What is it about some artistic geniuses? Do they need to prime the pump with pain to get to where they need to be artistically? Or do they simply have no choice? “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon” by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon prompts these questions without ever asking them explicitly.
Zevon was one of the finest pop craftsmen to emerge from the mid-seventies Southern California music scene. He was a singer-songwriter with a literary edge. His songs tended less toward the country-rock of the Eagles or the plaintive poetry of Joni Mitchell that filled the canyons at that time than to edgy, cynical rock & roll with an undercurrent of humor. His music was more about murder, mayhem and machine guns, cocaine and heroin addiction, kinky sex, alcoholism and L.A. One of his greatest songs, “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” encapsulates a couple of these themes. His collaboration with Bruce Springsteen produced the song, “A Bullet for Jeannie.” I am certain he wrote the only pop song to include a line about Bovine Brucellosis disease (“Play it all Night Long”).
No overnight success, he came up through the trenches, studying his craft. He was the music director for the Everly brothers for several years, was part of a folk-pop duo and kept at his dream. At one point, sick of failure, he and Crystal took off to Spain where he became the house singer for a bar owned by an ex-mercenary with whom he write “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” The book suggests that this is where he found his voice and thematic ground as a songwriter. To me, it's the most interesting part of the book.
Big hits eluded him but songs he wrote or riffs he created went on to become hits or components of hits for performers like Linda Ronstadt and Kid Rock. He was widely admired by musicians like Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne and also writers like Stephen King and John McDonald.
As this oral biography makes clear, he was as crazy as his songs suggest. He was a raging alcoholic who managed to stay sober for much of the last 17 years of his life – he died at age 56. He had severe OCD. He was a committed womanizer – once, by way of excuse, he told his wife not to be concerned about an affair because to him lovemaking was equated to a bowel movement. Charming. He stiffed his longtime songwriting partner Jorge Calderon on credit for his biggest hit, “Werewolves of London.” He crashed cars, wrecked hotel rooms, ignored his children and was obsessed with guns. He was not a nice man.
In 2002 he was diagnosed with a terminal form of mesothelioma. He promptly began drinking again. But he also managed to record “The Wind” with an array of guest stars who were all admirers of his work. This book makes it clear he was a disturbed, probably depressed and totally alcoholic person who was also one of the finest singer/songwriters of his generation. And one of the funniest to boot.