Mr. Bad Example

Crystal Zevon's warts-and-all oral history I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon is a pretty fascinating look at Warren—sometimes fascinating good, but most times fascinating bad. It's heartbreaking in any number of ways, from the stories of the physical and mental abuse he inflicted upon friends and family to his battle to live long enough to put out one last masterpiece and, more important, to see his grandchildren (successful on both counts). And it's ultimately those two kinds of heartbreak that define the book and, in the process, Warren's dirty life and times.

Since I came to Warren late in his career (I think the first CD of his I bought was "Life'll Kill Ya"), I didn't really know all that much about his personal life, other than that he had had some problems with alcohol and had a reputation as being sort of a lunatic in his prime. Such is the template for a lot of rock stars, though. But after reading this book and uncovering all the gory details (excessive alcoholism, massive drug intake, physical and emotional abusiveness toward women), well, let's just say I was a little taken aback.

For instance, there's this, from Crystal, his ex-wife:

"When I asked him to be quiet so the baby could sleep, he flew into the worst rage I had ever seen him in. He hit me, knocking me to the floor, and then he kicked me while I was crouched in the corner. He ordered me to get the baby and get out of his hotel room. It was two a.m. on Christmas morning. It was freezing cold and I was on the streets of Marbella with our five-month-old daughter, no money and nowhere to go."

And that, unfortunately, was not an isolated incident. There are many recollections from Crystal about Warren's alcohol-fueled rages, most of which he was likely too drunk to even remember. And even with the tales of Warren's rough childhood and the cruelties frequently heaped upon him by his own parents that likely played a part in creating that abusive alcoholic, it's just hard to put Warren on a musical pedestal when confronted with stories like the one above.

But, then again, there's this, from neighbor and friend Billy Bob Thornton:

"Warren was right behind me and he put his arms around me and just hugged me. Not like you do and then go on, but he just held on to me. And, I held on to him. It lasted a long time. Then, he gets up real close and he says, 'Remember when you told me about the time you gave that guy the TV?' [Thornton had once given a fellow out-of-work actor friend his TV, which was about all he had to his name at the time.]...So, I said, 'Yeah, I remember.' Warren said, 'I want to give you something.' He took off his ring...and he gave it to me. I started bawling like a baby. He didn't like people crying around him, and I kept having to say how sorry I was, but I couldn't stop myself. I fell apart right there with him telling me it was okay."

That exchange came as they were about to record "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" for Warren's final CD, "The Wind." And as you read the stories about recording that CD and Warren's desire to, in a sense, use his death sentence for all it was worth, you get the clear sense that "The Wind" was his attempt to make amends for the sins of his past. And this valiant effort, though tempered by his descent back into alcoholism after his diagnosis (more news to me), is what makes that CD (and the accompanying VH-1 documentary) such a powerful piece of work. And it also keeps this book from being a total bummer.

So, my reaction after finishing the book was a little mixed. It was a good read ( I dig oral biographies), and it was fun to hear about the creation of songs like "Werewolves of London" (originally thought to be a throwaway by Warren and the song's cowriters, Leroy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel) and "Mr. Bad Example" (created just as I expected it was--with Warren and cowriter Jorge Calderon trading lines intended to make each other laugh). But all the stories of physical and mental abuse of those he loved were the ones that stuck with me the most. Still, it's good in the sense that you get a full, occasionally brutal portrait of Zevon and see where he was coming from, as well as the price that creative genius sometimes exacts, both on the self and loved ones. Crystal recalls that her ex-husband "often told me that he had to create fights, make drama, so that he could experience the pain firsthand." That's a brutal way to live. and make a career. But Warren did it, and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead shows how.

But make no mistake--it aint that pretty at all.

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