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.
After Mary & Bryan’s biography/autobiography hybrid about Mary herself and James Joyce’s daughter, they added another collaborator to write this fictional life story about a woman at the heart of the suffragette movement. Compelling, moving, and educational. What more could you want?
Ah, Joe. I can hardly believe that it's already four years since we lost him. I started reading this on Christmas day, and finished at about two in the morning on the 14th of January: exactly three weeks later. If I read a book every three weeks that would be seventeen in a year, which isn't very many. Anyway, during that time I completely immersed myself in Strummeriana; as well as reading the book I listened to little music other than The Clash or Joe's solo stuff, and I also put my bit in on the various Wikipedia articles.
And none if it can make up for the fact that he’s gone.
In fact, reading the book only makes it worse: it reinforces the sense of what we’ve lost. He was on a great creative upswing when he died, as the the posthumous Streetcore album showed. Its opening track, ‘Coma Girl’ (which, we learn, is about his daughter Lola) was the single best song he wrote since ‘Trash City’, at least.
Alas, we’ll never hear anything new from him again.
Or at least, not truly new: it seems from reading the book that there might be quite a few unreleased recordings out there, and he worked on more film soundtracks than I knew about.
Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is this piece of information. Around the time that Joe and the Mescaleros were writing and recording Global A Go-Go, the second of the comeback albums after the wilderness years, he also sent a set of lyrics to Mick Jones. He seemed to be suggesting that he was considering an alternative to the Mescaleros album. Mick wrote tunes for them and sent them back, but heard no more about it. Some time later, after Global A Go-Go had been released, Mick asked what had happened to the songs. Joe said, “Those weren’t for Global A Go-Go; those were the next Clash album.”
There’s no suggestion that he ever recorded any of them; but you never know: one day Mick might, when he’s not too busy with Carbon/Silicon.
What of the book itself, though? Well, it’s certainly compelling reading (at least if you’re a fan like me). It is flawed in some ways, of course. It can be hard to follow the early sections about Joe’s family, without an actual family tree to clarify things, thought that’s not a big problem.
Despite its size and comprehensive nature, there are parts that come across as too anecdotal and perhaps incomplete. Certainly there are places where I would have liked to have a lot more detail. But a book this size could be written about The Clash alone (several have, of course, but perhaps none quite the size of this one).
Still, it’s totally a must-have for any Clash fan, or solo Joe fan (can you be the latter but not the former?)
I wonder what it would have been like if The Clash had kept going and had become like U2 (who were heavily inspired by them)? In a good sense: I listened to an interview with Salewicz, where he pointed out that, though Joe didn’t like the distance from the audience at stadium gigs, he was very good at handling them. So imagine them doing something like the Zoo TV tour (indeed, when I saw footage of that, all the TVs as backdrop reminded me instantly of the Clash Mk II ‘Out of Control’ tour).