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

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

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by Crystal 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


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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"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.

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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.

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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I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon 3.5 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 13 reviews.
LAPG More than 1 year ago
... 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?
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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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TheAnonymousDude More than 1 year ago
"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.
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Warren Zevon's story is told through diary entries and tales from many of those who shared his life journey.