Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Year of Zevon, Part 2: Desperado

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon. Ecco Press. 452 pages. $26.95

Of all the major songwriters of the 1970s, Warren Zevon is the one who got the short end of the stick. In 1978, with the release of his breakthrough album, Excitable Boy, and its Top Ten hit “Werewolves of London,” he seemed destined for a great career. Unfortunately, he never reached that peak again, due to both his self-destructive habits and because he was just too weird for mass consumption. He was a major artist destined to play to a minor-league audience.

From his 1976 debut to his death of lung cancer in 2003, he was America’s great screwed-up romantic, a singer-songwriter who wrote brilliant heart-on-the-sleeve ballads and hilarious tales from the dark side of normal. To think of his repertoire is to think not just of his gift for hook-laden pop melodies, but of a great village of losers -- drunks, cuckolds, clowns, killers, gamblers, jerks, evil suburban dads, junkies and junk bond kings -- and desperadoes, real and surreal.

There's Frank and Jesse James and Boom Boom Mancini; an escaped gorilla who becomes a hipster; a decapitated soldier of fortune who searches for the son of a bitch who blew his head off; washed-up “desperadoes under the eaves,” knocking back salty margaritas at the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel, where the air conditioner hums like an Aaron Copland symphony.

This oral biography, assembled by the singer's long-suffering first wife, is the first serious effort to put Zevon's story into print, and any fan will find it hard to put down.

Crystal Zevon, who was there for most of the key moments in Zevon's career and remained his occasionally co-dependent friend until his death, draws together her own memories, the testimony of friends, lovers, children, associates, and semi-regretful enablers, and Zevon's own daily diary to present what feels like a complete picture.

The Citizen Kane-style approach generally works, although one does occasionally yearn for an objective, distanced voice to qualify and question the accounts, and the book could have stood a tighter editing job: events and people don't always get the proper set-up, the diary entries could use more annotation, and the book never deals with the lingering mystery of Zevon's illness, mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that comes from exposure to asbestos.

On the up side, we learn a lot about his lyrical approach, and how the most bent or twisted images of his songs were often straight reportage. Zevon loved the strange, the offbeat, and the out-of-place, and he could find it anywhere. The sight of a guy in a Hallowe'en sheik costume jamming to a transistor radio led, naturally, to "Mohammad's Radio," and the death of a drug dealer got a mostly straightforward retelling in "Charlie's Medicine." Phrases like “lawyers, guns and money” (a comment from his manager) “poisonous lookalike” (on a radio show devoted to botany) or “hell is only half-full” (from a mechanic in Charlotte, N.C.) would all be woven into funny, strangely compelling songs.

As a person, Zevon was both a charming, smart, funny guy with a huge appetite for life, and a real shit who seems to have broken the heart or tested the loyalty of everyone he knew, with or without the aid of booze and pharmaceuticals. He’s a violent, abusive husband, an absent dad, a high-maintenance and sometimes back-stabbing friend, a sex addict who couldn't stay faithful if he tried (and eventually gave up even bothering) and an obsessive compulsive with a bizarre superstitious streak.

The man who once titled an album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School knew what he was singing about; everything in his life revolved around luck, and inanimate objects either had it or didn't. A friend recalls going to a Gap store with Zevon, where he went through dozens of gray T-shirts and bought up all the "lucky" ones, then headed to another Gap store to do it all over again. An assistant once brought him ten Cokes before finding one lucky enough to drink. One Christmas he received a pile of expensive but unlucky gifts, and threw them all away.

Zevon blessed the book before his death and apparently insisted his friends tell the truth and nothing but, and the result is sometimes more warts than all. He emerges less as the street-smart hard-core poet he fancied himself as than the kind of needy, greedy, it’s-my-world-you-just-live-in-it asshole we all know too well. Charm, however, can take you a long way, and the verdict I sense from those who knew him best is that they’d gladly suffer it all over again just to have him back.

That’s rock n’ roll. So is the book.

(Originally published in slightly altered form in the May 2, 2007 Columbia Free-Times.)

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