I saw Warren Zevon perform once, at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, while he was touring for his ill-fated album "The Envoy." I wish I could remember more from the show, but I recall more about the drive from Brunswick than I do about his performance. Sometimes I wish my brain would retain what's important, rather than all the trivial crap that sticks with no problem at all.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about Zevon during the last two weeks. First I ran out and bought "Preludes," the double CD of recently discovered demos and rarities. Then I read "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," the new biography/oral history by his ex-wife Crystal Zevon.
I'm definitely glad I purchased the album, but I'm more ambivalent about the book. Of course, I'd read about Zevon's battle with alcoholism before, particularly in a famous "Rolling Stone" profile by Paul Nelson. But even that article, as hellish as much of it is, doesn't begin to hint at the bad behavior and wasted opportunities that Crystal Zevon reports. What's especially distressing are the ways in which Zevon neglected his kids and mistreated many of the women in his life.
Also disheartening is the account of his final fall of the wagon after 17 years of sobriety. Such a relapse is perfectly understandable, I guess, when you've been given three months to live after they've diagnosed you with mesolthelioma. I certainly can't judge him for it. But that's certainly not the redemptive story they told in the VH1 documentary about the making of his last album, "The Wind."
I mostly like the new biography, though, because it gives a fresh perspective on the creation of a catalogue of songs I really love and listen to often. I'm more interested in the stories behind "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and "Disorder in the House" than I am in what drugs their author took or whom he slept with.
Zevon reminds me of the another dark humorist who kept plugging away almost to the very end, the recently departed Kurt Vonnegut. They are both artists whose work spoke strongly to me in my young adulthood and which I rediscovered later on and appreciated even more deeply. (The same, alas, cannot be said for Zevon's good friend Hunter S. Thompson. The tawdriness of his suicide only confirmed the decrepitude of his later writing.) I wish they had done more, but I'm grateful for what they left behind.