Wednesday, May 16, 2007

That Book I Read (Not a Review)

Here I can write anything I fancy.
After all, I am writing for my own regalement and (according to SiteMeter reports) for the edification of people who keep Googling©™ "pope eat fish friday" and "alyson hannigan." You know who you are.

So, here are my thoughts of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon.
Imagine a welcomingly long, slightly over-detailed documentary film with a great director, editor and soundtrack, with cameo celebrity appearances, plus surprising candor from people you didn't know could be honest about anything. (About a month ago, I finished watching Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home Bob Dylan, so I still have that wind in the rigging.) And that is what I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, is.
The pace is set early by insightful and funny Carl Hiaasen, whose insightful and funny books I had to read while working aboardship, because a Floridian "shipmate" kept insisting I do so. Only time I ever listened to the stowaway, and he was right. If Carl Hiaasen is the literary Warren Zevon of Florida, then Warren Zevon is the musical Carl Hiaasen of the rest of us.
No. Er... That's not right...
At curtain's rise: the death scene, among strangers setting the stage for the flashback to come. We learn about these people through their words, and we learn to listen to them as individuals, viewers of Warren Zevon's life, not as perfect chroniclers, but as the guy sitting next to you at the bar who says, "So did you hear about the time..." or the gal who starts off gregariously but abruptly stops in the middle of the sentence about that trip...
What are you looking for in a "rock star" story? How deep do you want to look? Reading I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is like looking at a relentlessly detailed superrealist painting: all literal sharp flat focus, where the artist doesn’t afford you the luxury of letting the subjects of the painting vanish into the distance or fade into vague shadiness. Crystal Zevon never lets her narrators let up; the focus and clarity is mercilessly honest.
Every item is laid out on the table, and if you want to dissect. Alcoholism, OCD, sex addiction, family struggles, the "C-word," -- but it never reads like a public service announcement or warning label. Many witnesses might relate one episode, no matter how contradictory the witnesses' testimonies are. But it's not Faulkner: these are real people who sometimes don't conform to character. Because they're real, and Crystal Zevon is brilliant in her stage direction to each in this drama. And that gives you a lot to dissect. If you're going to dissect. I didn’t.
Once I got a letter from the girlfriend of a friend who had died under sad circumstances. She wrote to me that my late friend “mentioned a lot [that] you were funny.” Imagine ending up with
720 pages of that letter from 87 interviews. To cull through them was a task for Crystal Zevon. She went through notes like that and gave them context, weight, and breadth. As one who has experienced some exceptionally demanding, intelligent, and lovable drunks, alcoholics, and soaks, I was feeling that particularly creepy Al-Anon meeting camaraderie with a lot of these folk.
And, yes, utter familiar starstruckedness. I've been a Zevon fan since high school, but to see glimpses behind the liner notes is always the fun of even the most tawdry tell-all. Which I'll Sleep When I'm Dead... is not. "He was reading Martin Amis! Time's Arrow!" "Crystal worked for the Cowsills! A Cowsill taught me how to play bones!" "Was I at that Boston show when Zevon sang 'Gloria?' I think so..." The Viper Room. Hunter Thompson. Bob Marley and Jerry Garcia. Harry Dean Stanton. Martin Scorsese. Depp. "The Hockey Song." Letterman. Martin Mull...
Maybe it takes a fan, but as one, I found solace in that oddly comforting Zevon humor, wit, and percipience. I laughed out loud at wordplay, at gallows humor, at the downright ludicrous situations some folk find -- or seek. Even at the inevitable end. Because humans laugh. We define ourselves (and our beliefs, and our pig-headed seriousness, and our selfishness, and our pride) by our laughter and excuses. It's the human condition. Anyone with trouble with that has never seen himself naked.

I’m just a regular hand, but I was a pretty good English major, and I was enthralled by Crystal Zevon's engaging rendering of what -- in the hands of a less proficient biographer -- could have been just a "boozing jerk story."
If the subject were not Warren Zevon.

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