No man is a hero to his valet.

Regular readers may notice something new on the nightstand — the Warren Zevon biography, the existence of which I only learned about a few days before it appeared in stores last week. In years past, I’d have known for months ahead of time, had the date circled on the calendar and been among the first to buy a copy when Border’s unlocked its doors. Ah, well. Groupiedom really doesn’t become a woman as long in the tooth as I am.

“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” weighs in at 450 pages or so, a lot for a rock musician who remained stubbornly unpopular until the end of his life. No matter — if his popularity wasn’t wide (and personally enriching), it was deep. The right people loved Zevon, writers and filmmakers and politicians and other musicians. David Letterman, Martin Scorsese, Carl Hiaasen. Every journalist I know loves him; it seems half the Zevon concerts I attended were with carloads of colleagues, driving to Chicago or Indianapolis in raucous caravans and pounding the table along with “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Ah, memories. Zevon died in 2003 of mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer linked to asbestos, not smoking, a bad habit Zevon had for most of his life. As has been chronicled a million times by a million sympathetic journalists, smoking was the least of it.

Well, there’s always room for one more. Crystal Zevon, the man’s long-suffering ex-wife, says Warren himself asked her to write his story, more or less on his deathbed. He promised her his diaries, and told her to tell the whole truth, “even the awful, ugly parts.” That she has done, delivering a manuscript that still has the power to shock and dismay, even longtime fans/students like me, who thought they knew it all. Note to all my caravan buddies: We didn’t.

It’s not the big stuff that’s appalling, although some of it really and truly is. It’s the little things that pile up. The compulsive shopping, the vanity, the child-support dodging, the casual cruelty to the people who cared most about him (his children, notably, especially his daughter), the lying, the cheating. He withheld LeRoy Marinell’s share of the “Werewolves of London” royalties for a number of years, a five-figure sum. After he quit drinking, he seemed to transfer his addictive behavior to women — housewives by the score, you might say — and plowed through auditoriums full of them. (Combining two vices in one, he even details getting laid at a tanning salon, on the damn tanning bed, which made me think of my friend Emma, who once worked at such a place. People were always peeing in the wastebaskets and doing other vile bodily functions behind closed doors. Maybe medical science can investigate the effect of UV light on human inhibitions.) He battered his wife in a blackout and later cursed her for trying to pin her black eye on him.

You start to wonder, what exactly did anyone find to like about him?

Well, that’s there, too. He was hugely smart and very funny, great with the quip — no wonder journalists liked him. Musicians admired him, too. You look at the list of guest artists who played with him, everyone from Neil Young to Bob Dylan to George Clinton, for cryin’ out loud. He wrote great songs, right until the end — “The Wind” was the record that won the Grammys, but for my money, “My Ride’s Here” was the creative peak, the title track being one of the all-time great death songs. It begins:

I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
“I’ll take the mazuma”
Said Jesus to Marion
“That’s the 3:10 to Yuma
My ride’s here…”

Rhyming “mazuma” with “3:10 to Yuma” — that’s Zevon all over. Played in the key of laughter-through-tears, they way so many of them were.

The underlying theme to all this, if there is one, is just how much havoc one addict can wreak, in their own lives and in the lives of others, acts that reverberate through generations. I was halfway through “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” when I stopped and wrote a fan letter to Crystal Zevon (her e-mail is public). It’s hard to write about being an alcoholic’s wife without lapsing into one or two predictable slots — victim or fool. She doesn’t do that, perhaps because at some point she realized she had her own drinking problem, which she acknowledges, and what it took to quit. The tone is not one of pity-me but of clear-eyed, dispassionate truth-telling. I have a feeling some people are going to portray her as the embittered ex seeking revenge now that the man who hurt her is unable to protest. I hope that doesn’t happen, because she fulfilled every writer’s No. 1 obligation: She told the truth. People, especially creative people, are complicated, and very few have public and private faces that would recognize one another. “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” doesn’t affect my opinions on the music, only what it took to make it. It ain’t that pretty at all, as the man himself once sang. If we didn’t hear it, then maybe we weren’t really listening.

Thanks to all who stopped by yesterday. This has happened a time or two before, and most people don’t come back afterward, but we sometimes pick up a few new readers. For them, a briefing: This blog isn’t about anything in particular. My politics are center-left, but I try not to harp on them. I live in the suburbs of Detroit, a city of spectacular weirdness and great stories and frequently awful weather. I’m a freelance writer, living with my husband Alan, daughter Kate (10 going on 30), dog Spriggy and a few bad habits. My interests are small-c catholic but I’m particularly fond of good writing, movies, strange current events and domestic life. “Daily life, with links” — that’s the log line for this blog. I came up with it six years ago, and it seems to fit as well today as it ever did.

I think I’m done talking about Lileks, but feel free if you’d like to continue the discussion. I was struck by a point some people made yesterday, in all the comments — that there are many who find Lileks’ writing “hilarious.” I’m not one of them, obviously, but it got me thinking about humor writing, in the newspapers and elsewhere, and sometime in the next few days I’ll try to wrestle them to the ground. I don’t expect it to be terribly funny, but if you feel like it, stick around.

Posted at 10:00 am in Media, Popculch |

36 responses to “No man is a hero to his valet.”

  1. Kim said on May 8, 2007 at 10:19 am

    I just finished reading the comments from yesterday’s post, and I am completely exhausted. After reading today’s post I’m trying imagine how I’ll feel after I read the Zevon book. Probably like my ride’s here.

    Bravo on yesterday, from one who came to this blog via the original bad-but-famous writer, Mr. G.

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  2. brian stouder said on May 8, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    the original bad-but-famous writer, Mr. G.


    Al Gore?

    Sanjay Gupta?

    Jimmy the Greek?

    Alan Greenspan?

    Joe Garagiola?

    Leaving that aside – I know a few people who really, really like Warren Zevon’s stuff – so I shared with them the book review that Madam Telling Tales linked to her nightstand; and the subject uniformly drew introspective, wistful comments

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  3. Eric B. said on May 8, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Wow, I never put it together the Warren Zevon-journalist connection. It explains much.

    Humor and newspapers … I seem to remember one of those Readership Institute surveys from a couple of years ago that addressed this. It was one of those things that told newspapers what to do to stay relevant, and which newspaper management always talks about and ultimately ignores (like, skip celebrity coverage). At one point, the Institute suggested that newspapers try to take themselves less seriously, which I suppose was originally the reason why you’d hire a humor columnist in the first place (see … we’re fun!).

    I don’t know, in an age where there isn’t much competition for local readers, humorous writing seems like an extravagence. Besides, writers who are genuinely and consistently funny are pretty far and few between.

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  4. Kirk said on May 8, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Maybe this will help you on Mr. G., Brian: bad writer, bad toupee

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  5. brian stouder said on May 8, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    bad writer, bad toupee


    Well, thinking locally, a dark cloud suddenly enveloped me – and then it hit me!

    But if I’m wrong about that, then the question arises – Jerry Glanville writes?

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  6. LA mary said on May 8, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Does his first name rhyme with glob?

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  7. Kirk said on May 8, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    I’m betting you’re on it, LA mary.

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  8. Alice said on May 8, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the book review, I hadn’t heard about it & since I’m a long time fan of his, I’ll have to read it.

    Not to step on your “small-c” toes but the fact that Zevon is dead & Dick Cheney still stalks the earth pretty much cemented my feelings that there is no god.

    I enjoy the blog. Will be checking it out more.

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  9. brian stouder said on May 8, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Oh! I must be wrong then – since my local first name rhymed with wank

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  10. Dorothy said on May 8, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Stop it, you guys. You’re making my face hurt from smiling so much! Somebody’s gonna figure out I’m not actually working…

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  11. LA mary said on May 8, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    This month’s Los Angeles Magazine has an article about Warren Zevon and it’s full of appalling and sad anecdotes, quotes from Crystal Zevon and Bruce Springsteen, and others.
    There’s also an article about the LA Academic Decathalon, something our household was involved in for months. The article focuses on a high school in a rough neighborhood and their shot at the decathalon this year, and that’s swell, but they paint the three schools who in the past have won nationally as rich, anglo schools. Ain’t so. My son was the only Anglo on the team of one of those schools, and every kid I knew on that team was not from the neighborhood the school was in. They were mostly low income overachiever kids there in the magnet or AP programs. The team had a budget of next to nothing, scraping up bus money for meets from parents and a couple of alums. At one time or another I probably gave every kid on the team. a ride home. They were from Lincoln Heights and Chinatown and Glassel Park, and the parents didn’t speak English.
    They finished seventh in the state, by the way, no small accomplishment.
    Go Barristers.

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  12. Danny said on May 8, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Hey, youz journalists. I have a question regarding hyper-local or niche daily’s, weekly’s and the like. We have a few here in San Diego. The Reader and Competitor Magazine (a monthly endurance sports mag that may be national). You can buy mail-delivery subscritions, but they are free otherwise and there are many places around town to pick them up. It’s all ad revenue that sustains them. Kinda like most online content, but with more overhead, obviously.

    Is this the way the locals papaers are going to go? And what sort of money is paid to writers and reporters at these gigs? Support a household type of money?

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  13. Danny said on May 8, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    Brian – another clue. The writer’s first name is an anagram. But a really, really simple reversal one. Did I mention it was simple?

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  14. Kirk said on May 8, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Beg no beer.

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  15. 4dbirds said on May 8, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    I also found this blog through a linked piece Nancy wrote on Mr. G.

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  16. nancy said on May 8, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    I owe the as-yet-unnamed writer — oh, OK, it was Bob Greene — a lot. That blog entry, batted out in about 20 minutes and one I thought might be seen by 80 people, was my first brush with coast-to-coast internet exposure. It was also the central anecdote in my application essay for my KW fellowship, and was much-discussed in my interview.

    Did I say I owe him a lot? No, I don’t. But I would say that after years of reading his atrocious columns, the benefit I got from making fun of him evened the scales.

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  17. Scout said on May 8, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    I can hardly believe that your readership is (or was) so small. It is one of my daily must reads. I always think everybody else is doing what I’m doing. I’m silly that way.

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  18. MichaelG said on May 8, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    I owe Bob Greene the same nod since it was the Greene Piece (yuk, yuk) that introduced me to Nance’s blog.

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  19. Danny said on May 8, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Scout, what’s the minimum resolution one should use to scan hard copy photos for digital archival? These are my family stuff. I want to make a pristine digital record to keep them safe from age damage and catastrophe.

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  20. Connie said on May 8, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    I too originally came here via Mr. Green. A long time ago. As I read yesterday’s comments I was thinking, hey you people think she’s being hard on Lileks? You ought to see her get going on Bob Green or Mitch Albom.

    I was also thinking how quick all these strangers were to criticize anything and everything, not just the words, but even the web page design. Oh well.

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  21. nancy said on May 8, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    Well, it was five years ago, Scout. But thanks.

    This just in: Lileks’ (rumored) salary for the Daily Quirk — $92,000. Wow. Can newspaper management BE any worse?

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  22. Danny said on May 8, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    Yeah Connie, except the ones that hated Lileks (and probably conservatives). They thought everything was brilliant and peachy.

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  23. Danny said on May 8, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Hmm.. 92K? Solidly middle-class if that is his main bread. What do you think his total earnings are? I know most say that the online stuff is gratis. Any substantial book revenues or lecture circuits.

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  24. John said on May 8, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Seems the storm has past and left debris in its wake. And now our hostess has a new title, “That Nall person, the dragon slagger”.

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  25. Kat Coble said on May 8, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Lileks’ (rumored) salary for the Daily Quirk — $92,000.

    WHA?!? And I even like the guy, but I don’t think that the DQ was anywhere worth that amount of money.

    But I came to talk about Zevon.

    I honestly don’t think I can read the book.

    Okay, I want to read the book because I love Zevon. But I’ve loved him for more than two decades now and I can’t honestly say that I’d be surprised by the general behaviour. He was a rock star in the 70s, which is pretty much synonomous with general debauchery. I just don’t know that I want to dwell on the details of that debauchery .

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  26. nancy said on May 8, 2007 at 4:12 pm


    The bad behavior continued well into the ’90s, unfortunately.

    And Danny, 92K is solidly middle class in Cali, but in the Midwest, and especially in newspapers, that’s extremely generous. That’s a salary that gets a target on your back, unless you’re management.

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  27. LA mary said on May 8, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    I was going to say pretty much the same thing. 92k here in the land of 1200 square foot houses going for a half a mil, and 3.55 per gallon gas is not the same thing as it is in Minnesota.

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  28. basset said on May 8, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    Zevon hit women. That’s all I need to know right there. Drunk I can handle, been there, seen that. Writer, well, he did some interesting stuff but it wasn’t exactly Lennon & McCartney, or even Jackson Browne.

    So what you have here, from the few records of his I’m familiar with, a minute or so watching his mortal remains propped up on Letterman, and the half-hour or so I spent skimming the book in Borders, was an occasionally witty and entertaining, and often obnoxious and arrogant, f***up who never quite got his life together.

    And he got drunk and punched his wife in the face. How avant-garde, how postmodern, how creative, what an example to any artiste. The stuff of which legend is made, no doubt.

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  29. ashley said on May 8, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    And for me…it was my Zevon page that introduced me to Ms. Nall-Derringer. Thanks, Warren.

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  30. MarkH said on May 8, 2007 at 10:56 pm

    Wow, basset; just as I was trying to find the words….

    Each to his own taste, I suppose. I saw Zevon once (the Agora, Columbus, ’79) at the insistence of an advertising buddy who extoled his live performances. Hmmm…

    Then I found out my buddy had a hand in promoting the concert, so I knew HIS motives and was even less impressed. But, he had a good crowd that night, so I’m sure he was loved.

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  31. Phoenix Woman said on May 9, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    Well, it was five years ago, Scout. But thanks.

    This just in: Lileks’ (rumored) salary for the Daily Quirk — $92,000. Wow. Can newspaper management BE any worse?

    That’s McClatchy for you. They got severe indigestion buying up Knight-Ridder, which forced them to sell off their crown jewel and top moneymaker to Avista.

    (By the way: Save a copy of that Rake piece; The Rake itself’s about to go under.)

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  32. Mike Berry said on May 11, 2007 at 11:26 am

    I’ve read the Zevon biography, am ambivalent about much of it but think it’s a worthwhile endeavor. It’s not the redemptive story put forward in the VH1 documentary, but the truth is always more complicated than we want it to be.

    The book also reminded me of the anger I felt when Zevon’s good friend Hunter Thompson committed suicide. I believe people in extremis do have a right to plan their own departure, but you don’t get to do it with your wife on the phone and your grandson in the next room. Zevon’s behavior was often reprehensible, but at least there’s a sense that he tried to make amends up until the very end.

    As for Lileks, I enjoy his writing about pop culture but think he went over the deep end with his political stuff after 9/11. (“The terrorists are coming to Minneapolis to kill MY CHILD!!!!!”)

    The Reporting-in-My-Jammies-and-Slippers crowd are always the first to go in a newspaper reorg. He must have seen it coming and will probably land safely. I don’t begrudge him that.

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  33. Terry Karney said on May 16, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Thanks. I’ve been to shows, pounding along. I miss him, and was irked at Letterman that it took so long to get to two songs; moreso because I thought the questions to be typical Letterman.

    I wasn’t planning to buy the book, now I think I shall.

    And, as an aside, I love the title, because I’ve been a valet.


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  34. Brian said on May 16, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Hey Nancy –

    I’m another Fort Wayne expat. (Escapee?) I’m so happy that you’re doing well and you’ve found a medium where the quality of your readers might just rise to the level of your work.

    Great piece on Zevon.


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