Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Bittersweet Book

Category: Review

In 2002, Warren Zevon discovered that he had terminal cancer. Instead of lying down to die, he went into the studio to make the life-affirming The Wind, an album that earned him a gold album before his death 12 days after the album's release. Two posthumous Grammy Awards subsequently went to the recording.

Zevon's dying was chronicled to some degree by VH-1's InsideOut program. The full story, however, can be found in a new book authored by Zevon's ex-wife Crystal. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon was released in May. The 452-page book covers not only Zevon's death but his often turbulent life.

This book is must-reading for any fan of Warren Zevon. It presents him, warts and all, which is how he wanted to appear according to the preface. Zevon was never one to withhold his "dirty laundry," frequently presenting it in song ("Detox Mansion," "Gorilla You're a Desperado," "My Dirty Life and Times," "Mr. Bad Example"), so a posthumous look at his life certainly will not sugar-coat anything.

Even for the devoted Zevonite, who knows all about Zevon's "dirty life and times," the tome can be a hard read. The book begins with Zevon's death, discussed in explicit detail. Kim Lankford's account of an incident behind the song "Charlie's Medicine" (an outstanding tune from the very underrated The Envoy release) is shocking, given that it came in a time when Zevon was presented as free of his drug and drinking demons. Also particularly painful is the account of Zevon's scotch binge, literally shutting everyone in the world out in favor of the bottle, over his last Christmas. In one regard, it is hard to criticize an alcoholic for falling off the wagon after he discovers he's going to die (the InsideOut program showed that Zevon, who had stopped smoking in 1994, took that habit up again once he was diagnosed); however, Warren knew what booze had done to his relationships before, and those lost days could never be recovered with the clock on his life ticking.

The layout of the biography is excellent. There are four parts to the book, each part (and the chapters) named after a Zevon song. Zevon's story is told by friends, family (author Crystal Zevon, who divorced in 1980, remained a lifelong friend, and Zevon's children Ariel and Jordan), fellow musicians (Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen), and Zevon himself -- entries from his diaries are plentiful. Photographs cover Zevon from age 3 until weeks before his death (as he holds his twin grandsons) grace the book throughout.

The book presents the real Warren Zevon. After all, the man who wrote the violent "Excitable Boy" and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" tunes also penned "Tenderness on the Block" and "Searching for a Heart," and this book shows both. The movie version might pull in an NC-17 rating, so be warned.

But, much like a Zevon album, the graphic content of the book should not distract from enjoying the body of work. If you're a Zevon fan, this book is not to be missed. Even if you're not, a glimpse into his rock and roll life might make you curious as to what all the fuss has been about since the release of Warren Zevon in 1976.

Crystal Zevon's website

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