Category Archives: book

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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Andy Partridge & Todd Bernhardt • Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC [Book]

Complicated Game - Andy Partridge & Todd BernhardtReleased early this year, I was finally able to get a copy of Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC and naturally devoured it immediately. Being a huge fan of XTC and its two songwriters, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, this book has been on my radar since before it was announced. I’ve been an XTC devotee since I first discovered their 1980 album Black Sea, and haven’t deviated from that devotion since. XTC is a band that has really matured over the decades and their songwriting is at the forefront of that growth. I fully expected this book to illuminate Partridge’s songwriting and it completely lived up to its subtitle.

Born of a blog Todd Bernhardt helmed in the mid 2000s, the book is made up of interviews between Bernhardt and Partridge and separated into chapters devoted to a single song [not just songs that were singles, btw–ed.]. The chapters/interviews are arranged chronologically by when the song was first released on record, starting with “This Is Pop” and winding through “Roads Girdle the Globe,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “Dear God,” “Mayor of Simpleton,” and on to “River of Orchids” and “Stupidly Happy.” In each dissection the interview covers everything from the initial spark of an idea for a song, to how it was arranged and recorded. If you’re an XTC fan you will really enjoy this book. Bernhardt is clearly a big fan of XTC, but he’s also a friend of Partridge’s and is able to stay focused (most of the time) on the substance of the song and not get sidetracked on little bits of trainspotter info. Both interviewer and interviewee are born humorists so the interviews veer between serious and humorous in a good balance.

complicatedgame_spine_450pxIf there’s anything that could be improved, it would be the release of a second volume. Partridge has written so many great songs that this one volume (nearly 400 pages) misses many of his best songs. The only other nitpick I have–and this is primarily because of the book’s subtitle–is that it does not include Partridge’s partner in XTC songwriting, Colin Moulding. He may not have written as many of the band’s songs, but Moulding has written some of the band’s best. Witness “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Ball and Chain,” and “King for a Day.” That being said, there’s a way to remedy that. They could come out with a second volume that includes more of Partridge’s songs and some of Moulding’s. Done and done.

4.5/5 (Jawbone Books)

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George Martin • All You Need Is Ears (Book)

martin_ears-1RIP Sir George Martin (1926-2016)

This 1979 autobiography was written by George Martin with Jeremy Hornsby. It’s the tale of Martin’s life, growing up in post-WWI England, joining the Royal Navy, attending music school (to learn piano and oboe), going to work for the BBC and then EMI, a British company that had a number of record labels, including Columbia and Parlophone. Martin worked his way up at the latter label and eventually started producing records, including comedy records by The Goons (featuring Peter Sellers). In 1962 he stuck his neck out to check out Liverpool’s finest, finally signed them to the label, and you know the rest.

All You Need Is Ears is interesting for the stories in it, though they’re not told with the most exciting of prose. Still, I enjoyed hearing the anecdotes from Martin’s own mouth. At this point in my life I’ve read more books on The Beatles than probably everything else in the world combined, so Martin’s own opinions about some of the happenings are appreciated. Granted, though, that at the time he wrote this all four Beatles were still alive so there was likely a good helping of diplomacy added to the narration. Either way, if you can find this book online or in your local library it’s a good, quick read.

We will probably never know a phenomenon like The Beatles again, and we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to in the first place if it wasn’t for a small number of people like George Martin who had the ears to hear it.

3/5 (St. Martin’s Press, USA, 1979)

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Chrissie Hynde • Reckless: My Life As a Pretender (Book)

Chrissie Hynde has a way with words. I really liked her lyrics early on, especially on Pretenders, Pretenders II and Learning to Crawl. She could be biting but then she could also be quite tender, which is a real talent – some of us try pretty hard and are neither. So when I heard about her memoir/autobiography, I was hoping that talent would carry over into the book. And some of it does show up in Reckless.

hynde-recklessHynde takes us in a pretty linear fashion through her life, growing up in Ohio, heading off to Mexico, England, France, back home to the States and then back to Europe. She spends over half of the book (which is 312 pages) before the Pretenders even show up, and that made getting that far a bit of a chore. Granted, some of the anecdotes about her growing up were pretty amusing or sad (the one biker gang story especially), but when you consider that the book ends just after (spoiler alert if you don’t already know this) half of the original Pretenders lineup dies, it makes you wonder whether: a) She doesn’t consider anything that’s happened to her since to be important; or b) There’s a second volume coming. My problem is, whenever I start a biography like this I devour it quicker than I can read a “Stop” sign, so I’m almost always wanting more.

Still there are some great stories here and a wealth of photos to look at – and the book, indeed, is aptly titled. Maybe she’ll do a second volume that overlaps with this one so we get even more stories of her and the Pretenders in their heyday.

3/5 (Doubleday)

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