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

From The Worthy House

Photo by Jake Blucker / Unsplash

This book is an oral history, offering the voices of scores of people who knew and worked with Zevon, most of them his friends (and some of whom are famous, like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Bob Thornton). Combining these with journal entries from Zevon himself was done by Crystal Zevon, who was married to the singer from 1974 to 1979, but who remained intermittently close to him, and was the mother of one of his two children. He wanted a “warts and all” depiction, and he got it. Among many other vices, Zevon was a terrible father, a drunk who effectively abandoned his children when they were young, though in the manner of many such men, he developed a relationship with them when they were adults and he had sobered up.

It’s not that Zevon was a monster, just that he was enormously defective, defined in most things by a deep and desperate selfishness, exacerbated by living in a milieu where he never had to answer for his vices. He was pathologically afraid of responsibility and thus desperate to avoid having any more children; he ghosted long-term friends to avoid unpleasant confrontations; he dodged debts. And he totally lacked the discipline that characterized more successful rock singers, such as Springsteen, which is probably why after initial success and extensive critical acclaim, he never became rich or all that famous.

Such, perhaps, is a typical minor rock star’s life. Zevon certainly had an interesting family background. He was the son of a small-time Ukrainian Jewish gangster, part of Mickey Cohen’s Los Angeles mob. Born in 1947, trained in classical piano (he was a sometime acquaintance in his teens of Igor Stravinsky), by 1965, Zevon went to find his fortune as a musician. It took him nearly a decade of working for others, primarily the Everly Brothers, to hit the (modestly) big time. After a couple of well-received albums in the mid and late 1970s, from 1980 onwards his career was dim. He had been an extreme drunk for years, among other things often beating his (very many) women and waving guns around. That didn’t help his career either. By 1986 he sobered up, cold turkey, but his career did not revive, even though he kept releasing music, and for years often made rent by playing tiny provincial venues or corporate lobby gigs.

Read the rest at The Worthy House