Dead reckoning

The dark side of Warren Zevon in biography
By BRETT MILANO  |  May 29, 2007

EXCITABLE BOY: Despite what he told David Letterman, Zevon did not “enjoy every sandwich.”

Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Harper Collins) is the kind of biography you’d expect from Warren Zevon, who never had much use for cheap sentiment. Going well past the point of brutal honesty, it’s the least flattering rock-and-roll bio ever authorized.

Shortly before his death from cancer, in 2003, Zevon entrusted the bio to his ex-wife, Crystal; she reports that he insisted she leave in the “awful, ugly parts.” The couple divorced during the peak of Zevon’s alcoholism in 1981, so her memories of the relationship aren’t exactly warm and cozy. Yet the basic story is corroborated in oral-history style by nearly all his friends, lovers, and musical collaborators, and the figure who emerges is a long way from the swashbuckler of Zevon’s early songs, the sage cynic of his later ones, or the sensitive guy who snuck in during both phases. Rather, Zevon comes through as a troubled and self-destructive character who — despite his oft-quoted advice on the David Letterman show after his diagnosis — did not enjoy every sandwich.

The most lurid stories come from Zevon’s drinking binges, which carried on pretty much non-stop until he entered rehab in 1986. (He took up drinking again after the cancer diagnosis.) Zevon glamorized drinking in some of his songs (notably the one the book is named after); the truth is a bit harsher. He blacked out and beat up Crystal more than once. In one shameful moment, he lost his temper at her for showing him a black eye that he didn’t believe he’d inflicted the night before. During these years, he fell out with nearly all his musical partners. He ditched Jackson Browne, whom he no longer trusted. (Browne, who got Zevon signed to Asylum Records and produced Excitable Boy, comes off as the nicest guy in the book.) His “Werewolves of London” collaborator, Roy Marinell, who it appears wrote most of the song, reveals that Zevon stiffed him out of both credit and royalties.

Yet this is no typical rehab-and-redemption story, and it would seem that Zevon simply carried on with different bad habits once he became a 12-stepper. Chief among them was sex with an endless string of groupies, something that took its toll on his more serious relationships. (Two different girlfriends — one of them Annette Aguilar, for whom he wrote the song “El Amor de Mi Vida” — recall his telling them that sex on the road was “like taking a shit”; both broke up with him soon after.) Having tasted stardom, Zevon became dissatisfied with the cult-hero status of his later years, and he was jealous of some of his peers. One of the more priceless stories reveals that an ailing Zevon was able to cut vocals for his final album, The Wind, only after his producers bluffed and told him they were getting John Hiatt to fill in.

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Along with his faults as an artist and a person, Warren Zevon had a spotty recording career. But when he was on, he was on. Here are some of the albums that reveal his true talents.

WARREN ZEVON | Asylum, 1976 | This rightly acclaimed debut lays out both the outlaw mystique and the flashes of poetry that would define his career.

STAND IN THE FIRE | Asylum, 1981 | Skip over the better-known Excitable Boy and go instead with this raucous live disc, which includes Excitable Boy’s best songs and finds him at the peak of his wild mood swings.

HINDU LOVE GODS | Giant, 1990 | With a bunch of blues covers and one Prince ringer, this R.E.M. collaboration is the drunkest-sounding session ever led by a man who’d just gotten sober. Now out of print and worth hunting down.

MR. BAD EXAMPLE | Giant, 1991 | Among other things, this underrated garage-sounding disc (also out of print) includes his best-ever opening line: “Sittin’ on the sofa, suckin’ a bowl of crack.”

LEARNING TO FLINCH | Giant, 1993 | His second live album finds him in more reflective solo-acoustic mode, and it rescues the best songs from his spotty cleaning-up period. Also, alas, out of print.

LIFE’LL KILL YA | Artemis, 2000 | Zevon appeared to be settling in for the long haul on this stripped-down creative comeback, which included the prophetic (but still hilarious) “My Shit’s Fucked Up.”

THE WIND | Artemis, 2003 | Sometimes unbearably poignant, sometimes surprisingly upbeat, this is the gem that a dying Zevon produced when he knew the world was listening.

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