Even by rock-star standards, Warren Zevon was an Exhibit A crash case waiting to happen ("trouble waiting to happen" was a typical Zevon lyric).
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon”
by Crystal Zevon, foreword by Carl Hiaasen
Ecco, 452 pp., $26.95
Even by rock-star standards, Warren Zevon was an Exhibit A crash case waiting to happen (“trouble waiting to happen” was a typical Zevon lyric). In the end, though, it wasn’t the drinking, smoking and acid, or the guns, pills and womanizing, that took him in his mid-50s, but a rare case of a quick, lethal cancer.
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Although clean and sober in the 18 years before his diagnosis (he was even an ex-smoker for five years), when Zevon was given three months to live in 2002, he treated it as both a gift and a death sentence. His old friend, David Letterman, devoted an entire “Late Show” evening as a tribute, and the world suddenly knew Zevon was about to go. Friends (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, among others) showed up to help on his final album, “The Wind.” There was the inevitable VH-1 special. On Sept. 7, 2003, Zevon died at home.
On the one hand, it sounds like a sad but well-planned moment, as recounted in “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”:
“Jordan Zevon, Warren’s son: Driving over, I remember thinking, Dad always knew what was coming. He planned his life, he planned his career, and he was prepared for the end. I mean, I don’t think he ever expected to be an old man. He would have hated that.”
On the other hand, it was Warren Zevon:
“Jordan Zevon: After everyone left, I got to clean out the porn. That was my job. That’s what we discussed, Dad and me … If he passed away, I was supposed to go in there and get out the porn. The thing was, I thought it going to be … X-rated videos … [but] it was porn of him. And women. He made them himself.”
As Bonnie Raitt comments in the book, “We had to be truly twisted to be able to get Warren — and I mean that in a good way.”
It’s too bad one part of his audience will know Zevon only for “Werewolves of London,” the song he composed in about 15 minutes and is destined to survive as long as there are frat parties. There are many edgier songs, such as “Excitable Boy” or the titles no one else could have written: “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School,” “Boom-Boom Mancini.”
You run out of adjectives before finding all the ways to describe Zevon’s music, and especially his lyrics. His dark, arch humor could produce a bad escapade with a few deft lines (“I was gambling in Havana / I took a little risk / Send lawyers, guns and money / Dad, get me out of this”). Or he could turn both sweet and sad in his poignant love songs, such as “Hasten Down the Wind,” which many think of as a Linda Ronstadt song but is quintessential Zevon: “He’s hanging on to half a heart / But he can’t have the restless part / So he tells her to hasten down the wind.”
Crystal Zevon, his ex-wife, has pulled off a remarkable job as an interviewer and a nearly masochistic triumph as the chronicler of her husband’s bad behavior, including the affairs and heavy drinking and drug addiction that ricocheted into anyone connected to his life.
At his request, she used his personal diaries and conversations with their daughter, his son from another relationship, ex-girlfriends, fellow musicians, friends. She gets the goods. Much of the story takes place long after their marriage ended, but clearly the relationship continued, and that quality of distance makes the book a tender song in itself.
Take a quick look at the cast of characters interviewed at the end of the book (actually, read it first, since it introduces many names that will come and go). When “Stravinsky, Igor” is followed by “Thompson, Hunter S.,” you know there’s going to be something worth delving into here.
Among the odd tidbits, there’s Zevon’s history as the son of a petty Jewish gangster; the classical-music student who could notate music as quickly as anyone could write with a pen; and later, his spiraling into a full-blown case of obsessive-complusive disorder, with a heavy taste for hand-washing and gray T-shirts (and cars, and guitars).
The book has a fine awareness of the times and the characters, establishing something of the pecking order of rock musicians, in which Zevon was revered by his best contemporaries but never quite in their ranks. It wasn’t odd to see him substitute for Paul Shaffer on a “Late Night” gig, or parody himself on “The Larry Sanders Show,” but it wasn’t what rock royalty did, either.
At the same time, his talent attracted talent; before anyone outside of Athens, Ga., had heard of R.E.M., Zevon had them as backup on his great, post-detox album, “Sentimental Hygiene.” Because Neil Young was working in the room across the hall, he came over to play a solo on the title track. Then there was the day Bob Dylan just wandered into the studio during a session, as recalled by Zevon’s manager, Andy Slater:
“Warren said, ‘Hey Bob, how’re you doing?’ He said, ‘Hi.’ And, I [Warren] said, ‘So, what’s ya been doin’?’ and he said ‘Traveling.’ I [Warren] realized he wasn’t a small-talk guy, and I’m not a small-talk guy, so OK.”
So, OK, the memories ramble along, but the narrative holds and takes shape, with a pitch-perfect ear to the personal story being told along with the inside-industry paraphernalia.
Plus, not everyone has diary entries like this:
July 7, 1993 — Aspen
” … Fax from Hunter Thompson: ‘ … a peaceful drink before you go on so after we can stab some people.’ Called him from club — pleasant chat. I told him I had a headache from the altitude … he recommended oxygen, said he didn’t know what else would help — ‘Acid?’ “
Wherever Warren Zevon is, you know he’s finally getting that sleep.
Lucy Mohl is a senior features producer for seattletimes.com.