Clip: Mehr on new Zevon biography and rarities collection
New Warren Zevon biography offers unblinking look at the tortured talent
By Bob Mehr
April 28, 2007
"All good stories," Warren Zevon once observed, "end in death."
As a writer, Zevon knew the value of a big finish. When he passed away
in 2003, at 56 from a rare form of cancer, he'd managed to create a
finale worthy of one of his best songs -- closing his life and career
with a Grammy-winning, gold-selling album, The Wind, and a long,
This week, Zevon returns -- in a way. Tuesday will see the publication
of an authorized biography penned by his former wife, and a new CD of
early material and demos, produced by his son. The two projects, at
last, offer a fully rounded picture of a brilliant but troubled man
First emerging from the mid-'70s Los Angeles rock scene, Zevon was
hailed for his finely etched literary style and unique worldview.
"He's the first and foremost proponent of song noir," remarked his
friend and great champion, Jackson Browne.
"A moralist in cynic's clothing, Zevon nails a part of the American
character rarely captured in pop music," offered admirer Bruce
At their best, Zevon's songs combined a macabre, surreal, comic sense
with a penchant for tender sentimentality, his lurid intelligence
often bulldozing the distinctions between the two.
A classically trained pianist with a rock-and-roll heart, a voracious
reader whose tastes ran from Graham Greene to Mickey Spillane, Zevon's
music was an utterly unique mix of brains and brawn, high art and low
The popular perception of Zevon during the last decade of his life was
that of a faded '70s rock star. It was a view that wasn't quite
accurate. He often liked to describe himself as "a folk singer who
accidentally had one big hit" and saw the success of 1978's
"Werewolves of London" as an aberration in a career that was as
commercially frustrating as his work was brilliant.
"He was an artist's artist, a critic's artist, and a cult artist,"
says Danny Goldberg, president of Zevon's last record label, Artemis.
"He was alternative before 'alternative' was a marketing word. It
wasn't his destiny to be a pop star. His destiny was to do what he
In his heyday, he was, in the words of his friend, the crime novelist
Carl Hiaasen, "the infamously dangerous Zevon. The pistol-waving,
vodka-soaked, Darvon-addled maniac who locked himself in manacles for
the cover of Rolling Stone." It was something of an act, but one
fueled by demons that were all too real.
The product of a bizarre childhood and family life, Zevon's nimble
mind and fragile psyche were embroiled in a lifelong battle against
alcoholism, self-destructiveness and compulsive behavior.
"He truly was a tortured soul," says his ex-wife and biographer,
Crystal Zevon. In his final months, Zevon expressed a wish that
Crystal, a journalist and media activist, write his life story. "When
I agreed to do it, he was dying," she says. "And it's difficult to
refuse a dying man's request."
Zevon had implored her not to shy away from exposing the most
unflattering aspects of his life, telling her to include "all the ugly
awful parts, because that is the guy who wrote all them excitable
Her nearly four-year effort -- during which she conducted close to 90
interviews and pored over dozens of private journals -- has resulted
in a remarkable oral history called "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The
Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon." It is, as the title suggests,
an unflinching look at an always complex, frequently unpleasant, but
ultimately singular figure.
As Crystal writes, Zevon's upbringing had a profound impact on his
life and work. His parents were an oddly matched pair: his mother the
closely guarded daughter of a strict Mormon family; his father a
Ukrainian-born Jew from New York City, nearly twice her age.
His birth had not been an easy proposition. Zevon's mother had a
congenital heart condition; she was not supposed to have children
because of her health.
"Her family urged her to abort the baby, and she wouldn't do it and
she nearly died in childbirth," says Crystal. "As a kid, whenever he
would misbehave his grandmother would say, 'You're killing you're
mother. She almost died having you.' It was a guilt trip that was laid
on him throughout his whole life."
Although his father maintained a number of businesses over the years,
his real occupation was as a gambler and gangster; he was close to
Chicago Mafiosi Sam Giancana and L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen, serving
as best man at the latter's wedding.
Raised in Illinois, Arizona, and mostly, California, his parents were
constantly splitting up and getting back together. Bright and
sensitive, Zevon was eager to escape his unpleasant childhood. From an
early age he longed for some kind of stardom.
"He was a kid with bad acne, big spaces between his teeth, and thick
glasses. He was the kid that other kids laughed at growing up," says
Crystal. "But it only made him more determined."
After a decade of scuffling in the L.A. music scene -- as a
songwriter, sessioneer and band leader -- Zevon finally found success
in the mid-'70s.
But fame only exacerbated Zevon's inner turmoil. His Herculean
consumption of vodka, among other substances, was particularly
alarming given his fondness for handguns and a tendency toward wild
But Zevon's alcoholism had a darker impact on Crystal and their
newborn daughter, Ariel. Zevon would black out and physically abuse
his wife, shoot up the house and not remember any of it the next day.
"Scientifically, when an alcoholic is in a blackout, there is
literally no memory," says Crystal, herself a recovering alcoholic. "I
didn't know that at the time. So I spent years in resentment, not
understanding why he never owned up to the things he did.
"What I lived with Warren still astounds me," she says. "But he gave
you moments of such brilliance that they somehow made up for the many
more hours of agony that you would go through with him."
Though he eventually got, and stayed, sober for most of the last 16
years of his life, Zevon's behavior grew increasingly odd in later
Although he'd always been superstitious, he would become consumed by a
serious case of obsessive compulsive disorder and a kind of sexual
compulsion, keeping a rotating cast of girlfriends and groupies on
hand. "The way his mind worked he was in a kind of perpetual agony,"
says Crystal, who remained close to him even after their early-'80s
divorce. "When he got sober he refused to take any kind of medication
that could've cured his OCD or compulsive behavior. He'd get terrible
migraine headaches, but he was loath to even take an aspirin."
Throughout the writing of the book Crystal had reservations about
painting such an unvarnished portrait of Zevon -- detailing his
addictions, infidelities and most intimate moments. "But I felt if I
can do something to tell his story, to interest younger generations in
his music, then it's worth it."
Meanwhile, Zevon's son, Jordan, has spent the years since his father's
death working to ensure his musical legacy.
In 2005, he co-produced a tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich,
featuring covers of Zevon songs by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and
the Pixies, among others. This past spring, he facilitated the release
of three of Zevon's Asylum albums -- Excitable Boy (1978), Stand in
the Fire (1980), and The Envoy (1982) -- in expanded remastered
editions on Rhino Records.
Jordan has also compiled a selection of unreleased tracks for a disc
titled Preludes, due from Danny Goldberg's new Ammal imprint this
An insightful collection of odds and sods, it offers a multi-faceted
portrait of Zevon, shedding light on his little-heard pop numbers and
tracing his evolution as a writer, showcasing early versions of some
of his best-known songs. (Jordan will release his own debut album on
Ammal later this summer).
Jordan also has been active in the fight against mesothelioma, the
asbestos-related cancer that claimed his father. He serves as
spokesman for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
It's not clear how Zevon contracted the disease -- he may have been
exposed as a child in his father's carpet store, in his parents'
attic, or even through the soundproofing material used in old
"That's the scary thing about mesothelioma," says Jordan. "It only
takes the briefest exposure, and it can linger in your body for
decades. The number of cases is going up each year."
Though Zevon's life was cut short, his friends and family are
optimistic that his music can live on. "He believed that whether it's
Stravinsky or the Beatles, that most things fade away," says Crystal.
"And yet there is something about music, a part of it that is forever.
He wanted his songs to last in that way."
- I'm in the middle of reading this book and it's terrific. Laugh out loud
funny in parts, the pall of his death still hangs over the proceedings.
here's a review from the Times:
- I'm really busy with work these days and have put off buying the book (and
new rarities disc) because I know it will take me away from my
responsibilities. I'll probably start it a week from Thursday.
On 5/1/07, Jim Caligiuri <jcalig@...> wrote:
> I'm in the middle of reading this book and it's terrific. Laugh out loud
> funny in parts, the pall of his death still hangs over the proceedings.
> here's a review from the Times:
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