Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excitable Boy

Though he wrote sensitive and intelligent songs that earned the admiration of such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon’s reputation as a hard-drinking wild man couldn’t help but leak through into his work. To most listeners, he was the monster howling at the moon in his only real hit record “Werewolves of London”, the psychotic necrophile of “Excitable Boy”, the sexual adventurer of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”. Even songs that created fictional characters that are less likely to be autobiographical – like “The Envoy” (inspired by diplomat Philip Habib) or “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, a collaboration with an ex-mercenary turned bartender in Spain - hinge on sudden violence and a sense of paranoia.
In the last year of his life, when his incurable cancer became public knowledge and his many friends and admirers in the music industry stepped in to help him produce his final album “The Wind”, the public saw a much softer Zevon, humbled but courageous as he tried to remain focused on his music in the face of deathI’m OK with it” he told a reporter. . “But it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it until the next James Bond movie comes out.” (Unfortunately, that turned out to be Die Another Day…)
The real story behind Zevon - the public troublemaker of the 70s, the mellowed realist of the end and everything in between – is far more complicated, as Crystal Zevon, his wife from 1974 through 1981, reveals in her vivid, messy and compulsively readable biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon”(Ecco Press, $26.95).
A child prodigy who studied scores with Stravinsky, Zevon escaped a broken home (He claimed that he and Sam Peckinpah were the only people who ever really made it out of Fresno) and entered the music business in a fairly conventional way, cutting a few records in the 60s, working as an in-house songwriter for White Whale Records (he wrote the B-side of the Turtles’ hit “Happy Together”) and gradually finding his own musical voice while working as bandleader for the Everly Brothers. As his own songs started to get noticed, he launched a solo career that won critical acclaim (he was named “Songwriter of the Year” by Rolling Stone in 1978) but never quite received the commercial success he deserved.
But at the same time that Zevon’s career was peaking, he was also giving in to alcoholism in the worst way. He was a mean drunk, eventually becoming violent and suffering from blackouts that prevented him from knowing just how far he had gone. His wife left him (and later faced her own drinking problem, as she reveals in the book), his record company lost interest and he more or less gave up on music and life, moving to Philadelphia (where he had an occasional girlfriend) and refusing to communicate with former friends and family.
Somewhere in the middle of the ‘80s, a new agent managed to revive Zevon’s interest in music, get him into rehab (it took more than one go, needless to say) and revive his career, although his audience would remain relatively small and loyal from that point on. But “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” isn’t the standard how-he-fought-his-demons-and-won story. Far from it. While sobriety probably kept Zevon from an early grave, he was hardly the typical AA success story. (Though he remained sober for 18 years, he became disillusioned with the traditional 12-step organizations, once telling someone that “I felt like my reward for getting sober was I didn’t have to see those people again”.) The drinking had stopped, but Zevon managed to replace it with other flaws and addictions, a running stream of female conquests and an emerging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him wearing only grey clothing, making sure that the only money he carried was “lucky” and sending assistants out to buy cigarettes but making sure that the Surgeon General notice on the package didn’t mention “the C-word.”
But in spite of his compulsions, Zevon continued to write excellent songs and make records that some would call his finest. When he was finally diagnosed with untreatable cancer in 2002, it was almost painfully ironic, given the laughing-at-death persona that had shaped so many of his earlier songs. His response was typically complex, on one hand focusing on producing an exceptional album “The Wind”, which would serve as his final artistic testament, on the other, lapsing back into drinking after nearly two decades of sobriety. He lived long enough to see his first grandchildren born, died before “The Wind” received two Grammys (he had told Crystal that his death would earn a Grammy nomination). And so it goes.
Crystal Zevon’s book, drawn from interviews with friends and excerpts from Zevon’s own journals, is brutally honest, admirably nonjudgmental and, in the long run, remarkably evocative of just how difficult and brilliant Zevon was. Though ultimately limited by the boundaries of its Rashomon-like approach and plagued by a few minor editorial flaws (It’s Al Kooper, not Cooper!), it makes Zevon’s crazy genius come alive and sends you right back to his best work, the great songs that reflect and reveal his sad, troubled and ultimately excitable life.

1 comment:

NattyCAt said...

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