Monday, May 12, 2008

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

When you read a book about a celebrity you love, you expect them to have feet of clay nowadays. Crystal Zevon's biography of Warren does not disappoint. You get to see the Excitable Boy in all his raving glory, and the pain he left in his wake. You learn the stories behind Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, Lawyers, Guns and Money, and of course, Werewolves of London. It has all the debauchery you'd expect from a hard-living party animal of the 70's, "painted in the corner of a limousine," the tortured artistry of a musical Hemingway, and the difficulty friends and family had living with it all.

The book is an easy read because it's constructed mostly around interviews with people who knew him. Each chapter begins with a short introduction, and then cuts to related anecdotes and remembrances, so it feels like you're reading the script to a documentary. I enjoyed the style, and was surprised to find out how many artists I admire who were friends and fans of Warren. It shouldn't have been surprising, given the literary tone of his songwriting.

He was a huge fan of hardboiled fiction, whether it was Norman Mailer (he stamped and mailed her, she said so long, Norman) or Ross MacDonald, James Crumley, or Carl Hiaasen. He became good friends with Hiaasen, one of my favorite authors and journalists. The cover photo of "Mutineer" was taken when they were out fishing for bonefish and tarpon. I think I like Hiaasen's recollections of him best; he has the perspective of distance.

Zevon's family, like any family who has to deal with a serious alcoholic, is coming from the point of view of the wounded, even if they've forgiven him since. In fact, he reminded me of my own father a lot- the narcissism masking a deep self-loathing or feeling of inadequacy, which manifested itself in a macho persona defined by sexual conquests, belittling those around him, and a fierce self-centeredness. It was all so familiar that he became the antagonist of the story for me, while I empathized with Jordan and Ariel, his children.
Springsteen on the VH1 special

Lawyers, Guns and Money was truer than I could have ever imagined; when I first discovered his albums, I thought he effected the persona of a James Bond type, like in the Envoy. His world involved seedy bars, mercenaries, criminals and wildmen. In reality, his father "Stumpy" Zevon was a small-time gangster who certainly kept his son flush with money, if not lawyers and guns when necessary. When in Spain, he played in a bar he met a soldier and came up with Roland; stories like "Jungle Work" probably sprung from the same place.

"Enjoy every sandwich, I guess."

I also watched the VH1 special "Inside Out" on the making of his final album, The Wind, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It's a great companion to the book, which has interviews with Dave Barry and Billy Bob Thornton- both appear in the special. Dave Barry suggests that he get a tattoo, since he'll regret it for the rest of his life. Bruce Springsteen shows up to do a rip-roaring solo in "Disorder in the House," with lyrics so funny that he can't even sing along. "Even the Lhasa Apso looks ashamed" was the zinger. It was a parting shot at W's regime, and with lines like "the less you know, the better off you'll be," he and Jorge Calderon pretty much hit the nail on the head when it comes to defining the past 8 years of politics. The DVD has a bunch of extras, including uncut interviews with Warren and music videos; I believe its out of print, but I got it on Amazon for $13 shipped, sealed. A must have for the Zevon fan.



The man may not have been a headless Thompson gunner, but he led an adventurous life and certainly lived it as he sang it. His songs speak to you on a visceral level, echoing the prose of the hard-boiled tales he liked so much. I wonder if he ever read any Andrew Vachss, just about the only writer who goes places that might have been too dark for Warren Zevon. Carl Hiaasen was a perfect match- the blackest of humor with a glimmer of hope, carrying the torch and looking for a better way. Hunter S. Thompson was another close friend, which didn't surprise me at all.

Photos of him shooting off huge guns somewhere on HST's compound seem oddly fitting for a guy who was scorned for an album cover that had a pair of ballet shoes next to a machine pistol, spent shells everywhere. Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School is still one of my favorite albums, from the whimsically cynical "Bill Lee" to the classic "Play It All Night Long," the cute and catchy "A Certain Girl" and the heart-wrenching blues song "Bed of Coals," it's a classic rock album of the 80's with a tone like no other.



The book tells his rise from songwriter (he wrote "He Quit Me" from Midnight Cowboy) to bandleader for the Everly Brothers, something I never would have suspected. His "Piano Fighter" days of hammering out tunes in bars in Spain and elsewhere, his meetings with Stravinsky as a young piano player, and how friends like Jackson Browne fought hard for him and helped produce his records, are all documented here. It doesn't gloss over the rough times in the late 80's and early 90's, when I think he was doing some of his best work, and sales nosedived. Mr. Bad Example is one of my favorite albums, with the ultimate break-up song "Finishing Touches," with lines like "I'm sick and tired, and my cock is sore" and "you can screw everybody I've ever known, but I still won't talk to you on the phone," and so on- I was shocked to find it's out of print and selling for big bucks.



Thankfully Rhino is releasing it in June. Pre-order here.


The book contains many snippets of his journals, including many personal and revealing entries. So while you won't get an autobiographical "confessions of an excitable boy," you do get an insight of what it was like to be him, and what he went through. His ashes were scattered, so us fans don't have a gravestone to put shell casings or little werewolf figures on; maybe we can all go for a beef chow mein at Lee Ho Fook's someday. The Soho one. In the rain.


Whether you're a rabid fan or a casual one, the book is an unflinching look at the man and his life, without veering into "Doors movie" territory that was best described by Denis Leary: I'm drunk I'm nobody, I'm drunk I'm famous, I'm drunk I'm fucking dead. Thankfully Warren led a more colorful life than that, and while parts 1 and 2 might describe a few early chapters, there's plenty in here to keep you chuckling and shaking your head. He was one of a kind, and if you only know his hits, you'll find by delving into his albums that he was a singer-songwriter who was hard to match.



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