Crystal Zevon's 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon' (2007) is a harrowing, sad, and eye-opening examination of the life of the late musician whose brilliant songwriting found critical and commercial fame just as the Seventies and the era of the 'California Sound' were winding to a close. Championed early by influential luminaries Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Don Henley and Linda Ronstadt (who covered a quartet of his songs at the height of her fame), Zevon was something of a transitional figure as popular music moved towards the rawer edges of punk and new wave.
Ironically, Zevon, whose typically sharp, cynical, and biting songs helped bring an end to the Mellow Seventies, didn't really survive that decade himself, at least not commercially. As 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' underscores, Zevon drifted through the next thirty years of his personal and creative life with difficulty, watching the popular audience for his work slowly evaporate while he became overwhelmed with substance, financial, and behavioral problems of astounding scope and variety. Always something of an 'artist's artist,' the acclaim of his industry peers never diminished.
Zevon apparently suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and some type of agoraphobia as well as various kinds of addiction, but few readers may feel these problems excuse his physical, emotional, and verbal abuse towards one woman after another, his expectation that the women in his life were largely present only to respond to his needs, his failure to support his children for extended periods, and the infantile fits of rage he indulged himself in one year after another.
Often haughty and imperious during his youth and heyday, 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' suggests that Zevon could neither cope with nor accept the relative failure of his post-Seventies career, when he had to struggle to obtain recording contracts, was reduced to opening for Richard Marx, and playing restaurants and sterile corporate 'parties.'
However, Zevon was hardly alone in facing this 'big chill.' The post-Seventies period was equally hard on most musicians who cut their teeth during the Me Decade, from Browne, Souther, and Joni Mitchell to America and Bob Seger. The Eagles wisely disbanded, while Ronstadt coolly and confidently moved on to other genres. As new multi-media acts like Madonna rose to prominence, even punk bands faltered: Patti Smith retired; Blondie broke up.
Those interviewed, who include Browne, Souther, Waddy Watchel, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, novelists Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, as well as family members, intimate personal friends and ex-lovers, occasionally appear to fall into two broad camps to explain Zevon's bizarrely self-destructive behavior.
The more tolerant point of view is that Zevon was an artist and a musician, and "this is simply how artists and musicians behave." The other, more worrying but probably far more accurate view, is that Zevon was something of a sociopath, and one who caused infinite amounts of needless pain and suffering to himself and almost anyone who came into his personal orbit. Since many people, especially women, entered into relationships with Zevon and largely tolerated his abuse due to his fame and reputation, they ultimately have to accept responsibility for their experiences.
Much of 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' portrays its subject as willful, manipulative, and emotionally immature at best, and as something of a "morale imbecile" at worst. Though only psychiatrists can make such assessments, readers have only to compare Zevon's behavior over the course of his life with Hervey Cleckley's "psychopathology checklist" from The 'Mask of Sanit'y' (1941) to understand further what 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' frequently suggests.
Authored by his ex-wife and the mother of Zevon's daughter, Ariel, 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead' is a work of integrity, and one initiated with Zevon's encouragement before his tragic death from cancer at 56. Raw but unexploitive, the book is a powerfully dramatic testament to both its subject's musical genius and troubled existence.