Warren Zevon once said, “my career is about as promising as a Civil War leg wound.” These morosely funny words are a great example of the unusual wit in Zevon’s lyrics and music. His career took off in the 1970s, with two terrific consecutive albums which featured some of the best music of the time, including Excitable Boy, Tenderness on the Block and The French Inhaler. His genius mind exploded with ideas for songs and he lived the life of a rock star, filled with excesses of drug and alcohol abuse. Even later, when his professional and personal life were in trouble, by his own fault, he was always full of ideas. He continued to write and collaborate and he toured at smaller venues to enthusiastic fans. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a chronicle of Zevon’s life and career, spanning over forty years and ending with his death in 2003.
The book is written and compiled by Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife. The two remained friends after their divorce and Warren asked her to write the book when he learned he was dying of lung cancer. He told her to include everything, and she did.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is presented in an unusual and somewhat confusing format, forcing the reader to jump into a scene with unfamiliar characters. But the narrative eventually gains momentum as Warren’s life story unfolds. It includes the comments and perspectives of many famous musicians and writers and, I think, gives an accurate description of Warren’s creativity, his relationships and the destructive forces that took over his life.
I enjoyed reading this biography/memoir because I have always liked Warren Zevon’s music and I am a big fan of many of the famous musicians and bands he collaborated with, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, REM and Bruce Springsteen. There seemed to be a real camaraderie and generosity between these musicians and also among the lesser-known, but highly respected guitarists, drummers and writers. I always enjoyed looking at the liner notes and seeing who was singing in the background or who co-wrote a song and reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead reminded me of how much fun that was.
This isn’t a fun memory book, however. Warren Zevon was an abusive alcoholic with a big temper who could not conform to any lifestyle except his own. He hurt a lot of people, yet strangely, he had a lot of close friends who either chose to ignore the ugly side, were completely naïve to the darkness in his life, or desperately wanted his love. Even after he successfully quit drinking, his personality was often impossibly difficult.
Here are some things I found interesting about the story and about the people around Zevon:
- Crystal Zevon’s portion of the narrative has the annoying self-serving bias of a memoir, as if to say, “Hey, I was there too.” But she was there and bore the brunt of a lot of Zevon’s madness, so I was forced to give it a pass.
- Jackson Browne has some very insightful things to say about his friend. The whole time I was reading the book, I kept thinking about how Warren Zevon reminded me of Ernest Hemingway and I was glad to see in the last pages that Browne had once described Zevon as “the Ernest Hemingway of the twelve-string guitar.”
- Zevon’s journal entries say a lot about who he was. They are cryptic, but they reveal his unique point of view. They show his needy side and made me feel like he was a genius child his whole life. He uses the word “nice” a lot to describe people he’s met, as if maybe he was worried that they wouldn’t like him.
- I like Roy Marinell’s description of how Excitable Boy became a song, how critics were trying to analyze the lyrics and give them significance when the “built a cage with her bones” line actually comes from a schoolyard taunt Marinell and his friends exchanged when they were kids.
- It was so interesting to see how Zevon’s music was really produced, especially the song I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. No one even saw each other when they recorded that song. Each musician recorded his parts separately.
- I didn’t know that the comedian Richard Belzer had been Zevon’s regular opening act. That’s a good combination!
- What’s interesting to think about is how a fan listens to music and never really understands the massive creative process that’s behind putting together an album. And for Warren Zevon, the huge, painful, abusive, emotional process was something a regular person would never survive being a part of.
- It also makes me think about how some intensely creative and genius people like Zevon are almost destined to live self-destructive lives.
- I also wonder how some dysfunctional people are enabled and allowed to continue their irresponsible and destructive behavior because the people around them want to be a part of, want a piece of that creative process and fame.
- It also makes me think about other super-talented and creative people who did not fall apart but also led insanely wild lives as rockers – Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey – and survived. What makes them different?
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a big book and is, at times, hard to get through, but I ultimately enjoyed learning more about Warren Zevon. There are some great pictures of Zevon and the people in his life and everyone looks like they’re having a great time! After watching him on Letterman, I think I will check out his later music. He made his peace when the time came and it’s not for a fan to judge.
For more insight, click here to check out DD’s review of I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
You may enjoy reading The New York Times review of the book.
Click here to watch a YouTube video of Crystal Zevon.
And check out Warren Zevon’s final appearance on The David Letterman Show.
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