Friday, July 3, 2009

Zevon Handed

The late Warren Zevon is, of course, the crime-fiction fan's songwriter of choice.  Not just because he was a terrific songwriter (though we was) but also because he was such a fan of the genre himself.  He was a huge fan of Ross Macdonald, co-wrote songs with the likes of Carl Hiassen and Thomas McGuane, and was friends with James Crumley, Stephen King, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman and Ridley Pearson.  I'd always had him pegged as a hard-boiled type, but at one point in his journals he even enthuses about a forthcoming Barbara Vine book.  He had ambitions to write crime fiction himself.  It never happened, but we get a flavour of what might have been in countless of his songs. 

And the favour's been returned.  Hiassen and many others have referenced Zevon's music in their books.  'Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead' and Christopher Brookmyre's debut 'Quite Ugly One Morning' borrowed their titles from Zevon songs. 

I mention all this because I've just finished reading I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (another song title that was borrowed for a film, this time by Mike Hodges, incidentally), a biography of Zevon, written by his ex-wife, Crystal Zevon.  On the whole, I'm not a big fan of rock-star biographies.  My impression is that despite (or, more likely, because of) the drugs and debauchery, the life and thoughts of rock-stars tend to be pretty dull.  But Zevon, for all his brilliance as a writer and performer, was never quite a rock-star.  His work has a mercurial genius, but always occupied an awkward space somewhere between mainstream and cult.  And in his earlier years, when albums like Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy might really have pushed him to stardom, he was too busy putting the 'hell' into 'hellraiser'. 

But all of this makes a fascinating read.  Shortly before his death from lung cancer in 2003, Zevon asked his ex-wife to write a biography that would tell the whole truth about his 'dirty life and times'.  Unsure how to approach this daunting task, Crystal Zevon interviewed Zevon's friends, relatives and associates and compiled what turned out to be a quite extraordinary oral account, beautifully constructed and always gripping.  It is, in any case, a remarkable story.  Zevon's mother was a Mormon and his father was a small-time gangster.  Zevon learned to play on a piano that his father literally won in a poker game.  As a musically-gifted teenager he visited Stravinsky at his home in Hollywood.  He moved from California to New York to become a folk singer, with some initial success, and ended up as musical director for the Everly Brothers.  Well, you probably get the picture.

Zevon's first real success came with the Warren Zevon album, a mordant, witty chronicle of LA life which, unlike much from the mid-1970s, sounds just as good thirty years on.  His growing success, however, coincided with a descent into a spectacular alcoholism.  Even on the scale of celebrity excess, Zevon's was something quite startling.  It's even more remarkable, in hindsight, that he managed to pull himself back from it and spend the last 17 years of his life (at least up to his diagnosis with terminal cancer) completely sober.  It's worth adding that Zevon is one of the few popular musicians whose later recordings (Life'll Kill Ya, My Ride's Here and the post-diagnosis The Wind) are easily a match for the work of his supposedly prime years. 

Zevon comes across as a consistently paradoxical figure - nightmarish and impossible to live with, but inspiring a weird loyalty in many of his friends and associates.  It's a cliche to suggest that bad behaviour is a fair price to pay for genius.  It's also untrue - many true geniuses have managed to live perfectly stable lives.  But it might be that Zevon's particular gifts, like those of Scott Fitzgerald, were the recompense the fates allowed him in return forthe chaos of his daily existence.

One small afternote.  Each chapter of the book begins with a quote from a different Zevon song.  I was finishing reading it the other night while listening to Zevon's 2000 album, Life'll Kill Ya.  Just as I reached the opening of the chapter 'Ourselves to Know', I found myself listening to Zevon singing, in precise co-ordination, the words that were printed in front of me.  If you make a pilgrimage, Warren reminded me, 'you take that holy ride yourselves to know'.  Whether Zevon ever really got to know himself, I'm still not sure. 

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