Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Book Review: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

For a few years my brother and I had a running contest to find the ultimate "anti-Zevon." Essentially this was the musician who best exhibited overwrought emotional live performances, sappy, excessively maudlin lyrics, laughable self-pity, a bloated sense of self-importance, and a complete lack of self-deprecating humor. James Taylor, North-era Elvis Costello, and Adam Duritz were all at various points crowned with this dubious honor. Actually, I think Adam Duritz still wears the crown.

Of course, this ridiculous and simplistic game was only possible because of Zevon's reputation as the hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing, balls-to-the-wall lunatic portrayed in his songs, particularly those from his first few albums.

A somewhat more complex view of the musician unfolds in Crystal Zevon's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. A collection of biographical anecdotes, quips, and stories told by Zevon's friends, family members, colleagues, and cohorts thrown under the bus by the musician, the book recounts the highs, lows, and in-betweens of Zevon's life, with what can only be described as brutal honesty. The book's contributors do not make apologies for the musician; they never try to hide the fact that Zevon could be, especially when sucking the bottle, a complete, unimaginable asshole. Yet through all these dirty deeds, the book conveys a certain tenderness and definite affection for the man, shortcomings and all. In short, it is one of the most honest and engaging music biographies to date.

The image of Zevon that emerges from this book is essentially that of a man whose actions were driven by his various addictions, particularly to booze (and more booze) and women (and more and more women). These actions were almost always despicable, including incidents of mental and physical spousal abuse, frequent bed-hopping from groupie to actress to waitress to every other occupation at breakneck pace, and a complete disregard for his children's welfare.

When on the bottle, Zevon was spiteful, vindictive, and dangerous: a complete maniac not too different from the characters in some of his songs. The stories told in the book about his drinking and its consequences are truly frightening. While the sex-n-drugs-n-rock-n-roll lifestyle might have been celebrated, or at the least, vividly described, in Zevon's songs, his friends and colleagues, and the broken relationships left in his path, make it clear that such a lifestyle was nothing to romanticize.

With all of Zevon's faults, the reader might very well view him as little more than a belligerent, obnoxious drunk. What prevents that from happening are the contributors' tales of the musician's better moments, which, for the most part, they saw only when he was off the sauce. Once sober (and before his relapse after being diagnosed with cancer), Zevon is revealed to have been an active, caring father, a dedicated friend, and an intelligent, humble person. To say that Zevon was a different person when sober is an understatement; it is truly startling how his personality was so lousy when sauced and so caring when sober. One suspects that Zevon would not ultimately be remembered with such sympathy by the book's contributors if his drunken behavior had continued when sober.

My only complaint about the book is that it sometimes ignores Zevon's music in favor of his wild, extracurricular exploits. There are occasional anecdotes regarding how a particular lyric or song developed (Zevon actually rubbed pot roast on his chest, which would eventually find its way into the song Excitable Boy), but for the most part these insights are few and far between.

The book begins and ends with an unflinching account of Zevon's illness and death. Although this could be seen as a cheap way to evoke the reader's sympathy before all the stories of debauchery are told, it instead shows him as a person, not as a musical persona or stereotype. In the end, the lasting image of Warren Zevon is that of a conflicted man whose actions were influenced by the addictions that defined most of his adult life. A prick when drunk, a kind, compassionate person when sober, Zevon is undoubtedly a fascinating musical figure. This book, and Crystal's willingness to honor her ex-husband's wish that she recount his life with complete honesty, stands as one of the most revealing and heartbreaking music biographies written.

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