I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Warren Zevon and Townes Van Zandt are subjects of new biographies, but they had more in common than that. Both came from families with money. Music eventually took over everything that mattered to them. Both enjoyed high esteem among fellow artists, yet reaped limited commercial success. And both were brutal drunkards.
There’s at least one difference. Van Zandt burned his bridges behind him. Zevon tended to burn his bridges in front of him. Former wife Crystal Zevon watched those bridges fall during most of Zevon’s 56 hard-lived years. She doused more than a few of the fires, too.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the result of Crystal’s careful study of Warren’s often careless life, which can be divided into three parts: Childhood, blind intoxication, and sobriety.
Warren’s precocious youth is described by family members. His childhood in San Pedro, California, was centered on his savant mastery of music. His boyhood mentorship with neighbor Igor Stravinsky was one of the most influential chapters of his life.
But it’s Zevon’s precocious adulthood that propels the book and provides a detailed history of the ’70s southern California rock scene. Zevon roared through this period like, well, a headless Thompson gunner. It’s as if there were only a handful of people in Los Angeles during that time who Zevon didn’t either record with, sleep with, lie to, inspire, or punch in the throat.
We hear from Phil Everly, who gave Zevon his first big paid gig on an Everly Brothers tour. Everly, like a handful of others, never gave up on his friend and offered the Zevons — together and separately — his home during stormy times.
Jackson Browne speaks articulately throughout the book about the risks that accompanied knowing and working with Zevon, as well as the incredible rewards. Browne saw to it that Zevon’s first major record contract (with Elektra/Asylum) came together, and he became godfather to Zevon’s daughter, Ariel.
So many years of Zevon’s life were spent in the grip of alcohol that when he finally gets sober, it’s like getting to know a completely different person. His sobriety lasted seventeen years. He fell off the wagon (and then, briefly, got sober again) in the spot of time between his cancer diagnosis and his death. His sober years were filled with fewer musical successes but were buoyed by the personal triumphs of fatherhood, emotional stability, and a wider net of friends ranging from David Letterman to former Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
As he lay dying, Zevon not only encouraged his former wife to compile this book, he pointed her to the people who could help and shared volumes of his own notes. This adds to his strong presence inside these pages.
Zevon lived deep within the cave of his artistry and alcoholism. He kept the door shut tight. Crystal Zevon has done a fine job finding people who convinced the sullen songwriter to open the door, if only a crack. Their stories allow the rest of us a peek inside the clutter and genius of an American original.