I recently finished
a book called "I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon."
It’s a collection of reminiscences, a sort of oral history, by the people who knew him: his kids, his
writing and playing partners, his friends, quite a few ex-girlfriends, etc.
Now, I’ve been a Zevon fan since his self-titled album came
out in 1976. I’m one of the few people I know who actually owns a copy of Transverse City. The man’s music has had a
major effect on me and, I think, on my writing.
But in reading this book, I can
only come to one conclusion: the guy was a raging asshole,
I’m not talking "lovable scamp" here. I’m talking
about mean, selfish, manipulative, egomaniacal, emotionally and on occasion
physically abusive, and a pretty horrible dad to his
kids, at least when they were little.
To be fair, Zevon did
improve some once he quit drinking. The book also details moments of great
tenderness and generosity on his part. And I give him all due respect for telling Crystal Zevon. his
ex-wife and mother of his kids, to write the book and to tell it all, even the
bad stuff. But on the whole, while reading the book, I just kept thinking “this
was a guy who really needed his ass kicked, perhaps more than once.”
The guy was also a freakin’ genius. If all you’ve heard of Warren Zevon is
his novelty hit “Werewolves of London,” you really ought to check out the
three albums that kicked off his career (Warren Zevon, Excitable Boy, and Bad Luck Streak in Dancing
School) as well as his last three (Life’ll Kill Ya, My Ride’s Here, and the
phenomenal The Wind, recorded in the last year of his life.) There are plenty of over the top gonzo anthems, like
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” “Excitable
Boy,” or “Basket Case” (written with Carl Hiassen):
My baby’s gonna
I’m being dragged
through the nuthouse gates
Got my straitjacket on
and I’m taking her place
My baby is a basket
But Zevon could also
write songs that could only be described as brutally compassionate. like his noir take on Marilyn Monroe, “The
We both came down with
an acute case
When the lights came
up at 2:00
I caught a glimpse of
And your face looked
like something Death brought in in his suitcase
Your pretty face
Looked so wasted,
Another pretty face
(Makes “Candle in the Wind” look kind of candy-ass, doesn’t
Nothing I’ve read about Warren Zevon can detract from my
love for his music (well, most of it. The aforementioned Transverse City is just a mess). But the book got me thinking about how many great artists were,
to say the least, very hard on the
people around them. Jackson Pollock springs immediately to mind, as does Jerry Lee Lewis. And there are some people I
know for whom finding out the sordid details of an artist’s personal life
detracts from their enjoyment of that artist’s work. I actually once heard a person I’d already regarded as pretty literate say she hadn’t read Fitzgerald because "why would I read some drunk?"
How about you, ‘Rati? Has your perception of an artist’s work ever been affected by your knowledge that he or she was a world-class asshole? What is
the connection, if any, between being a great artist and a terrible person?
And, if I was a bigger jerk, could I sell more books? Because I could be, you know (and yes, I know I’m leaving myself
wide open here; take your best shots).