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June 13-19, 2007

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Warren's Witness

Crystal Zevon chronicles her rock 'n' roll ex

By Monte Freidig


When Warren Zevon learned he had only months left to live, he decided to go out show-biz style. Old friend Dave Letterman devoted an entire Late Show exclusively to him. Other old pals, such as Jackson Browne, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, assembled to help him record his final album, the Grammy-winning record of the year, The Wind, while VH1 produced a documentary about the making of the album. After decades of critical acclaim, in death Zevon finally achieved the success that had eluded him in life.

But when it came to telling his life story, Zevon did not turn to his famous author buddies. The literary rocker whom Gore Vidal once called "one of the most interesting writers of the era" entrusted his memory to the writer who knew him best: his ex-wife Crystal. She was there from the beginning, and she certainly knew where the bodies were buried.

Crystal's new book, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (Ecco; $26.95), is an engaging and sometimes painful cautionary tale about a life lived to excess. Crystal combined her personal memories, Zevon's diaries and interviews with his famous friends to produce an intimate, if at times unflattering, portrait of the tormented soul many people, including his ex, considered a genius. She appears in the North Bay on June 20.

In her book, Crystal describes attending glamorous parties in the Hollywood hills hosted by friends who are now the biggest rock stars in the world, and returning with Zevon to their much humbler lodgings as those evenings ended. Sadly, when he finally did get public recognition, it was not for such inspired compositions, but for a novelty tune he zipped off at the suggestion of Don Everly. Crystal says that "Werewolves of London" may have undermined Zevon's career by causing people not to take him seriously, but adds that "'Werewolves' exposed his music to a wider circle of fans and helped pay the bills," especially after Martin Scorsese revived it in his film The Color of Money.

The most difficult-to-read portions of the book deal with stories of physical abuse Zevon inflicted upon Crystal until she left him. Zevon would write her songs, like "Reconsider Me," and they attempted reconcilliation on numerous occasions, but the world is filled with temptations for a rocker on the road. Like Hemingway, he seemed to regret the failure of his marriage as his days drew toward their end. "It all ended so fast," Crystal adds, somewhat wistfully. "I think he always thought we would be back together someday."


Crystal Zevon reads from "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" at two free events on Wednesday, June 20. Book Passage, (51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 1pm; 415.927.0960) and Copperfield's Books (140 Kentucky St., Petaluma, 7pm; 707.762.0563.


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