I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon Hardcover – Apr 19 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. For those who know them, the brilliant, dark songs of Warren Zevon (1947-2003) inspire nothing short of adoration; for those who don't, this stunning biography of the irrepressible rock 'n' roll singer/songwriter should send them sprinting to the nearest record store. By taking an unexpurgated, oral-history approach to Warren's life, his former wife and lifelong friend Crystal has crafted a sharp, funny, jaw-dropping rock biography that's among the best of the sub-genre. Provocative and unflinching, her account distills Warren's journal entries and the author's exhaustive interviews with 87 family members, business associates, band mates, fellow musicians and former lovers into a chronology ranging from Warren's ancestry to his death, at age 56, from lung cancer. The impetus for the book was Warren himself-he implored Crystal to tell his story and to "promise you'll tell 'em the whole truth, even the awful, ugly parts." The awful, ugly parts turn up often: Warren's addictions (to alcohol, drugs and sex), personal demons (intense obsessive-compulsion and commitment-phobia) and paternal shortcomings (to him, kids were nuisances) all get plenty of play here. But so does Warren's music, for which peers like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Schaffer offer plenty of insight. This top-notch biography is a must-read for fans, and a highly rewarding read for anyone interested in a close look at the life of a modern rock icon.
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Warren Zevon was greatly admired for writing some of the most intelligent and literate songs in rock. Probably best known are the darkly humorous "Werewolves of London" and "Excitable Boy." He was a rock 'n' roll wild man, whose unconventional life his ex-wife Crystal's oral-history-style biography makes as iconoclastic in the telling as it was in the living. Among the tellers are members of Zevon's family, and friends and colleagues including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bob Thornton, Dave Barry, and Stephen King. They comment on his often dissolute lifestyle, his drinking and subsequent sobriety, his off-the-wall humor, the diagnosis of the inoperable lung cancer of which he ultimately died in September 2003, and, of course, his remarkable songs. His behavior was not always laudable--for example, he was a notorious womanizer--but he remained true to himself. This often searing, humorous, and brutally honest book captures him at his best and his worst. Another appropriate friend, crime novelist Carl Hiaasen, contributes a foreword. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top Customer Reviews
If you're not a Warren Zevon fan before picking up the book - you will not gain much insight into what makes his such a special songwriter / performer. For the already initiated though, it provides an insight into him as a very real and flawed individual who somehow managed to assemble a loyal group of friends and lovers despite his self-destructive tendencies.
Probably the best aspect is that his story is not "hollywoodized" with a story path that leads to redemption. I applaud the honestly in this book, especially around his end-days, providing a sobering reveal in contrast to the VH1 special.
My only wish is to see more of the magic, the "why" rather than the "how". But definitely recommended for fans.
Read this and beware of how you can really throw away a lot.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Crystal Zevon, his former wife and mother of his daughter, has interviewed many of the closest people to the late musician and has constructed an oral history of his life. Within her narrative framework each person takes turns telling stories in their own words, supplemented by Zevon's surprisingly detailed and hair-raising, candid diaries, and dozens of terrific personal and family photos. It's a similar format to George Plimpton's Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintences and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career and Peter Manso's Mailer: His Life and Times. (I think that is company in which Zevon would be glad to be included, given his literary bent.) Crystal has been able to put together an amazingly life-like, three-dimensional portrait of a complex person for whom the good and bad parts were inextricably linked.
Much of the rock-star behavior detailed here can only be described as despicable. As Crystal walked out the door for the last time Zevon hurled at her, "You're trying to turn Dylan Thomas into Robert Young" and more poignantly, "I'll never be your father." Zevon hit his wife when he was loaded; was a financial deadbeat with some of his closest musical collaborators; was a shamefully neglectful father; emotionally manhandled a series of smart, pretty girlfriends; wasted fortunes on OCD-compelled shopping sprees; had many sordid misadventures with groupies and self-produced porn; and could be a spiteful, sorry jerk to be around. Much of this can be laid at the feet of his alcohol and drug addictions (which continued even after the famous "Rolling Stone" cover story which celebrated his supposed new sobriety.) What makes us care about his tale is his palpable humanity which comes through clearly in these pages. He was fiercely intelligent (if something of an intellectual star-chaser, to use a less obscene term). He was touchingly humble about himself, even as he was aware of his commanding strengths as a songwriter. When he wanted to he could be an awesome companion and father. He counted among his pals some very famous folks like David Letterman (who was "the best friend my music ever had"), Stephen King, Dave Barry (who alone among the interviewees cried while talking about Zevon) and Carl Hiaasen (who wrote the classy and moving introduction to this book.) In fact it seems that Zevon had met most of American show-business at one time or another, which gives his biography an extra dimension (Hunter Thompson called Zevon a "Mormon Jew" because of Zevon's moralistic streak and the background of his mother and father.)
The book begins and ends with a painfully honest account of Zevon's final illness and death. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he fell off the wagon in a heap, after 16 sober years. It got pretty gruesome, but he pulled himself together long enough to record his farewell album "The Wind", make a legendary hour-long appearance on the Letterman show, and witness the birth of his twin grandsons. Zevon's music will continue to live because of its sheer melodic beauty, hard-rocking power, and devastatingly funny depictions of certain dark sides of American male experience. This book is an invaluable resource for understanding this great artist; and it's one of the most readable books of this year.
Written by Zevon's former wife Crystal, the book is a mix of narrative written by Crystal along with quotes from friends, family and fellow musicians that played with and admired Zevon that Crystal interviewed for this book. Zevon could be petty, was a nasty drunk but could also be a good friend to those he loved when he was sober. She has also includes excerpts from Warren's diary as well as illustrations by Mr. Bad Example and personal photos. When Warren found out he was going to die he embraced the potential publicity by asking his agent to exploit it knowing that this would truly be his last paycheck and that his family could benefit from it. He appeared on David Letterman's show (Letterman was a long time fan and Warren appeared with his band during at one point on the show), did multiple interviews and rushed to finish one final masterpiece before succumbing to "the big C". He beat doctors predictions and expectations surviving long enough to greet his twin grandsons.
The book is filled with a number of heartbreaking, amusing, infuriating stories. Among them Warren instructing his assistant to go to a Beverly Hills store to buy him cigerettes--his stipulation beyond the type was that the packaging couldn't say anything about cancer--it could say that smoking caused heart disease, pulmonary disease, etc. but NOT cancer. We also find out that the line about the "Excitable Boy" rubbing the pot roast all over his chest is based on something Warren did.
Many of Warren's albums are essential and his brilliance is as undeniable as his inability to conquer many of his demons. Even after reading the profiles of him in Rolling Stone, the obits and other comments from friends, lovers, family and collegues, I had no idea as to the extent of Warren's problems. He was a mass of fascinating contradictions. He was a serial womanizer who longed for committment but couldn't be faithful for too long. Before he died, he asked Crystal to document his life and dirty times in a book. He didn't ask her to sanitize his life recognizing that his shortcomings were every bit a part of him as his unique gifts. Interestingly, I found that I appreciated the albums he made even more after learning about all the disorder in his house.
Coinciding with the release of Crystal Zevon's book is "Preludes" a collection of rare, previously unreleased songs and demos all pre-1976 (except for a couple of album tracks and a single live track on the second disc). It's a two disc set with an interview on the second.
Also recommended some of his essential recordings: Warren Zevon,Excitable Boy,Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School,The Envoy, The Wind
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.
Early on, the stories of his rock-and-roll life are interesting in a train-wreck sort of way, and for the insight they provide into the cutthroat reality of the seemingly laid-back '70s California singer-songwriter scene. But by mid-book the recounting of his unsavory and despicable behavior becomes repetitive and numbing. When he kicks the sauce in 1986, you expect to read that he reforms at least some of his selfish and anti-social ways, but the river runs far deeper.
In the end, like Sinatra, it's a case of "trust the art, not the artist." Zevon left a catalog of finely-etched songs that illuminate many of the dark corners of the human condition, and those will stand despite the failings of the man and the misery he both suffered and wrought.
Very little narrative or exposition is offered to clarify or create context for the interview exerpts, except for an occasional paragraph by the author and, mostly later in the narrative, snips from Zevon's personal diaries.
What emerges is, to this reader, a picture of an unlovable man who was nevertheless charismatic; a talented mussician, composer, and arranger who was nevertheless only moderately successful; a selfish and neurotic egotist who was nevertheless able to keep friends and attract women until he was done with them.
What's missing is insight. What attracted people to him despite his cruelty? What characteristics of his musicianship kept him mostly out of the limelight despite the respect and admiration of his peers? What formed the personality that craved constant female companionship but was compelled to destroy relationships? How did his self-destructiveness and profoundly addictive personality shape his work?
We'll have to wait for another author of another book to attempt to answer these questions. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" isn't about analysis, but about the memories of dozens of people who knew him, whether intimately or casually, and the effect he had on them. As such, it succeeds very well and, I'm sure, exorcises a few demons for his family.