Warren Zevon’s Not So Quiet Normal Life

24 Nov

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, the 2007 Warren Zevon biography penned by Zevon’s ex-wife, Crystal, is a remarkable book.   A reader will experience moments of awe, disbelief, elation, and horror. When Zevon was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, he asked Crystal to tell the whole truth in writing his story, “even the awful, ugly parts.”  She did not flinch.  The book presents a view of Zevon that could not possibly be more honest.    Sharing traits with many of his characters, Zevon is at times genius, drunk, twisted, and hilarious.  To paraphrase one of his own songs, his shit was fucked up.

Crystal Zevon interviewed eighty-seven people for the book.  Their accounts are presented in the first person, as are her own remembrances.  Excerpts from Warren’s journal are also shared.   The reader sees hardships and challenges on every page–some external, many emanating from within.  But as Zevon careened through drug, alcohol, and sex addiction, one thing remained constant:  He never compromised his musical integrity.  And that cost him.  He did not achieve the financial and popular success he felt he deserved.  In a 1998 letter to Hunter S. Thompson, Zevon described his career as “about as promising as a Civil War leg wound.”  For Zevon fans, that was all right with us.  To hell with those who didn’t get it.

Bonny Raitt knew:  “There’s no way the mainstream could be hip enough to appreciate Warren Zevon.  He was our everything, from Lord Buckley to Charles Bukowski to Henry Miller.”  When Jackson Browne introduced Zevon to an audience as “the Ernest Hemingway of the twelve-string guitar,” Zevon later corrected him claiming, no, he was “the Charles Bronson of the twelve-string guitar.”  They were both right.  As Browne said, “Warren didn’t have literary pretenstions.  He had literary muscle.” 

The Hangover got on board with Zevon’s ’78 Excitable Boy album.  Although he never became a chartbuster, each previous and subsequent album delivered full tilt Zevon:  originality, a writer’s eye, and an outlaw’s attitude.   All one has to do is turn on a radio today and listen for an hour to realize that Zevon was a unique talent.  It is bitter-sweetly ironic that The Wind, recorded after Zevon’s cancer diagnosis (with the clock ticking loudly during the sessions), led to recognition in the form of two Grammies.   The Excitable Boy wasn’t around to see it happen.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead will hit Zevon fans hard.  He paid a high price to create his music–and live his life.    As honest and uncompromising as his songs were, so is his biography.  It is a fitting tribute.  No doubt, the Zevon’s will continue to deserve more credit that they will receive.  

{All quotes taken from I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.}

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