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