Sun, May 06, 2007 - Page 18 News List

You have to die to make them know you're alive

The Warren Zevon legacy will be greatly bolstered by this intimate portrait penned by his estranged wife — despite the many ugly warts it reveals

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

One self-composed epitaph Warren Zevon delivered after learning he had terminal cancer was this: "It's a damned hard way to make a living, having to die to get 'em to know you're alive." Like so much of what he said, wrote and sang, it was quotable, savagely funny and true.

Near the end of his life (he died at 56 on Sept. 7, 2003), doing some of his best work in the face of adversity, Zevon remained stuck in a commercial vacuum. The great promise of his sensational early albums had never brought him the wide following he deserved. So he decided to make the most of a terrible situation, advising his manager to exploit his illness in any way that might advance a soon-to-be-over career. (The manager refused. Still, there were posthumous Grammys.) And he called upon his estranged wife, Crystal Zevon, to take care of him. He also wanted her to take notes.

Crystal Zevon fulfills his wishes with I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, a no-holds-barred oral history that captures a lovable but wildly aberrant personality, draws upon a fascinatingly diverse cast of characters and peers into the heart of the Los Angeles singer-songwriter community in its prime. The widow's role is awkward, given her ex-husband's gun-toting rages, heavy substance abuse, iffy parenting and unflagging ability to chase new women. She also uses an awkward format that has her writing in both the first person (as speaker) and third (as editor). And she takes for granted readers' familiarity with his music. (This book has no index or discography.)

But her affection, candor and dogged pursuit of information make this book an unforgettable journey into the depths of Warren Zevon's mad genius. There is much for Crystal Zevon to balk at, but she has the temerity for this tough job. The rare thing for which she apologizes is not having tried to interview Bob Dylan, one of many stellar musicians who had a way of turning up at Zevon recording sessions, given the high regard in which fellow artists held him. "I guess I was just scared," she says.

Publication notes

I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

By Crystal Zevon

452 pages

Ecco


I'll Sleep When I'm Dead uses Zevon song titles like Werewolves of London, Detox Mansion, Mr. Bad Example and My Dirty Life and Times as chapter headings. It doesn't use the one that best sums up this story: Ain't That Pretty at All. The Warren Zevon on these pages is surprisingly image-conscious, abusive, petty, jealous, sordid, vain, shopaholic and even banal; among his obsessive-compulsive tics was buying the same kind of gray T-shirt over and over again. His diary entries often focus on such things, so they are less scintillating than the literary lyrics for which he is known. Among the livelier entries is this one: "Went over to Ryan's. Later in the evening I got stuck in the elevator — Fire Dept. had to come. Not as much fun as it sounds."

But this lack of show-business artifice is precisely what makes the Zevon story so telling. What was even more unusual than his dark thoughts — like resenting the fact that Jackson Browne and Neil Young had lost people close to them and written beautiful, much-admired songs about those deaths — was his willingness to admit to those thoughts. On his deathbed, discussing the merits of having a funeral, he said, "I just don't want to have to spend my last days wondering whether Henley" — Don Henley of the Eagles, who did not attend — "will show up."

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