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I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

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When Warren Zevon died in 2003, he left behind a rich catalog of dark, witty rock 'n' roll classics, including "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Excitable Boy," and the immortal "Werewolves of London." He also left behind a fanatical cult following and veritable rock opera of drugs, women, celebrity, genius, and epic bad behavior. As Warren once said, "I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did."

Narrated by his former wife and longtime co-conspirator, Crystal Zevon, this ...

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I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Life and Times of Warren Zevon

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When Warren Zevon died in 2003, he left behind a rich catalog of dark, witty rock 'n' roll classics, including "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Excitable Boy," and the immortal "Werewolves of London." He also left behind a fanatical cult following and veritable rock opera of drugs, women, celebrity, genius, and epic bad behavior. As Warren once said, "I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did."

Narrated by his former wife and longtime co-conspirator, Crystal Zevon, this intimate and unusual oral history draws on interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stephen King, Bonnie Raitt, and numerous others who fell under Warren's mischievous spell. Told in the words and images of the friends, lovers, and legends who knew him best, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead captures Warren Zevon in all his turbulent glory.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"But I'm bound for glory
I'm on my way
My ride's here..."

The "ride" Zevon is referring to is driven by the Grim Reaper; and unfortunately for his many fans, that ride showed up way too early, driving off with the "excitable boy" when he was only 56. Luckily, before he passed, Zevon empowered his ex-wife, Crystal, to write his life story -- making her promise to focus on the good aspects as well as the bad. And man, was he bad! A vodka-quaffing, gun-toting substance abuser who beat his wife and rarely interacted with his children, Zevon was a bona fide poster boy for sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Amazingly, he sobered up for most of the last 17 years of his life, reconciled with his children, and completed his masterpiece album, The Wind, before succumbing to lung cancer. Crafted as an oral biography narrated by the likes of Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Zevon's children, and his past lovers, to name just a few, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is a testament to one of America's greatest songwriters: a genius who straddled the fence between good and evil.
Mitch Albom
“Zevon...was a brilliant, funny, biting, tender storyteller...and [this] will keep him in your heart.”
Dave Barry
“This is an extraordinary book — unflinchingly honest, scarily funny, relentlessly cynical and always immensely entertaining. Just like Warren Zevon.”
Bruce Springsteen
“A moralist in cynic’s clothing, Zevon nails a part of the American character rarely captured in pop music.”
Gore Vidal
“Warren Zevon...was one of the most interesting writers of the era, and certainly ahead of his time. ”
Jackson Browne
“A harrowing ride through the backstreets of the L.A. music business with the King of Song Noir.”
Time Out Chicago
“It’s a frank account of yet another great talent taken down by his own demons.”
Harp Magazine
“… that’s what this book is about—humanizing this mythic character”
Orlando Sentinel
“Crystal Zevon succeeds in channeling Warren Zevon, giving us a complete, engrossing picture of a compelling artist.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“[It’s] a satisfyingly sordid read that’s full of bad behavior…”
Rolling Stone
“[A] new, riveting oral history... unflinching interviews with his friends, admirers and fellow hell-raisers.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“It’s a lurid, page-turning read, filled with big successes and deep lows.”
Seattle Times
“...the book [is] a tender song in itself.”
Bangor Daily News
“…packed full of... the cynical humor for which Warren Zevon was so famous.”
“This often searing, humorous, and brutally honest book captures him at his best and his worst.”
New York Times Book Review
“…I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead definitely piles up enough horrendous behavior to back the title’s claim.”
Birmingham News
“… a grisly but fascinating rock ‘n’ roll journal…”
Philadelphia Daily News
“.. a fascinating collection of anecdotes... as assembled by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon. ”
Entertainment Weekly
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead turns out to be one of the most casually insightful rock bios ever.” Grade: A-
Los Angeles Magazine
“Few books have captured so well the L.A. rock and roll scene in all its mindlessness and eloquence.”
New York Times
“... an unforgettable journey into the depths of Mr. Zevon’s mad genius.”
Los Angeles Times
“ The book reveals a smartass satirist . . . as bankrupt as the characters he documented in his songs.”
Janet Maslin
… [Ms. Zevon's] affection, candor and dogged pursuit of information make this book an unforgettable journey into the depths of Mr. Zevon’s mad genius. There is much for Ms. Zevon to balk at, but she has the temerity for this tough job.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

For those who know them, the brilliant, dark songs of Warren Zevon (1947-2003) inspire nothing short of adoration; for those who don't, this stunning biography of the irrepressible rock 'n' roll singer/songwriter should send them sprinting to the nearest record store. By taking an unexpurgated oral history approach to Warren's life, his former wife and lifelong friend, Crystal, has crafted a sharp, funny, jaw-dropping rock biography that's among the best of the subgenre. Provocative and unflinching, her account distills Warren's journal entries along with exhaustive interviews with 87 family members, business associates, band mates, fellow musicians and former lovers into a chronology that ranges from Warren's ancestry to his death, at age 56, from lung cancer. The impetus for the book was Warren himself-he implored Crystal to tell his story and to "promise you'll tell 'em the whole truth, even the awful, ugly parts." The awful, ugly parts turn up often: Warren's addictions (to alcohol, drugs and sex), personal demons (intense obsessive compulsion and commitment phobia) and paternal shortcomings (to him, kids were nuisances) all get plenty of play here. But so does Warren's music, for which peers like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Shaffer offer plenty of insight. This top-notch biography is a must-read for fans, and a highly rewarding read for anyone interested in a close look at the life of a modern rock icon. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

When Warren Zevon died in 2003, the rock world lost one of its most raucous "excitable boys" and a brilliant singer/songwriter. Zevon's many memorable songs, ranging from "Werewolves of London" to "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," poke fun at the rock'n'roll lifestyle and offer raw, cynical commentary on late 20th-century society. Interweaving the remembrances of Zevon's many friends with entries from his own journals, Crystal, his widow, presents an intimate look at Zevon's wild life of drugs, women, and music. Among others, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King, and the Everly Brothers, with whom Zevon got his start, share reminiscences. A former girlfriend, Merle Ginsberg, captures Zevon best: "The happiest I ever saw Warren was when he was in the recording studio. He came alive and he was a different person." One day there might be a definitive biography that analyzes Zevon's music, but for now this quasi memoir brings him back to life in all his dazzling genius. All pop music collections need this book.
—Henry L. Carrigan

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060763497
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/6/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 452
  • Sales rank: 178,303
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Crystal Zevon is Warren Zevon's former wife and lifelong friend. She lives in Vermont near her daughter, son-in-law, and twin grandsons.

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Table of Contents

Foreword   Carl Hiaasen     xi
My Ride's Here     1
Piano Fighter
Wild Age     9
Poor Poor Pitiful Me     19
The French Inhaler     36
Frank and Jesse James     54
Werewolves of London     69
Backs Turned Looking Down the Path     81
When Johnny Strikes Up the Band     99
Mohammed's Radio     117
Lawyers, Guns and Money
Tenderness on the Block     129
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead     144
Empty-Handed Heart     158
Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School     169
Play It All Night Long     185
Detox Mansion     201
Bed of Coals     209
Splendid Isolation     222
Down in the Mall     233
Searching for a Heart     251
Fistful of Rain     263
Mr. Bad Example     274
Worrier King     288
Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse     300
The Indifference of Heaven     310
Mutineer     321
For My Next Trick I'll Need a Volunteer     336
Life'll Kill Ya     351
Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)     367
Don't Let Us Get Sick
My Shit's Fucked Up     381
My Dirty Life and Times     391
Ourselves to Know     397
Don't Let Us Get Sick     414
Keep Me in Your Heart for a While     425
Who's Who     433
Acknowledgments     449
Credits and Permissions     453
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First Chapter

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon

Chapter One

Wild Age

You've seen him leaning on the streetlight
Listening to some song inside
You've seen him standing by the highway
Trying to hitch a ride
Well, they tried so hard to hold him
Heaven knows how hard they tried
But he's made up his mind
He's the restless kind

He's the wild age

Warren's father, William Rubin Zivotofsky, was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1903. His father, Rubin, left for New York in 1905, and the Zivotofskys of Ukraine became the Zevons of Brooklyn.

Of his childhood, there was only one story Willie Zevon told when asked:

William "Stumpy" Zevon: Life was shit. We were poor, and it was either too hot or too cold. There was never enough room to move around in, and never enough food to eat. My best memory is one birthday. I was around ten, and my father came home with a cucumber. We never tasted a cucumber, and he took out his knife and divided it up. We each got a slice. It was cool and it tasted like candy to us. What did we know? We never had candy. That was the best birthday I remember. What I knew was I had to get out of that shithole. And, I did.

Sandy Zevon, Warren's first cousin: Willie and the youngest brother, Hymie, left New York and headed West. Willie was in his mid-teens. Their first stop was Chicago. They got into some gambling business. Sam Giancana, the famous mobster, put him into some shady business . . . It was like a Damon Runyon story.

In 1946, when Willie was forty-two, he met an innocenttwenty-one-year-old beauty, Beverly Simmons, in Fresno, California. Although she had been born with a congenital heart condition and had always lived under the protective wing of her overbearing Mormon mother, Beverly believed she had found a "diamond in the rough."

Warren Zevon was born on January 24, 1947, in Chicago. His parents had a rocky marriage from the start. Beverly was after a family life that would prove impossible for Stumpy to handle. Throughout his childhood, Warren was passed back and forth between his parents as they fought bitterly, separated, got back together, then split again.

When Warren was nine years old, his father made a rare visit to Fresno, where Warren and his mother were living next door to Beverly's parents. On Christmas Eve, Stumpy disappeared for a night of gambling. He returned on Christmas morning, with a Chickering piano he had won in a poker game. Beverly was furious and ordered his "headache machine" removed from her house.

Warren wanted that piano. He silently cheered on Stumpy as he grabbed a carving knife meant for the turkey that wasn't even in the oven yet. It was the chilling image of Stumpy's poker face as he hurled the knife at Beverly's head that made a lasting impression on Warren. Time stood still as he watched the lethal blade miss his mother's head by no more than an inch. Without a word, Beverly stalked out the door and went to her parents' house down the block.

After his mother left, Warren's father sat him down on the piano bench, and they had their first ever father-to-son talk. He said, "Son, you know I gotta go. She's your mother, so I guess you gotta stay. But, there's something you better know. Your mother and your grandmother have been telling you you're the pope of Rome, right? Well, you ain't never going to be no pope, you know why? Because you're a Jew. You hear me, son? You're a Jew. Don't ever forget that."

By the time Warren was ready to enter junior high school, his father had charmed his mother into leaving Fresno to try living together again—this time in a lavish home with an ocean view in San Pedro, California.

Crystal Zevon: Warren began studying music with the Dana Junior High School band teacher, who also worked as a classical session player—a trumpet player. His teacher believed that Warren had a quality that set him apart, so he took Warren to a Robert Craft/Igor Stravinsky recording session—a day that left an indelible stamp on Warren's life and music.

From Warren's notes: I went [to Stravinsky's home] several times. Five or six times. So, I met Stravinsky, and talked to him, and sat on the couch with him. We read scores and he and Robert Craft inspired me to study conductors and conducting. But in no way was I an intimate friend of his. I was thirteen years old. In the latest definitive biography about Stravinsky, written by Robert Craft, there is a reference to me and my visits. Craft's description is pretty accurate. He, in fact, commends me for not claiming to have had a close relationship with Stravinsky. Although, I must admit, I haven't always dissuaded the press if they chose to make a little more of it than there actually was. He was very gracious to me, and the experience is one of my most treasured and inspirational memories.

Robert Craft, excerpted from his original typescript entitled "My Recollections of Warren Zevon": . . . I remember him [Warren Zevon] very clearly as he arrived late one afternoon at the Stravinsky Hollywood home, 1260 North Wetherly Drive. Though he seemed much younger than I had anticipated, he was self-possessed and articulate far beyond his years. After some conversation, I played recordings of contemporary pieces, not available commercially and unknown to him. He was keenly attentive and his responses were unambiguous; very young people are always judgmental, of course, but he supported his judgments with acute arguments. We followed scores of Stockhausen's Gruppen and Carree as we listened to air-checks of German radio performances.

After an hour or so, Stravinsky came into the room—his living room—and I made introductions. As always, Stravinsky was warm and hospitable, and Mr. Zevon, whatever he felt and thought, was in perfect control. Part of Stravinsky's late—afternoon . . .

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
. Copyright © by Crystal Zevon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 15 of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2007

    Crystal's Revenge

    I wanted to love this Zevon biography, but in reading I found 'Sleep' to be evocative of bio's written by Kitty Kelly and Albert Goldman. Although based in truth, the book takes on an aura of the confabulations of a pained ex-wife. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead was edited with an agenda to portray the dark charming cruel genius, Zevon, and his long suffering 'witnesses.' His journals were cannibalized in this effort, and interviews were edited to help paint this compelling portrait. I felt somewhat manipulated and uncomfortable while reading, wondering what was true and what was distorted to make the book juicy. Then I was dumbstruck when I read of a longtime lover, identified by a nickname, and described by Representative Steve Cohen she was someone I knew. Without offense she is mentioned in several Zevon journal excerpts by both the nickname and her real name. But Cohen's flippant description of her is slanderous, uncalled-for, and not true. I was taken aback that a man in public office would so casually speak words that tag him as a misogynist. This unfortunate book passage omits the fact that the female 'neighbor' (the woman I know) had reached out to the then, Senator Steve, while she was on the East Coast caring for her dying parents. She wanted to know how her terminally ill friend was doing. She was not coming from the point of a desperate woman. It appears to me that Cohen, in an effort to aggrandize his status as a friend and confidant to Warren Zevon within 'Sleep', casually sacrificed this woman and negatively stereotyped her. Cohen even calls this woman he's never seen, 'apparently not very attractive.' Believe me, my friend is extremely attractive (I¿d even say she¿s `hot¿), and even if Cohen was an Adonis, which he certainly is not, this is just plain mean spirited. All of this brings the question, who else has been sacrificed for the tone of the book ? -- Perhaps Warren, himself? And why would Crystal and her editors put this story in the book, when so much was cut? In 'Sleep' Rep Steve Cohen also speaks of this neighbor's beloved father with inappropriate abandon, and claims Warren wouldn't speak to her. To prove my point, when I called her with condolences for the passing of Warren and her father, she allowed me to access her voice mail to hear Warren's moving, caring message of support he left her shortly before he died. It's my guess that to Crystal and her editors, portraying a desperate woman victimized by Warren into a longtime limited relationship is perceived as more interesting to the readers than a hot vivacious gal choosing to set limits for her own satisfaction. Because of this personal insight, I have a hard time taking this book as any kind of fact. Like some of the cruel postings Warren read online, that made him cringe, this book does the same thing not only to the late Warren Zevon, but also to some of his true friends. So read it if you must, but remember from whence it came.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 1, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Reading this book is ...

    ... like watching a train wreck. You don't want to watch, but you can't tear your eyes away. A long time admirer of Zevon's music, I already knew he was a bad boy, but this book left me with no room for illusions. Zevon may have been a genius, but he wasn't a very nice man. Egocentricity, arrogance and selfishness ruled him, and this book explains how that worked. As for the author, his ex-wife: I do believe she understood him in a way that many could not. Perhaps because she posesses some of the same personality problems?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2011

    Warts, but not much else.

    "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." is not sold as a "my life with a celebrity" story, but often reads like one. I found it way over packed with ex-wife Crystal Zevon's personal baggage. Warren comes off as a pathetic Squonk. The narrative is mainly told through short blurbs by people who were on the scene and pages from Warren's journals. But, Crystal seems overly concerned with the women Warren balled, abused and abandoned. She chooses to begin and end the tale with death. I kind of think of Warren Zevon as a fun guy, but I didn't get a lot of that vibe from this bio. There must be some reason people love Warren Zevon, but found the character painted in this book extremely unlovable. I don't get it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2013

    An honest man

    Warren Zevon's story is told through diary entries and tales from many of those who shared his life journey.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2007

    Fantastic fast can't put it down honest painful read

    One of the best books I've picked up in years. Crystal Zevon seems to have honered Warrens request by not cleaning up the dirt and being heartbreakingly honest on who and how he was. If you a fan of Warren's music it will hurt but enlighten!!

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