Rock & Roll Books
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
by Crystal Zevon
Ecco, 480 pp., $26.95
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead rolls out as unique as the subject it illuminates, putting the reader through a wringer of emotions, from bursts of untamed laughter to abject pity. The story of Warren Zevon, a cultish L.A. singer-songwriter who broke out in the Seventies and is best known for novelty “Werewolves of London,” isn’t a simple one. Fortunately, Crystal Zevon understood that those who knew her ex-husband well, or at least experienced him firsthand, would best be able to convey his complex humanity. The voices of Bruce Springsteen; Bonnie Raitt; Billy Bob Thornton (a fellow obsessive-compulsive-disorder sufferer); Jackson Browne; David Letterman; writers Stephen King, Dave Barry, and Mitch Albom; and multitudes more then make up this tumultuous oral history. There’s Zevon conversing with composer Igor Stravinsky at age 13, Zevon having one of his songs chosen as the B-side of the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” and Zevon getting career advice from Kim Fowley, “the mayor of the Sunset Strip,” all before p.30. The rest is a rush of sex, guns, alcohol, drugs, literature, film, and music sometimes so brutally portrayed that it sets your guts churning, or at least gets you to stop reading for a while so you can fully absorb its effect. This is especially true during the alcoholic rages that led to Zevon’s violence on Crystal. Throughout, the subject is compared to many literary figures, but it’s a friendship with Hunter S. Thompson that makes the most sense, as they bond over firearms and an absurd view of life. Use of the songwriter’s personal journal entries conjures his voice throughout, but his death from cancer in 2003 stifled that voice too soon. This frenzied, strenuously honest read thoroughly explains why, among millions of songwriters who appeared in the 20th century, Zevon will be among those we’ll treasure most.