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

As with sports biographies (see my comments on a recent Jackie Robinson book), most music biographies are useful to fans and devotees but frequently are barely more than hagiographic efforts. The few exceptions that come to mind are David Hajdu‘s two books, one on Billy Strayhorn and the other on the Bob Dylan nexus, Nick Tosches on Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Peter Guralnick on Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke.

Zevon wrote some great, great songs — “Excitable Boy,” “Lawyers Guns & Money,” “Werewolves of London,” “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.” “Life’ll Kill You” to name a very few. As my son Cuba and I are long-time Zevon fan boys (Cuba’s favorite song is “Gorilla You’re a Desperado”), critical judgment will be suspended on this oral biography by Zevon’s long-time companion. Crystal Zevon uses over 80 interviews including ones with Bruce Springsteen, Stephen King, Billy Bob Thornton, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt to unpack the life and times of Zevon, who died in 2003. (“Enjoy Every Sandwich” is a wonderful tribute recording that includes Springsteen and Thorton, Adam Sandler, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder–you get the picture.) Carl Hiaasen, who was a Zevon pal, writes in the book’s foreword:

Strangers were sometimes unnerved by Warren’s growl and acid wit, but to me the most intimidating thing about him was the breadth of his intellect. A prodigious reader, he could talk knowledgeably about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Mickey Spillane, all in the same conversation. Likewise a casual chat about music could carom from Radiohead to Brian Wilson to Shostakovich at which point all I could do was nod and pretend I understood what the hell he was talking about…Any one of a dozen of Warren’s song titles would serve as a fitting epitaph, but I’m partial to the simple farewell printed in stately script on a wallet card that his road manager handed to fans who gathered outside his tour bus…

“Mr. Zevon has gone with the Great Beaver.”

By the way, I don’t think that whatever Mr Zevon’s molecules are doing, that they are sleeping.

Purchase I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon at Powell’s.

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