That his ex-wife of nearly 30 years could carry out his last wish and write a full, frank account of Warren Zevon’s "Dirty Life and Times" is a clue to the effect that Zevon had on those around him. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is harrowing, amusing, bizarre, touching and honest. Through the recollections of those who were closest to him at various points through his life, Crystal Zevon has painted a portrait of a man who – more than many others in this world of cliche and lazy hyperbole – had earned the mantle of tortured genius.
Some of the most disturbing sequences occur during the alcohol fueled seventies when Zevon’s impact on his young family and close friends is writ large and, in turn, his wife and both children had to face similar dependencies and the insecurities endowed by their errant, absent father. Elsewhere, the image of a deeply insecure, egotistical man plagued by headaches and prone to the most selfish of actions is difficult to love. However, Zevon could also be incredibly generous and caring. His closest friends were depely devoted to him. He was sensitive and deeply guilt-ridden over his past behaviours. He was literate and musical. A talented multi-instrumentalist, he could score full band arrangements and seemed more content when discussing literature with authors and book-store owners than amongst his chosen rock and roll fraternity. He was also a man of bizarre superstition and Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour driven habits. He could go through a dozen cans of Mountain Dew until he found a "lucky" one. Everywhere he went, he shopped for grey Calvin Klein T-shirts – he never wore them and a closet full of plastic wrapped t-shirts was shared amongst his family after his death. And perhaps most bitterly ironic, the mention of the word "cancer" would require him to return or dispose of everything he had purchased that day: clothes, food, drink – all was deemed unlucky. Finally persuaded to overcome his phobia and visit a doctor, Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given two months to live.
Most of all though, Warren Zevon wrote the most literate, touching and insightful songs in the canon of modern music. He was happy to draw on historical and contemporary references or to twist cliche into new revelations:
"Home is just a place to hang your head" Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead
"Love conquers all, you can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun" Searching For A Heart
"Your face looked like something Death brought with him in his suitcase" The French Inhaler
He wrote blackly humorous satire and achingly beautiful, self-effacing ballads. Above all else, this book sent me back to his music and that is a legacy which needs to be shared more broadly.