Warren Zevon was a genius. A real talent and hugely underrated performer whose sardonic, black-humored songs about suave lycanthropes, military men dead from the neck up (literally), and prom-night rapists set him far apart from his touchy-feely L.A contemporaries in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even though many of them went on to far greater commercial success.
But if his greatest-hits collection’s title – which Zevon’s ex-wife appropriates for her memoir – reflected the man instead of the music, it might be titled The Charming but Compulsive OCD Alcoholic, Piss-Poor Father and Chronic Philanderer Who Liked to Use People.
Both Zevons are well-represented in this book, a testament not only to the vision of the author but to her ex-husband and lifelong friend, whose deathbed instructions to her were to tell his life story, “even the awful, ugly parts.” Surely she wasn’t at a loss for material when he succumbed to terminal cancer in 2003 at age 56.
For this oral history of Warren Zevon’s life and music, Crystal interviewed close to 90 people: big names of music and literature (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Stephen King), plus relatives, band members, ex-girlfriends, friends, enemies and – at times heartbreakingly – his children. When one friend opens a recollection by saying “the first time Warren offended me…” and another calls him a prick, you know we’re not reading Lawrence Welk’s biography. Crystal also uses copious extracts from Warren’s own diaries, some astute, some rambling.
Through these recollections, Crystal puts the reader right there in the studio, at the hotels and on the road as Warren experiences career ups and downs; many of the latter stem from his insane intake of vodka and drugs, through which he still manages to create an amazing body of work. Finally getting sober in 1986, Zevon nonetheless relapses seriously after the cancer diagnosis, mixing scotch with painkillers. But then again, can ya blame him?
Zevon will always be best remembered for “Werewolves of London,” a throwaway, joke song he and his band put together one stoned night. Incredibly, the song became his biggest hit, and the irony wasn’t lost on him.
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In the end, after his diagnosis was exacerbated by the fact that he hadn’t been to a doctor in 20 years and refused normal cancer treatments, Zevon did create what he knew would be his final musical statement, The Wind. With a bevy of emotional guest stars and VH-1 documentary crew in tow, the voracious reader Zevon wrote his musical story’s last page himself, a rich coda for a man who noted “I got to be Jim Morrison longer than he did.” That Zevon ultimately lived longer than his doctor’s expectations – long enough to see The Wind’s release and the birth of his twin grandsons – was just icing on the cake.
The book is just one of a recent spate of treats for his fans, which also include remastered versions, with bonus tracks, of his records Excitable Boy, The Envoy, and live album Stand in the Fire.
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But more interesting is New West’s two-disc Preludes compilation. The first CD features demos, alternate takes and entire previously unreleased songs from the early ‘70s, which Zevon’s son Jordon found on reel-to-reel tapes while cleaning out his father’s storage cases.
In addition to never-before-heard songs like “Steady Rain,” “Empty Hearted Town,” and the “The Rosarita Beach Café,” there are early stabs at tunes like “Werewolves” (as a reggae shuffle), a sped-up “Accidentally Like a Martyr” and a much sparer, extra touching “Carmelita.” The second disc features several performances and a lengthy interview Zevon did with Austin DJ Jody Denberg around the release of Zevon’s 1999 album Life’ll Kill Ya.
All offer yet more fascinating insight into the thoughts and music of one of rock’s most unique artists – Bob Ruggiero
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon, Ecco, $26.95