Dwight Yoakam, David Letterman, Karla Bonoff, Lindsey Buckingham, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Don Henley, and David Geffen. We hear about these folks through the comments of others.
The book is salted with excerpts from Zevon’s journal (too many, and mostly un-illuminating and uninteresting, though occasionally moving or hair-raisingly explicit); excerpts from interviews (too few, for the rare glimpses of his actual voice they offer); reviews of his work (again, too few for the neophyte reader); and even photos of handwritten notes and pen sketches by the singer-songwriter. There are also plenty of black-and-white photos (about 75) of most of the significant players.
The difficulty of this book is that it offers a “warts-and-all” portrait of its subject – because “he would have wanted it that way” (and one does not doubt the truth of this) – and that portrait is . . . well . . . a little tough to take. From the way Zevon totally cut longtime friends and colleagues out of his life over slights real and imagined, to epic episodes of drunkenness, infidelity, and juggling various women; from wrecking a car with his infant son Burt aboard to manufacturing porn of himself and his many conquests; from hitting Crystal and smashing her parents’ furniture in his drunken rages to his huge collection of guns which he sometimes fired off indoors; from standing up his daughter on her third birthday to an array of superstitions and obsessive-compulsive behaviors (buying all his clothing in gray, washing his hands 30 times a day, believing that if he heard the word “cancer” he had to return everything he had purchased that day, eating all one thing every day, living in squalor but being fanatical about doing laundry, etc.).
A longtime girlfriend became known by the other musicians and crew on tour as “the Animal Tamer” because, as she says, “One of the ways you could make him be nice was to have sex with him.” At one point on tour, Zevon got an adoring “Blondie with big boobs” pregnant, and worked hard to convince her to get an abortion – even telling his official girlfriend at the time about the plan to trick the girl into going on the tour for a while and thinking she was an important part of his life if she got the abortion. That official girlfriend also remembers him once telling her, “I believe in lying.” Some incidents manage to be pathetic and touching at the same time, such as his sudden marriage to Crystal when he dismantled a bathroom faucet for a washer to use as her wedding ring.
As novelist and screenwriter Tom McGuane recalls, “I kept wanting to say to him, ‘Take your hat off and let your brain cool down. You just need to cool it a little bit’ . . . . But that was his style, everything dialed up to ten.”
Sure, this sort of thing makes for compulsive reading, especially when offered verbatim by a wide variety of voices, but you have to ask yourself, why? Why did this book get written? Evidently because its participants loved the man (or at least found him irresistible) and his music. Unfortunately, if the reader is not familiar with the music, I can’t see how I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is going to make him or her want to go out and listen to it. And if you didn’t know the man, too little of his intelligence, wit, charm, and sensitivity comes through in these stories. Or at best, they are outweighed, or badly muddied, by the dirt.
There are signs of a brilliant mind. Among his reading material his friends noted Raymond Chandler and Gravity’s Rainbow. Reportedly, Zevon reread T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” every year.
One has to admire Crystal Zevon for tackling this project and seeing it through. She doesn’t soft-pedal her own role in the mayhem or make herself out to be the aggrieved and loyal ex-wife. She relates how her own alcoholism led to hitting her children, after she was separated from Warren, and how supportive and understanding he was when she admitted to her alcoholism. “He was much better at being a friend than he ever was at being a husband,” she writes.
But even she has her limits. A female disc jockey who was in and out of Zevon’s life on a casual but intensely sexual basis, apparently, was not asked to contribute her stories to the book. A footnote informs us at one point that Ms. Zevon has exercised “Author’s prerogative” in leaving out a “panoramic” Warren Zevon journal entry about a three-way orgy he conducted in Raleigh, North Carolina behind his then-steady girlfriend’s back while officially on a fishing trip with Carl Hiaasen in the Florida Keys. (Umm, why mention that it happened at all?)
For the type of book that it is, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is admirably produced. Most rock bios are riddled with typographical errors and grainy, out-of-focus photographs. Though Ecco Press did not spring for any color shots, the graphics are plentiful and well rendered. The only glaring typo that caught my eye was one I’ve seen elsewhere of late: 20th century American composer Aaron Copland is repeatedly rendered as “Copeland.”
If I may be permitted one completely off-topic observation, the name Ecco rings a distant bell for me. Its founder, Daniel Halpern, was a John Fowles fan and scholar, who published not only essays and interviews with the eminent British novelist in the early 1970s, but also his one book of poetry, all of which I consulted for my undergraduate thesis on The Magus. It’s one more sign of the passage of the years and the changes we have all been through that his imprint, Ecco, has turned out this handsome but disconcerting biography.
One returns to the question of what purpose the book serves, other than to pass the time in a somewhat lurid fashion. Perhaps it would make a suitable cautionary gift for a friend who looks about to go off the rails due to talent, fame, and growing access to goodies. As Zevon’s son Jordan says, “Nobody with a decent circle of friends could have gotten away with what my Dad got away with. But he did get away with it because he was him. He was famous and successful and talented, and it’s hard to tell somebody like that, ‘You can’t do that.’ ”