Wiliam L. Repsher reacts to Crystal Zevon’s, the musician’s widow’s, bio: I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon.
I, and lots of other “bespectacled guys in knit shirts and khakis” have a thing for Zevon.
[M]ost of it seems brutally honest, underlining Zevonâ€™s years of alcoholism, resulting in strained familial relations, spousal abuse, a blown marriage, dozens of affairs, etc. The usual rock-star stuff, only this time itâ€™s presented in a â€œthis is simply how the guy wasâ€ light as opposed to either glorifying or condemning his behavior. Even after he got sober, he could be assholic: self-centered, argumentative, problematic, etc. It was made clear that his goodness, which is also noted many times over in terms of his humor, intelligence and flashes of generosity, was counter-balanced with a very dark side.
What I felt reading the book was virtually no different from the vibe I get around many musicians, whether or not theyâ€™re anywhere near the level of success Zevon had. Danny Fields had a great quote in the Legs McNeill oral history of the punk scene, which boiled down to: â€œAll musicians are assholes.â€…
It seems to me Warren Zevonâ€™s life was what happened to a stereotypical musician who hit â€œthe big timeâ€ in some respect and spent the rest of his days leading a relatively pampered rock-star life. Good work if you can get it, but I suspect your average person with zero contact with musicians doesnâ€™t understand what that implies, which is never as alluring as the image.
From what little Iâ€™ve seen, a successful recording artist or band functions in its own little snow-globe world, especially on the road. Since the artist tends to be the center of attention much of the time, he doesnâ€™t fully develop an adult sense of the world. In Zevonâ€™s case, he just took money out of the bank whenever he felt like it, had very little understanding of his finances, and assumed money would always be there for him. Luckily, it was, although it got tight from time to time as his success boiled down to a few 70s hits he either recorded on his own or wrote for others (like Linda Rondstadt, who was hugely successful back in the 70s). After 1978â€™s Excitable Boy, his albums were much more critical than commercial successes, and aside from â€œWerewolves of London,â€ he never had any huge hit singles. He often toured solo in theaters and small clubs, most likely to reduce costs and make as much money as possible.
The artist also tends to populate his world with people who either support or depend on his ongoing success. Imagine a large family where a father is encouraged to be both infantile and patriarchal, and you have your average rock star. Reading the book, thatâ€™s how Zevon came off to me. I suspect thatâ€™s how many famous entertainers conduct their private lives, save theyâ€™ll be lucky not to receive the same sober scrutiny Zevonâ€™s life receives in this book. (And not to worry if you donâ€™t like the concept of rock stars being ambiguous and hard to accept beneath the image: there wonâ€™t be too many more rock stars. And just about everyone I know comes with strings attached, sooner or later.)
Thatâ€™s also how a lot of his songs come off to me. With this renewed interest in Zevon, I doubled back and listened to his songs (of which I have just about all thanks to a returned MP3 favor from a friend). The first few albums, I was struck by how rigid his work was â€“ either a slow ballad or stomping rocker, with little in between. And most of the rock songs I can live without. For years Iâ€™ve noted how â€œRoland, the Headless Thompson Gunnerâ€ has got to be the most retarded song Iâ€™ve ever heard, from the clunky martial beat to the silly mercenary story line. (I recall cringing the first time I heard it on my brotherâ€™s basement stereo in 1978.) Iâ€™ve always favored his ballads, and those early ones, like â€œMohammedâ€™s Radioâ€ and â€œCarmelita,â€ still sound great.
Even when he lost his way a bit production-wise in the 80s, he had roughly the same formula that worked for him. What struck me most was how much his later work loosened up, to the extent I found myself more drawn to that material. He experimented with different styles (even incorporated a few celtic numbers), and there was a sense of artistic freedom I picked up on that wasnâ€™t in his earlier, more popular work. The harder-rocking songs, like â€œThings to Do in Denver When Youâ€™re Deadâ€ and â€œFactory,â€ swung more than they stomped. In his case, Iâ€™d say the lack of pressure to write and record a Top 40 hit did him a world of good. I should also note sobriety agreed with him creatively, which is sometimes not the case for recording artists.
His lyrics? Always excellent, even on musically awful songs. Another reason I never warmed up to Zevon over the years was this odd effect his songs have on writers, and not just the famous ones he knew. I canâ€™t tell you how many times Iâ€™ve been around newspaper or magazine types in bars in New York, whom I know personally to have very little taste in music, but the one thing they can all agree on is a deep, abiding Warren Zevon appreciation. And while these guys are often great writers, theyâ€™re dicks when it comes to music, jam-band types who own about five CDs. Thus, I pictured Zevon concerts being a bunch of bespectacled guys in knit shirts and khakis, rocking out to that awful headless gunner song, and recalling their crazy nights copy editing while stoned after midnight at the campus newspaper.