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

Taking its title from one of WARREN ZEVON‘s greatest songs, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a biography of one of rock’s smartest, funniest, hard-livin’est guys ever. Written/edited by Warren’s ex-wife, Crystal Zevon (whom he stayed sort of enamored with his entire life), this longish book from 2008 finally got into my hands long enough for me to read all the way through – and it’s all killer and no filler.

Zevon, best known for co-writing one of my favorite “novelty” songs of all time (“Werewolves of London”), was a California guy-genius who led a storied life of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, LOTS of alcohol and lots more sex. When he found out he was ill and near the end of his life he asked ex-wife Crystal to write the book because she knew all of his ups and downs – and he knew she’d do it right. In fact, he specifically told her not to leave anything out. And I don’t think she did! There are anecdotes in this book that few would put in their own autobiography, but which can’t hurt the man now that he’s gone.

To put it bluntly: Warren Zevon was too smart for his own good. Like the smarter dog breeds, the ones who get into trouble because they get bored easily, Zevon was always looking for something exciting to do. He was a great songwriter, an accomplished piano player (and apparently good on the guitar, too) – and he was his own worst enemy. He was a mean alcoholic. Even after he went through AA and successfully 12-stepped his way to sobriety, he still couldn’t help himself from being an asshole. And yet, you come out the back end of this book thinking he was one complicated motherfucker, yet a guy you couldn’t help but feel for despite all of his bullshit.

If you’re a fan of his music, there’s a lot to get out of this book. Everyone from early champion Jackson Browne to The Turtles’ Flo & Eddie to Bruce Springsteen, Paul Schaffer and a sackful of others weigh in on their recollections of writing, recording and touring with Zevon. But the bulk of the book, which is told in quotes from the people who knew him (interspersed with background info from the author), focuses on not so much the musician as the man. And that makes the story interesting for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Throughout I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead you’ll see what Warren Zevon put his family and friends through. It wasn’t easy being his friend (or relative), clearly, but he was certainly well-liked and -loved. I was especially moved by longtime co-writer Jorge Calderon’s reaction to the news (delivered to him by Zevon himself) that his on again, off again partner had mesothelioma. It’s a painful, touching moment that shows that perhaps only Crystal Zevon was qualified to “tell” her ex’s story. Knowing what to put in, what to leave out, and what needed to be told could only be done by someone who really knew her subject. She did, and she told his story without letting sentimentality get in the way. If you have any interest in Warren Zevon you won’t be let down by devoting some time to this book. I’m so glad I finally did.

3.5/5 (Ecco Books, 2007)

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