Dirty Lives and Times

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.”

And yet… 

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
) 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
French Inhaler”: 

Loneliness and

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).


23 thoughts on “Dirty Lives and Times

  1. Victor Gischler

    Zevon = Awesome.

    I even think Transverse City had some good moments. My friends and I could be heard singing “Run Straight Down” quite often on a Saturday night.

    The live version of “Piano Fighter” kicks ass.


  2. Patrick Shawn Bagley

    And Transverse City does contain my theme song: “Splendid Isolation.”

    I got to see Zevon live at Sugarloaf, ME in the early ’90s. It was a great, stripped-down show, just him with a 12-string guitar and his piano.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I stopped running out to see Woody Allen’s films after the revelations of his extremely inappropriate relationships with his stepchildren. It cast a pall over some of his films for me (looking at Manhattan in the light of his personal life) and made me not very interested in what he had to say.

    On the other hand, it’s a troubling thing that some writers do their best work under the influence. We don’t want that to be true, but for some people, it’s undeniable.

  4. Patrick Shawn Bagley

    There is a certain senior and well-respected poet whose work I very much admire, but is by all accounts a complete asshole. Doesn’t stop me from buying his books, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

  5. Donna

    I can’t listen to anything by Gary Glitter any more. As far as authors are concerned, if I meet someone at a convention and they’re a bit of an arsehole it doesn’t stop me from buying their books. If they’re a total arsehole then that might be different. Luckily, the only person that has ever struck me as a total arsehole, I got a free book by this person in a convention bookbag once, read it and didn’t like it (and my dislike was nothing to do with how much an arsehole the author was, his book just wasn’t for me).

    On the other side of the coin, I’ve often bought books by authors whose books are not necessarily my taste, but who are nice people. I just give them to someone I know will appreciate the book.


  6. J.D. Rhoades

    Well, I’ll give TC another listen and see if time has mellowed my opinion of it at all. And yeah, Victor, Piano Fighter does kick ass…are you talking about the version on Learning to Flinch?

  7. Rae

    It’s a really interesting question – can a bad human create valid art – and one I’ve never been able to decisively answer for myself.

    One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read is Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. And then I learned that Hamsun, a Nobel prize winner, thought the Nazis were just swell. It tarnished the book for me.

    I’ve only personally run across a couple of writers who were real jerks, and no, I don’t buy their books. Like Donna, I’ll happily buy the books of someone I like, whether or not their writing is my cup of tea.

  8. Victor Gischler

    JD, Yeah, Learning to Flinch. Great live album.

    I always thought Transverse City had a cool almost cyberpunk flavor … ish … kind sorta. Like it could have been the soundtrack to a collection of Philip K. Dick stories.


  9. Cara

    JD, nice hanging with you in South Carolina! Far as I’m concerned Werewolves of London rocks my boat and I don’t care about Warren’s life. Like Donna, if I met an author whose work I love and aspire to but appeared to exhibit ‘arsehole’ behavior I’d shrug and still read it and maybe wish I hadn’t met h/her. It’s all about the work.

  10. JDRhoades

    Well, Victor, that was the problem for me. I twas just jarring after hearing him do music that could be the soundtrack for Ross MacDonald.

    But I did have time to listen to “Run Straight Down” this morning, and the lyric: “4-Aminobiphenyl, hexachlorobenzeneDimethyl sulfate, chloromethyl methylether2, 3, 7, 8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, carbon disulfide” doesn’t irritate me as badly as it did on the first listen, even if the idea was totally ripped off from John Brunner.

    Rae: I wrestled woth the same problem with Ezra Pound. Great poet, but virulent anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator. How can you reconcile this?

  11. Joan Conwell

    This is a question that I reconsider often.

    When you look at creative genius and innovation on the level of, say, Picasso or Rodin or Pollack, writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, or even innovators in other fields like Einstein or Jung or Freud, they tended to suck the very life force out of the people around them for the sake of the work. The art is supreme, simply more important than relationships or morals.

    This is my personal theory of why more men than women achieve that level of accomplishment, there are simply more men than women willing to forfeit everything else for the sake of the work. When you look at the women who did (and I’m speaking past tense intentionally, it seems to be evening out)–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Janis Joplin and on and on, they didn’t fair so well. Patricia Highsmith lived to old age, but she hated everyone and everyone hated her.

    For me it’s constantly a matter of re-evaluation. What is absolutely sacred and not to be messed with, and what is fair game for exploitation?

  12. Doug Riddle

    Great post J.D…

    I came to the same conclusion after reading his bio, though I had heard hints of it previously, like some of his appearances on Letterman. But I never heard the guy deny the fact, so that gives some points.

    And isn’t “Carmelita” a noir story. Heck, I can close my eyes and see the movie. (Dwight Yokam does a fantastic version of this song on “Partners” with Flaco)

    Someone once said that nice, sane people don’t make great art. Maybe it’s true.


  13. Lori Armstrong

    If an artist becomes a political activist in the realm of their music and in public, it is a total turn off for me. Yes, they have the right to voice their opinion. I have the right to look for entertainment elsewhere.

    Don’t become a jerk. There are too many of them the way it is 🙂

  14. Rae

    JD, didn’t know that about Ezra Pound. Here’s another one – L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz, wrote newspaper columns advocating genocide against Native Americans. At the same time, he was a ataunch supporter of women’s suffrage. Imponderable……

  15. Rob Gregory Browne

    I have a real problem listening to anything by Michael Jackson. Okay, I was never a big fan anyway, but I think he’s a pop music genius. But anything good he had to offer was certainly destroyed by details of his private life.

    There’s an author I used to admire who treated a friend of mine very badly and I’ll never read another one of that author’s books.

    I was never a Zevon fan. But I don’t think creative genius gives artists the right to be assholes. Can I appreciate their work anyway? Maybe. But why should I even try?

    But then I’m sure you could find a few people on this earth who think I’m an asshole, too, so…

  16. Tom

    Rob, I think it’s less a matter of ‘feeling they have the right’ to be a rectal cavity than that they feel driven to behave that way. Doesn’t seem like there are choices involved in the behavior – more like tropisms.

    Was involved for several years with a woman who was a gifted pianist – and an utter monster too much of the time. She had no control over it, which is why I left.

    Which leads to painful questions about free will and the act of creation.

  17. Fran

    I suspect we’re inclined to be more forgiving of jackasses if they do truly create something impressive. If, however, they’re simply second-tier (except in their own minds, of course), then they’re just jerks, and I feel no guilt in blowing them off.

    There’s an author who treated a friend of mine rather badly, and while I disapprove of her actions, I really do admire her writing. But the author who was rude to me and whose writing I’m not that impressed by? Not only do I not buy his stuff, I actively don’t sell it. I don’t argue with people who love his work, I just don’t promote it.

    I just don’t see being nice to people as a weakness, and I’m afraid a lot of hubris-driven creative people do.

  18. G. T. Karber

    Not only do I own a copy of Transverse City…

    I was listening to it two hours ago, before reading this post. Most of it drives me crazy, but Splendid Isolation is one of his best songs, no question, and Networking is hella fun.

    I’ve read the book, too, and Warren Zevon was a huge asshole, but I don’t think it was something he liked being. It seemed to be another part of his neuroses, like his obsession with the color gray and weird definitions of what was lucky. It certainly hindered him more than helped.

    Someone on the official WZ messageboard told a story that I almost cried reading. Apparently in the 80s, they had gone to a Zevon concert and loved it. The man absolutely rocked. Later, the guy actually saw Zevon eating a sandwich at a sandwich bar, and the guy approached Warren and told him he had done a great show.

    What did Warren do? He told the guy to fuck off and asked him couldn’t he tell he was eating?

    Years later, the guy went to another Zevon concert. After the show, Zevon was selling T-shirts and albums and the such (he had never been hugely popular, but parts of the 90s were new lows), and the guy approached Warren and told him the story.

    Warren was horrified. He apologized profusely and told the guy that he could have free run on the merch, but the guy said no, no, don’t worry, he had told all of his friends the story, and everyone had loved it.

    Warren smiled, understanding, and told the guy to fuck off.

    I think that his being an asshole was a crucial part of his art, that it fueled a lot of the pain that drove his lyrics. There was a lot of fear and self-loathing in the man, and I think it manifested itself in him being an absolute dick to people. He certainly had an ego, but I don’t think that was the primary force: in fact, the one thing he never seemed to be a jerk about was he quality of his work. Everything I’ve ever read or heard him say about his own work is very self-deprecating, almost pathologically so.

    I could go on and on (I’ve written a paper about the man), but I’ll save you guys the time.

    Oh, one last thing: I spent a month in London last summer, and I went to Lee Ho Fook’s one day in the rain, no joke. They got a picture of Warren in the window, and I ordered the Beef Chow Mein. I took home a take-out menu, and it’s one of my prized possessions. Ah-ooh, indeed.

  19. Zoe Sharp

    Dusty – sorry to come horribly late to this. It’s been a hell of a week. Loved the post. Yes, it’s difficult to still enjoy an author’s work if they’re a total arse. Meeting one or two has spoiled their books for me, but I couldn’t possibly comment … 😉

    Song lyrics are often far more beautiful and succinct than prose. I always read the sleeve notes that contain them.

    And if you enjoyed the Matthew McConaughey version of Clive Cussler’s ‘Sahara’ DO NOT at all costs make the mistake of listening to the additional commentary by him and the director, Breck Eisner. McConaughey comes across as such a smug, self-satisfied git I haven’t been able to watch the film again since.

    And Stacey – “Everybody’s an asshole to somebody.” Brilliant! What a profound and somewhat humbling thought for all of us who stand up and speak in public …


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