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A New Book Recalls the Highs and Lows of Warren Zevon

State of the Arts


Published April 24, 2007 at 8:40 p.m.

"I got to be Jim Morrison a lot longer than he did," rocker Warren Zevon once said. The classically trained singer-songwriter packed a lot of living into his 56 years. He penned and performed dark, witty, politically aware songs such as "Excitable Boy" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money." He was a multiple comeback artist who struggled with alcoholism and OCD. Sometimes on the charts, always critically acclaimed, Zevon won his first Grammys posthumously for The Wind, an album recorded after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002.

Now Crystal Zevon of Brattleboro, who was married to Zevon from 1974 to 1981 and remained close to him until his 2003 death, has published I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. It's a combination memoir and oral history, told in the words of Zevon's journals and people who knew him. The book appears on May 1, coinciding with the release of Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, a collection of Zevon's early tracks that were discovered inside an old road case by his son Jordan.

Crystal speaks on the phone from Barre, where she's helping her daughter, Ariel Zevon, launch Local Agriculture Community Exchange (L.A.C.E.), a café and farmers' market to occupy the historic Homer Fitts Building.

Crystal says the impetus for the book came from Warren himself. During the couple's marriage, they made plans for her to write his story, but she dropped the idea after they split up. "In the first week after his [cancer] diagnosis," Crystal recalls, "[Warren] asked if I would come out and care for him when it got rough. He asked Carl Hiaasen [mystery writer and the couple's friend] why I should want to do that, after all those years." Hiaasen suggested that Crystal wanted to write the long-meditated book. "The week before [Warren] died, he called me up and said, 'You're going to do this, right?'" she recalls. "He said, 'You're going to have to tell the whole truth, even the ugly parts, 'cause that's the excitable boy who wrote those excitable songs.'"

After Warren's death, Crystal decided that "the most honest and interesting way to tell his story was through the eyes of a lot of people who knew him," she says. To prepare the book, she conducted 87 interviews and read through her ex-husband's "meticulous journals." The result was a 700-page manuscript, which her publisher edited considerably. (She has posted some material that didn't make the final cut on her blog, Crystalzevon.com.)

Some of the reminiscences come from celebrities who were Zevon's friends, such as Hiaasen, Stephen King and actor Billy Bob Thornton. Others come from "roadies, girlfriends, family. Practically no one refused an interview with me," Crystal says. "Some of my favorite people to talk to were the roadies, who saw [Warren] day in and day out," she continues. "They saw him in fury and frustration if the sound wasn't right, but also in quiet, contemplative times."

Some of Crystal's discoveries were disturbing. In the years after their divorce, "Warren became addicted to sex, and I knew it but had no idea of the scope of it," she says. "He had women that he loved and cared about, but that was separate from satisfying his prurient needs. It was like dropping in at a supermarket for a carton of milk." The liaisons were described in "cold detail" in the rocker's journals, she explains.

Crystal remembers her early days with Warren as a "wild and crazy time, but also a time of innocence, of naiveté. We really believed we were John and Yoko; we would go on together," she says. "As much as there was drugs and alcohol, violence and heartbreak, there was also honesty. As he went through his life and developed into a public persona, he parceled out bits of information. I was one of a handful of people who really knew all sides of him."

Crystal first came to Vermont in 1967, right out of high school, to work at Sugarbush's Blue Tooth restaurant. She left to follow a musician boyfriend to L.A., where she met Warren. Decades later, when her daughter Ariel was attending Marlboro College, she visited, "fell in love with it," and found a job in the area.

After five years in Brattleboro, Crystal is planning a move to Barre, where she can be closer to her twin grandsons and her daughter's L.A.C.E. project - a modern version of a farmers' market that aims to revitalize Barre's downtown and "link up the urban community with the rural community," Ariel told the Times-Argus earlier this month.

The family's rocker connections generated an unusually high-profile fundraiser for the project. Jackson Browne, a longtime family friend and Ariel's godfather, will give benefit performances for L.A.C.E. at the Barre Opera House on June 9 and 10. When the first planned date sold out immediately, a second was added; it sold out, too.

"We're really lucky that [Browne's] giving so much to us," Crystal Zevon says. She notes that the L.A. rocker is also an activist with a longstanding interest in "issues of global poverty and local economies." Browne is stopping in Vermont on his way to receive the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award in New York on June 11. In Barre, Browne will tour L.A.C.E. with Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch.

Crystal will tour the U.S. to promote her book this summer, starting with two signings in Vermont and concluding at the Burlington Book Festival on September 15. Meanwhile, there's still plenty of work to be done before the L.A.C.E. opening. But she isn't worried: "Having worked on Woodstock '94," Crystal says, "I know all things are possible."

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon, HarperCollins, 453 pages. $26.95. Crystal Zevon signs her book on May 1 at Bear Pond Books, Montpelier, at 7 p.m., and on May 3 at Exile on Main Street, Barre, 3-5 p.m.