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I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon (Books 2018, 2) 📚🎵

You know how they say you shouldn’t meet your heroes? Well it turns out that sometimes that includes not meeting them between the pages of a book. I’m not sure I’d call Warren Zevon a hero, but he’s definitely a hugely respected and much missed singer and songwriter.

I knew of the tales of wild and crazy behaviour, though I hadn’t actually read any of them — except inasmuch as they come out in the songs. And anyway, those tales are a dime a dozen in rock’n’roll. A lot of this biography, though, is concerned with the people he hurt.

Which is fine, not least since the author — his wife and the mother of one of his children — is a major one of those people. Most of his bad behaviour happened while he was an alcoholic — or while he was drinking, I suppose I should say, since the standard twelve-step narrative is that you never stop being one. Alcoholics Anonymous helped him to stop, though he eventually stopped going to meetings. He didn’t drink for seventeen years, and the opening chapter tells us that when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he had a scotch. Who could blame him for stepping off he wagon at a time like that?

So he comes across as a far from pleasant character. But my disappointment with the book is more about the complete focus on the man and his relationships, almost to the exclusion of the music.

“The man and his relationships” sounds like an important set of themes to address in a biography. But in the case of a creative person — or really any person worthy of a biography — a key part of the story of their life is their works. If it’s a writer you’ll expect to read about their books; a politician, their victories and defeats; a general their battles. And of course, a musician, their music. It would be strange to read a biography of Beethoven or the Beatles that told of their personal lives but largely elided the music.

Which may be the key: this isn’t a biography, as such. It makes no attempt to be comprehensive, and there’s no real narrative. Although there are plenty of reminiscences from Crystal, the vast bulk of the book is reminiscences from people in Zevon’s life, directly quoted and preceded with their names; almost like a play script. Presumably Crystal interviewed them all, but she herself comes across as just one of the interviewees.

There are quotes from Zevon’s diaries, but he either wrote them in a very fragmented, abbreviated way, or they have been heavily edited. An example:

Jan. 12, 1975
… Took Jordan, visited Father at the steam baths. He gave me a handsome Seiko watch and $135 … quarreling with Crystal … T-Bone came over for spaghetti and I quaffed vodka martinis all night. T-Bone trounced me soundly at chess which surprised and aggravated me, but pleased me, too, by mellowing my lonely-giant-of-the-intellect trip … Made love.

Jan. 15, 1975
… Snorted coke which kept Crystal awake all night … she’s thinking of pregnancy and worried about chemicals in her body …

(All ellipses in original.)

After he gets sober the diary entries become more frequent, which is good. But as a fan of his music, I would have liked to read a lot more about it: its creation, how it was accepted or not at the time, stories of gigs and recording studios, and all that. Unfortunately Crystal wasn’t really involved in that part of his life, and the interviewees who were — like Jorge Calderón or Jackson Brown — either weren’t asked to talk about it, or weren’t quoted doing so.

So not quite the music biography I’d have liked, but not without interest.

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