Warren Zevon biography: ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’ by Crystal Zevon

by | Apr 1, 2008

I have been a Warren Zevon fan since “Lawyers, Guns and Money” and “Werewolves of London” first hit my radio in 1978, and I even had the honor of being mistaken for him at one of Jackson Browne‘s Summerfest appearances around that same time (I had similar long hair and glasses). Over the years, we loved to see Warren filling in on the Late Show with David Letterman, and we were heartbroken when he made his last appearance there, announcing that he had terminal cancer (mesothelioma). The VH1 special about the recording of his final album, The Wind, was a study in perseverance that I will never forget.

Somewhat like Walter White in Breaking Bad, Warren apparently was determined to leave as much as he could to those who survived him, and so he also assigned his ex-wife Crystal Zevon to write the story of his life. But, he insisted, ” … you gotta promise you’ll tell ’em the whole truth, even the awful, ugly parts.”

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal ZevonHer book, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, sat on my Amazon.com wish list for far too many months, so I recently rescued it and spent about a week absorbing its 480 or so pages, including a good many photos, lyric notes, and diary excepts reproduced in black and white.

It’s the biography of a remarkably gifted and hard-working songwriter and musician, and his struggle to sustain himself in the inhospitable world of show business.

It’s also a harrowing account of a hardcore alcoholic who inflicts incredible abuse on himself, his loved ones, and his friends and co-workers. My own father died from drinking, in a trashed apartment very much like the one recounted in this book, and I have never read or heard alcoholism described with such shocking honesty as it is here. Parts of this story are very difficult to read, and the courage of those who made these things public will undoubtedly help others.

Fortunately, after several failed attempts at rehab, Warren did finally achieve 17 solid years of sobriety, but never the “quiet, normal life” of his ironically-titled greatest hits collection. Over the course of his career, he indulged in sex with a mind-boggling number of women, a pursuit which only escalated in the absence of alcohol. Besides quite a few on-again/off-again loving relationships, there were women on the road in specific cities; there were waitresses, there were groupies, there were singers and senators’ daughters. It all seems like fun at first glance, but as you read on, you realize that he simply could not help himself no matter who got hurt. He was insatiable.

On top of his other demons, Warren had a serious obsessive-compulsive streak. Here’s Crystal Zevon reading a passage about the gray Calvin Klein T-shirts:

The book consists entirely of short passages like this from a great many of the people whose lives Warren Zevon touched, from Crystal to his son Jordan Zevon and daughter Ariel Zevon to his collaborator Jorge Calderón.

Among the voices sharing their memories here are girlfriends Merle Ginsberg, Annette Aguilar Ramos, and Julia Mueller, musicians Waddy Wachtel, Paul Shaffer, and Bruce Springsteen, comedian Richard Lewis, writer friends Carl Hiaasen and Mitch Albom, neighbor and fellow OCD-sufferer Billy Bob Thornton, and Stephen King, music industry figures Andy Slater and Jon Landau, and many, many more.

Crystal Zevon has done an outstanding job of piecing it all together, from Warren’s family history and his musical studies with Igor Stravinsky as a youth to his early days supporting the Everly Brothers, and all the way through his own career to his death and memorial. One constant all along is that Jackson Browne was there for Warren and his family as the most benevolent guardian angel imaginable.


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