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.