Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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

As heartbreaking yet invigorating as a slap in the face
Before reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, I had always considered Warren Zevon a talented, intelligent, acerbically witty man who probably lived a relatively sane and reasonable life. Boy was I in for a shock. Dirty Life and Times, indeed. This riveting 2007 biography is an unflinching and often uncomfortable window into the turbulent life of this intriguing musical genius. The book is written in the form of an oral history, and consists of first-person accounts of Zevon by those who knew him, compiled by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon. The portrait of Warren Zevon that results is both shocking and touching. Extreme alcoholism, drug use, sex addiction, spousal abuse, child neglect, and occupational backstabbing all rear their ugly heads in this warts-and-all biography. Zevon had obsessive compulsive disorder, which gave rise to a number of bizarre behaviors. In addition, he exhibits a paranoia and insecurity that causes him to relate to others in an almost infantile manner. To his credit he got clean and sober, through the help of AA, but he never managed to outrun his own mental problems. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, his reaction is a mixture of seize-the-day determination and screw-it-all self-destruction. At times while reading this book I simultaneously hated, pitied, and admired the man, as impossible as that may seem.

Over the course of the book it is fascinating to watch Zevon’s progression from struggling songwriter to minor superstar to forgotten has-been to respected icon. In addition to being an incredibly talented musician, songwriter, and band leader, Zevon was the Kevin Bacon of rock and roll. The liner notes of his albums often read like a list of inductees to the Hall of Fame, and his life story is packed with famous names, from Igor Stravinsky to Bob Dylan to David Letterman. As for the contributors, Jackson Browne’s candid and caring testimony is the most invaluable. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, has insightful praise for Zevon, but is reluctant to say anything negative about his late friend. He may be the only one with such reservations, however, as dozens of friends, family, girlfriends, musicians, managers, actors, and authors air their grievances here. Despite all the physical and emotional scars, if there’s an underlying theme to the book it is forgiveness. After detailing the petty, malicious, and/or bizarre treatment they received from Zevon, almost all of the interviewees express an undying admiration, respect, and love for the man.

Crystal Zevon does an excellent job of editing together these numerous and disparate voices. She’s not always so great at editing herself, however. Since she married the man and gave birth to his daughter, she understandably dominates much of the book, but tends to let herself run long. Also included are a number of excerpts from Zevon’s own journal, which read like lists of people he saw, shows he played, or songs he wrote on a given day. Though these entries often contain some revealing comments, they could have been more judiciously selected, as about half of them don’t contribute a whole lot to the narrative. Nevertheless, despite these minor complaints, the oral history approach works. Every famous rock star should have such a biography, though few are lucky enough to get it.

The Kindle edition of this book contains dozens of photographs, but they’re all very low resolution. Several scanned documents are included—handwritten lyrics, letters, contracts, etc.—but the pixelation renders them illegible. Even the oldest Kindle models are capable of reproducing fine detail, but not when the source files are of poor quality. One expects better from a major publisher like Harper Collins.

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