Crystal Zevon’s biography of perennially misunderstood and mis-marketed songwriter Warren Zevon takes a holographic approach to the musician’s life (and death). Crystal Zevon (a former wife) provides chunks of bridging text, but the book consists mostly of brief chronologically-arranged snippets from an impressive array of Zevon’s family, friends, lovers, collaborators, and (most importantly) excerpts from Warren Zevon’s own copious journals. The book does a remarkable job of assembling a multi-dimensional portrait of a complex and, in many ways, contradictory character.
In her acknowledgments Crystal Zevon writes,
Over the three years [of writing the book] I … fell in and out of love hundreds of times. There were weeks when I was sure I’d hate him forever; nights when I’d cry myself to sleep missing the sound of his voice; and many moments when I wondered how I could expose what he’d asked me to expose … I’d made a promise to tell the whole truth — “even the awful, ugly parts.”
I suspect that many readers will have an experience similar in character, if less intense and personal. I’m glad I read Miles Davis’ autobiography Miles first; that was a formative experience for me in resolving conflict between enormous respect for a musical talent, and repugnance at the man behind that talent sometimes being a real shit. There were many points in Zevon’s story before he got sober where it was hard to have any sympathy for him at all. Even the sober Warren Zevon was hell on anyone he was romantically with, and often hard to deal with for most who knew him. It seems unlikely, for instance, that the world would have had any of his “comeback” records from the mid-80’s on, if not for the perseverance of Andy Slater:
..when [the record company executives] got to Warren, somebody said…”We’re going to terminate him.”
I stood up and said, “Terminate him? He’s the best artist we have.”
There’s all this harrumphing and one of the principles said, Slater, he’s 180,000 dollars in debt [to the I.R.S.], he doesn’t live her anymore, he has no record deal, and he doesn’t want to work.” I said, “Yeah, but he’s a great artist. And he’s the best writer here.” This guy says, “Then you manage him.”
After weeks of coaxing, Slater gets Zevon started on the road that led to his album Sentimental Hygeine, and his first substantive experiences with sobriety. Throughout their association, Zevon continues to use Slater hard:
I got a call from Warren. He said, “I’m in big trouble, Andy. You’ve got to help me. This girl is pregnant. I’m not in love with her, and I don’t want to be with her, and she’s going to have the kid. You’ve got to come here and explain my life to her.” I said, “Okay.”
but ultimately, even Slater gets fed up:
When I went to rehab, Warren was finally in good financial shape, sober, had a healthy touring base, and was about to release a new record. I called him from treatment… I said “What’s going on? How’s the record? blah blah blah.” He said, “Yeah, it’s going fine. I’ve got to talk to you about something.” He says, “Look, Andy, I just got off the phone with Irving [Azoff]. He said that if I fire you … he’ll really work my record and I’ll get better promotion and marketing… I think I’m going to do it.”
I hung the phone up, and thank God I was in treatment…It was devastating to me because here was somebody I had been friends with for almost ten years. I had … made it my mission to get him back in the record business when he was drunk and living in Philadelphia. I had taken him to rehab three times…Then, when I had a problem, he wasn’t there.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is subtitled “The Dirty Live and Times of Warren Zevon.” Like all of the chapter titles, it’s a phrase drawn from one of Zevon’s song titles. Crystal Zevon admits to drawing a veil over the most baldly pornographic of Zevon’s reminisces, but there are racy bits a-plenty:
I invited Jeanette over and we made love, wonderful. Feel great. Went to the tanning place. Sure enough, there was Susan & before I knew it we were fucking on the carpet, then on the tanning bed.
But in addition to the typical trashy rock star excesses of sex, booze, and tax woes, and the less typical excesses of Calvin Klein gray shirts, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead offers more than the usual share of insight into Zevon’s artistic process. And that’s ultimately what makes it a compelling and moving read.
Needs More Demons? Ye gods, no.