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

Hit Somebody!
I suspect that, among other reasons why I, a sleepy, suburban, middle collar white class schmuck, stumbled across the music of L.A. hell-raiser Warren Zevon, and felt moved both to purchase his biography and champion his music to friends whose good graces I courted, sheepishly, was that I used to buy* and read** Uncut Magazine religiously, in whose pages Zevon made appearances around the time of his untimely, but some might say overdue, death in September 2003. It was certainly the case that I bought the Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon cd  (in 2004 and again in 2008 because of good natured misappropriation of the first by the aforementioned friend) because of an article they published on The Wind, November 2004. From what I knew of him before that point, I might well have been taking a punt on a cd of glam rock, New York anti-folk, or angsty navel-gazing singer-songwriter smugness. In retrospect, I'm pleased I took the risk, even if it was only to look well-informed. Certainly, his biography has sat on my shelves since release in 2008, unread until now. 

Zevon songs are growers. I think I heard 'Werewolves' on BBC Radio One on either the Chris Evans or Chris Moyles show (either way, an inimitably irritating radio show) and was immediately smitten. Yah, yah, Zevonites, I know. The rest of the tunes on Genius took a bit more time, 'Lawyers' aside. Likewise, Zevon's biography took a bit of getting used to. Compèred by ex-wife Crystal Zevon, this is essentially a collection of recollections of Zevon, from friends, musicians, roadies, tour managers, music execs, a variety of seemingly deluded women folk, and his children, all deeply devoted fans despite his irascibility. The format and style was a turn-off from the start. Having to stop at each paragraph to absorb the name and relevance of each new narrator was a chore. Anyone who knows how I feel about books that begin with a list of characters knows how I might feel in this case. But as always with a good rock biography, this one starts at the end, with Zevon's death. I think it was this that saved it for me from the off, that made me persist and push past my dislike, as the scene is so poignant, and frankly terrifying to someone with a family history of drink problems etc. that I was caught off guard. Nevertheless, Crystal intrudes, as she must, with regularity to ensure I never forget I don't really like her voice or choice of presentation. 

But what emerges is an ambivalent human being - incredibly talented, hugely self-destructive, seeking oblivion in multiple sexual and chemical encounters but also trapped in the grounding rituals of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So many people feel such strong connections to a man who looked for any excuse to cut people off, for however small a reason, if they got too close, that he must have been an awesome guy to know, to collaborate with, and to love, no matter how hard it was. I call his girlfriends deluded but in truth, they all saw some spark of greatness, loved him deeply despite serial infidelity, and really couldn't help jumping into the sack with him no matter how destructive the act was to their own lives. In that respect, it is amazing to hear second hand but from primary sources about the lives that intersected with Warren Zevon's and were touched by his cranky, maniacal energy and devastating charm. From tales of pretty upsetting drinking and drug abuse, through his sober years, to the sudden diagnosis of cancer and his topple from the wagon - hey, he's as good as dead, so why not have a case of scotch? - it's clear Zevon's reputation as a wild man "standing in the fire" is well-justified, but it's also clear that his talent and vision were indisputable, that he was a cultured and intelligent man despite appearances, and that he died too soon. 

It's certainly an eye-opening biographical work, with numerous endorsements, from writers Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom and Steven King, and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. But my favourite part, a tiny, almost missable exchange between Warren and Tom Waits reported in Warren's own journal where Tom's after some advice on managing his voice:
Tom Waits called: Stu told him I knew vocal exercises that help hoarseness... "Are you sick?" I asked. "Define sick." I said, "Mormon fever that keeps you home from school." He said he'd gotten a cortisone shot - "Where?" "Austin." And so on...

*Most of the time I bought it and didn't just pull the CD off the front cover in the newsagents...
**Listen to the free CD...

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